Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert E' Lee's Slave

I once wrote, on another blog, a short piece that was slightly critical of Robert E. Lee and his fighting to defend slavery. Turns out even insinuating any flaw in Mr. Lee is almost as dangerous as me writing about black women’s hair.

A comment responding to my blog disturbed me to the point that I did not reply. Not till now at least. The commenter told a story about Robert E. Lee’s manservant who even after the surrender at Appomattox, stayed faithfully by Lee’s side.

The story of Lee’s slave was new to me, but the type of story was not. It is the sort of tale, or detail rather, that has led me to detest “Gone with the Wind” and made me almost incapable of having a reasonable discussion with most armchair historians displaying a southern lean.

If I may, let me respond now.

Tales of faithful slaves or loyal black people dot the landscape of southern histories. Some are true, some are not. One cannot say two words relating the War of Northern Aggression to slavery, or criticize the Confederate flag, without one of these tales, most likely a tale of a black confederate soldier, being immediately thrown back in defense. To this I simply say, “Are you serious?”

Sadly that is completely rhetorical and a bit inflammatory, as I know good and well that they are. These stories, or even historical accounts, of the happy Negro exist and most white people take them at face value as proof that we cannot judge historical values through our modern lenses. The stories are used to show that things weren’t really all that bad, and in some ways were even better. You see, the races, black and white, got along better back then. We even loved and cared for each other. Our children played together, black women nursed white children, and soldiers of each race even fought and died together. Obviously the “peculiar institution” was not as bad as we may think, and historical figures like Lee should not be judged so harshly.

How short sighted.

To read these accounts and come to these conclusions is to make simpletons of all black people and displays a complete ignorance of black realities. These tales do not show that things weren’t as bad as we think but rather display how much worse they really were.

Let’s look at the example of Lee’s manservant, Rev William Mack Lee. A short history of his life was published in 1918.

Rev Lee, who was by this time quite old, was touring the countryside to raise money to fund the building of his church. In his story he tells how he was born on the General’s plantation and stayed loyally by his side throughout the war. He told how all the slaves on Lee’s plantation were freed ten years before the war but all stayed put till after the fighting ended. The autobiography goes on to tell how the Rev. stayed by Lee’s side till the old General passed away, at which time Lee left $360 for the Rev. to “educate himself.”

William wrote: “At the close of the war I did not know A from B…I went to school. I studied hard at the letter, but my greatest learning came from Jesus Christ”.

So, at face value we have a former slave who was freed by his master but stayed with him. Years after his old masters death he is still singing his praises. Not only singing, but thanks to the generosity of the old master he is also writing and preaching. What a great man this master must have been.

Or maybe he was just great in comparison to all the other white people William knew. An oft ignored aspect of life in the mid 1800’s and earlier, is that just because a state, or a group, opposed slavery, one cannot assume those states or groups actually liked or accepted black people. In fact the popular proposal of those who opposed slavery was that black people should all be shipped back to Africa. Some even did just that, founding the country of Liberia.
A black person, who somehow attained freedom, was in no way guaranteed rest and peace. More likely a freed slave was now tossed into an open market that did not want and often would not allow, black participation. An appreciation for the difficulty and outright persecution faced by free black people would lead us to look closer at the choices historical black characters made.
Some chose to stay put, like those on Lee’s plantation. A benevolent master, who didn’t beat you, at least not that much, may have been a safer bet than the rabble beyond the plantation gates. More telling yet, was that knowing the scorn the outside society held in store, many, many, chose to risk life and try for freedom.

General Lee appreciated William's education so much that he financed it. How nice. But then again, if it was truly important, why didn't he educate Mr. William Lee himself rather than through a gift in his will? It seems many a gracious slave owner was mostly only gracious after his death.

The Civil War, with its Northern Armies marching through the heart of the south gave the biggest opportunity for slaves to flee the farm for freedom. Rev. William Lee did not. It may have been his loyalty to that great man, or could it also have possibly been that to stand next to Robert E. Lee was also to stand next to the very military might of the confederacy. There is a famous tale, the one retold to me by the commenter, of how directly following the surrender at Appomattox, Gen. Lee retired to his tent and did not reemerge for the space of a day. All the while William Lee sat loyal watch outside the tent without moving.

Might I inquire where he would have gone?

If I were a black man standing in the middle of 8,000 armed soldiers who had just been in the business of killing others to defend their right to own a black person, many of their closest friends having died in the process, and who have just received notice that they lost the war; I might just sit still on a stool counting the seconds till one of these men finds a convenient target on whom to express his frustration. I could either run out into the midst of these heart broken sharp shooters, or I could stick close to the side of the one who may protect me or at least someone who appreciated my services. One may think I could run to the Union troops, they aren’t so far away; but then again how am I to know that those Union soldiers like black people? Truth is many union soldiers resented black people due to the fact that they saw themselves fighting and dying for a whole race of people they saw as inferior and best kept away from themselves and their women. To automatically assume that I would stay put simply out of devotion is to ignore everyone else and everything around me.

