Slaves at the Lee Family Home

SelinaGray

By Colin Woodward

In doing research on an unrelated topic, I came across an article in a Greenfield, Massachusetts, newspaper, the Courier & Gazette, of 15 June 1863, on the Lee family slaves at Arlington. The writer was in the camp of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Here’s what he said:

“At the cook house for the overseer’s family I noticed an octoroon, nearly white, with fine features. She told me that her mother, long since dead was a quadroon and Gen. Lee’s housekeeper at Arlington, and to the question, ‘Was your father a colored man?’ she answered without hesitation ‘No,–master’s my father.” And this father and master now leads an army, the sole purpose of which is to establish a government founded on an institution which enslaves his own children, making his own flesh and blood saleable property!”

I’ve never read before of someone accusing Robert E. Lee of having fathered a slave. I’m tempted to dismiss the accusation out of hand. But the historian in me is intrigued by this newspaper article. For years, a former slave at Arlington, named Wesley Norris, who said Lee whipped him, was dismissed by historians like Douglas Southall Freeman. Yet, more recent historians, including Elizabeth Pryor, believe Norris’s story.

I’d be interested to know if a historians has done research on this topic of Lee possibly having fathered a slave.

 

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War in 2014 through University of Virginia Press.

About amerikanrambler

Amerikan Rambler is a Virginia-based blog and podcast hosted by Colin Woodward. Colin is a historian, author, and amateur musician, who works in the archives full-time. Author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he is now writing a book on the historical, family, and musical roots of Johnny Cash.
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14 Responses to Slaves at the Lee Family Home

  1. Pingback: Research Exercise: Rumor at Arlington « Crossroads

  2. Dear “Civil War Historian,”

    If you would be so kind, can you please tell me where you located the copy of the Courier and Gazette? I want to reference it as an original source.

    If a reply to me here doesn’t work, then please “message” me the information on Facebook. I’m Stephen Douglass Clark, and I live in New Hampshire. I’m actually within a decent driving range to Greenfield, MA, if I can find a copy there. I want to photograph the page if I can.

    The story is certainly a plausible one, and the report should be more widely publicized. I want to consult with forensic archeologists about means of verification of the subject. I need stronger evidence than this blog post for that, though. I need photos of the original, and I need to direct other researchers to its location. It’s very important, and, if proved true, it’s shameful enough for Georgians to chisel Lee’s likeness off Stone Mountain.

    Thanks.

    Yours truly,
    Stephen

    • civilwarhistorian says:

      Stephen,

      I found the copy of the newspaper at the U-Mass/Amherst library, which had a microfilm copy. You might be able to get it via ILL. Check with your local library if you can’t make the trip down to Amherst yourself.

      As I’ve discussed here, with the help of those who know a lot more about Lee than I do, the “master” referenced in the Greenfield paper’s article was the former owner of Arlington, G.W. P. Custis, not Lee himself. And even if the story were about R. E. Lee, I can’t imagine it would lead southerners to start changing monuments to the general at Stone Mountain or anywhere else. I think anything unsavory we might learn about Lee at this point would only further humanize him, not discredit him.

      Best,
      Colin

      • Sheryl says:

        I believe that the octoroon referred to in the article you sited, who said that Lee was her father, may be my ancestor. I would love to know if you have any more information about her. Thank you.

        Sheryl

      • civilwarhistorian says:

        Really? I’ll look into it.

  3. Philip Leigh says:

    The statement “Yet, more recent historians, including Elizabeth Pryor, have verified Norris’ story.”

    is not true. Pryor only expresses her opinion that it is true. She also admits that Lee denied it, but says “He never completely denied it”…Yet the quotes she provides were quite definite in their denial.

    • civilwarhistorian says:

      I think verify is exactly what she does, or at least aims to do. She says of the Norris story: “Its veracity has been questioned by generations of Lee aficionados, and we might be tempted to dismiss it as the exaggerated ranting of a bitter ex-slave. Except for one thing: all of its facts are verifiable.” (261). Later, she says, “There was more than a word of truth in the [Norris] accounts: virtually all of it can be directly verified.” (272) To my satisfaction, she verifies the story of Norris’ whipping.

    • Tom Forehand, Jr. says:

      I agree that Mrs. Pryor has not verified the Norris allegations of a whipping.
      If there are any unbias statements proving that Lee had any runaways whipped, I’d
      ike to see them. Where is the verifica tion?
      Thanks,
      Tom Forehand, Jr.
      taftj@juno.com

  4. Dear Colin,

    Thank you for your reply. Perhaps you can understand my miscomprehension based on this statement of yours: “I’ve never read before of someone accusing Robert E. Lee of having fathered a slave.” I implies that you read it in the article.

    Stone Mountain may not ever be further defaced even if were true, but Lee would definitely be subject to much greater ridicule, and laughter is the most effective polemic these days. It would knock him off the pedestal.

    Yours,
    Stephen

    • Waylin says:

      My family is from Northern Virginia. All of my life, I grew up with hearing the Rumor of “being descendants of Robert E. Lee”. Though I have not done much research, this is the first piece of evidence that makes me want to start.

  5. Rereading the article again, I’m not at all convinced the slave wasn’t talking about Lee. It reads like she was.

    I will definitely go to Amherst to see for myself. Thank you.

  6. “Master’s my father”: Custis was dead when Union troops occupied Arlington. “Master’s” a contraction of “Master is,” not “Master was.” If “Master” was dead, then he wouldn’t be “Master” anymore. Lee was the current master, and so to avoid confusion the slave would’ve had to have said “Master Custis” or “Old Master.”

  7. Tom Forehand, Jr. says:

    Several slaves from Arlington (estate) ran away before the War Between the States. The slaves were quickly recaptured and returned to the estate. Soon, “anonymous claims” were published alleging that Robert E. Lee had had these slaves whipped.
    After the war, one of these runaway slaves publicly accused Lee of this alleged slave whipping.
    The accuser’s name was Wesley Norris. Yet, did Norris have a motive to exaggerate his runaway-slave story and thus publicly blame Lee for a slave whipping?
    Wesley’s father did have a motive for his son (Wesley) to exaggerate this story!
    At the time Wesley Norris’ public allegation, about Lee, was being published, Wesley’s father was doing something in Washington, DC. His father was asking Congress to give him 10 acres of land. That 10 acres of land was to come from the Arlington estate where Robert E. Lee had lived before the war. (After the war, the estate was in control of the federal government. It should also be noted, that several other former Arlington slaves, at this same time, were asking Congress for land from Arlington.)
    I’ve never seen any proof that Robert E. Lee ever had anyone “whipped” at Arlington or elsewhere. And, now that it has come to light that Wesley’s father (and other former Arlington slaves) had a motive for Wesley’s exaggerating this runaway slave story and blaming Lee, the Wesley Norris allegation must be greatly questioned for its accuracy.
    Thanks,
    Tom Forehand, Jr.

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