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.