Of course I was not there. I did not know either of the Lees in question. Maybe we should just stick with what was in Rev. Lee’s book.

Like the following:
“Still limping from a Yankee bullet, an old darkey, with a grizzled beard and an honest face, hobbled into the office of the World-News at a busy hour yesterday.
"Kin you white folks gimme a little money fur my church?" he asked, doffing his tattered hat as he bowed.
Typewriters tickled their hurried denial.
The aged negro cocked his head on one side. "What, I ain't gwine ter turn away Ole Marse Robert's nigger is yer? You didn't know dat I was Gen. Robert Lee's cook all through de wah, did yer?" Every reporter in the office considered that introduction sufficient, and listened for half an hour to William Mack Lee, who followed General Robert E. Lee as body guard and cook throughout the Civil War. When the Negro lifted his bent and broken figure from a chair to take his leave every man in the office reached into his pocket, for a contribution.”

Before you send me more stories of the happy slave, do me a big favor and go look up the term “shuck-n-jive” first.


Gary Adams said...

Rev. William Mack Lee claimed he was raised as a slave at Arlington however he was not ever listed as property among the other slaves. He then claimed he and Marsh Lee where at First Manassas not to mention that at the Wilderness in 63’ that he cooked for Jackson (long dead). Most importantly neither Lee nor anyone in his staff be it on paper or with a speech ever mentions him. There is one other very IMPORTANT fact both the General and his staff do state in many of their correspondence that Perry and William Parks along with Billy Taylor served as the Generals cooks and hand servants!

BigmacInPittsburgh said...

I like your way of breaking down these often tolded Civil War/Slavery stories.
Good post!

Anonymous said...

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Keep up the excellent work!

Pat Granstra said...

Lee had no plantation. His father,Light Horse Harry, and his half-brother, Henry, squandered the family's wealth. His mother, Anne Carter Lee, lived in very reduced circumstances, with Lee caring for her until her death. He entered West Point and later the military because he had no property. When his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died in 1857, Lee, as executor of the estate, was in charge of the 196 slaves at Arlington. Custis, a poor manager, left a run-down, non-productive estate. The slaves were to be freed within 5 years, and Lee found it necessary to keep them on and work them hard to bring the estate to the point that creditors could be paid and enough profit made that the bequests in Custis's will could be honored.

I suppose if one is attempting to raise money in the South twenty years after the war, invoking the name of Lee is the way to go.

Seeker said...

Mack Lee? If you believe that clown every existed, I have a bridge to nowhere to sell you.

We know Lee tortured the slaves he did have, including the torture and torment of a young girl -- Lee spent six times the normal bounty to capture one specific run away slave girl, and as soon as he got her back, he taunted her, had her strung up, then had her whipped, as he yelled at her.

To top that little trick off, he sold her infant child -- a child so light colored, Lee recorded in is account book, it could pass for white.

We don't know for sure why Lee was obsessed with getting this little child back -- the light colored slave. It could be it was Lee's own biological child, or it could be Lee could get a good price for light colored girls. OR it could be both.

But Lee was obsessed with getting the infant back.

What did Lee do with that child? We know he had it captured -- and we know he had the mother tortured. But what did he do with the infant?

Not long after he had this girl tortured, Lee's list of slaves showed no mention of this infant.

Where did the girl go? What did Lee do with her?

He did not give the infant back to the girl he tortured -- because he rented that girl out immediately, to a master known for cruelty (as if Lee was not cruel enough). So what did he do with the infant?

He very likely sold the infant.

About Mac Lee, we know who Lee's three slaves were, that were with him much of the Civil War -- Bill, Perry, and Lawerence. Not Mack,

Lee never mentioned a Mack, no one in the family did, and Mack is not listed among the slaves.

The real Lee was a vile man, who literally had children tortured. His own writings, far from being against slavery, are a fierce defense not only of slavery as ordained by God-- but even more amazing, Lee defends the torture of slavery. He claims God intends slavery to be painful -- to teach the slave, so that "in 2000 years" God can free the slaves.

See "Reading the Man" by Elizabeth Pryor. She bends over backwards to minimize Lee's guilt and cruelty, but she shows more than others have.

George Purvis said...


Would like to see a reliable source for your information regarding lee "torture" of the young black girl


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Anonymous said...

Seeker's character assassination is as ridiculous as the Wm. Mack Lee tale. There is nothing to substantiate the Wm. Mack publication. There is nothing to substantiate any of the lurid details of Seeker's calumny. It is true however that a group of Custis slaves that escaped were apprehended and Lee (adminstering the Custis Estate) ordered that they receive 50 lashes as punishment, but remitted the punishment of a female slave to 20 lashes. (Thanks a lot, Marse Rob't!)

Seeker said...

Character assassination? Okay cult members, since when is reporting on what is in Lee's own handwriting some kind of assassination?

Since you have been in a goofy cult for years, there is no chance that truth or facts will get you out. I was once in that cult, but I had the brains and honesty to actually read things FROM the South, FROM their documents, FROM their letters.

When you read their own words bragging about the torture of slaves -- insisting torture was from God, and God intended slavery to be painful -- you get a slightly different view.

Who said slavery was from God and God intended it to be painful? Amazingly, Lee himself was one of them. Oh he could flower it up a little, spray perfume on the shit, but that's what he said.

ANd that is what he did. Im not taking Lee out of context, I am putting the bastard IN context. His words are stunning, but when you know his ACTIONS -- the actions he was writing about -- you get the complete picture.

I will write SLOWLY so even brainwashed cult members of the Goofy South as honorable club can understand.

LEES OWN PAPERS show he tortured girls as young as 14 and apparently enjoyed the hell out of it.

Lees own Letter show Lee tried to convince his wife that pain was necessary for slaves "instruction" and the pain was necessary and intended by God. When you realize that Lee had girls tied up and whipped -- and had other tortures done to them -- you have his actions and his words together.

Lee also separated every child from it's mother -- except possibly one -- reports Pryor, who adores Lee. That's right, your chubby little slave owner, took the mothers from the babies, or babies from the mother, routinely. Guess why they did that? So when they SOLD the mother or child later, they would not get so much screaming, fighting, and resistance later.

Many - MANY -- of Lees slaves risked death and torture to run away. Did you know that? He regularly hired bounty hunters to catch them -- did you know that?

Did you know WHY they ran away? One clue is that he kept sending the mothers or the babies off, to deliberately break those bonds.

Lee subscribed to the "theory" (actually excuse) that God was punishing slaves. Did you know that? Slavery was SUPPOSED to be painful. Since you have never dealt with that basic "belief" (excuse) of the South, this must seem a little new to you.

You don't have a clue what the mind set of slave owners were - what mental gymnastics they went thru. You have to get your head right if you are going to torture girls, sell babies, and scream at your victim while they are being tortured -- all of which Lee did.

Happy and bright said...

@seeker. This is very interesting that you mention about this child and I am very interested in finding out some more information as it has been proven that Robert E Lee had 3 children by my great great grandmother who was a black woman. As a matter of fact my 2nd cousin who is in his 80s now, a very fair skinned man and town historian in Virginia, looks just like him. I for one would be very interested in learning more about this story.

southron_98 said...

Dear Happy, I would very much like to see your proof, I believe in all likelihood he would have, it was a practice of the time; but I would dear love to see your proof. No one else has ever seen it!

Seeker, is nothing but a racist and bigot in his own right. Lee "own" pares show nothing of the kind. What it did show was that runaways were disciplined, the gentleman going through the sites claiming Lee beat them was proven wrong and quietly disappeared.

The "Black Laws" told you what would happen to a slave on a first offense right up to the master having sold "South" or worse killed.

The claim Lee did anything personal is a simple lie. There was a receipt showing the whipping was paid for.

Forget we are speaking of Lee, let instead discuss John Doe. Keep in mind this was the 1800s, what did whites to include our President Lincoln think of blacks? That is correct they were inferior and would never be on par with whites; ““I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

But a slave owner with a few slaves seldom if ever ordered physical punishment and for a number of reasons; the slave would harder to work, control; the slave would be more likely to flee and most importantly the slave might seek revenge and if you could not afford an overseer then you would be the one to face the music.

A slave owner of means hired an overseer to handle slave matters, which would have been beneath the owner and he would never be presented during discipline. It was considered vulgar and beneath one of status. Now please don’t misunderstand this analogy as I am not saying a black was on the level of a pet, I am trying to point out what society at the time thought of physical discipline. That was something along the lines of one of your neighbors mistreating his familys' livestock or pets, demeaning, cruel, a crude violent person. As, I said I have no doubt if slaves had fled and were caught lee or anyone would have ordered them whipped but at the same time I am just as confident that Lee would never have been present.

When you read the history of Curtis slaves by his slaves you would thought they would have rather lived and worked for him than be free. They worked nominal hours, shared in the crops, they had their own church , were educated, taught a trade and the list goes. Then Lee came in, it was clear the man had never had or worked a slave at first nothing changed them we started working longer days than ever before, some of tried to organize slowdowns or run off, “when he hired us out we ran off and came back home”.

As you clearly "read" you must have missed William Mack Lee was the son of Nancy on of Lees personal slaves.