Slaves at Arlington, Redux

With apologies to Brooks D. Simpson, John Neff, who works at the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi, has already provided me with some very helpful information, via h-net, about the newspaper column I quoted from in my previous post. Arlington, Neff informs us, was established by George Washington Parke Custis (Gen. Washington’s adopted son), Lee’s father-in-law. After Custis died in 1857, Lee took a leave of absence from the army in order to become a planter. Although Lee never owned more than a few slaves himself, there were two hundred of them at Arlington. Among them was a daughter of a slave (named Maria Syphax) and G.W. Parke Custis. This woman, who spoke to the Massachusetts cavalryman, was the half-sister of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, who was married to Gen. Lee.

Our man in the 2nd Massachusetts, it appears, was understandably confused, thinking “master” meant R. E. Lee, not Custis. Given the complexities of Virginia genealogy, and the Lee family’s in particular, I can understand how he would’ve conflated the Lees and the Custises.

9 thoughts on “Slaves at Arlington, Redux

  1. Thanks for the link, Andy. Nice article. I’ve seen you many times at Kevin’s Civil War Memory blog. Thanks for stopping by here…. It’s taken quite a long time to put Lee in his proper historical perspective concerning slavery. You would think joining the Confederacy is proof enough that Lee had no moral problems with human bondage. But Dr. Freeman was in the vanguard of rejecting the notion that Lee acted like a true member of the master class. When it came to the Wesley Norris whipping story, I think Freeman said there was no evidence “direct or indirect” that Lee had ever mistreated any of the Arlington slaves. Elizabeth Pryor–though she admires Lee–has presented convincing evidence that Norris was telling the truth.

    • The statement was made:
      “Elizabeth Pryor–though she admires Lee–has presented convincing evidence that Norris was telling the truth.”

      What was this “conincing evidence”? Sorry, I saw no “evidence.” I only saw the regurgitation of “testimony” by one named slave (Norris), by one unnamed slave (an anonymous woman — see Pryor’s notes), and from the anonymous letters before the war.

      Unfortunately, Ms. Pryor might have dealt with the motives which Norris and his friends at the plantation had to distort this story. Just because the Norris story could have been correct in many of the details about the incident, this still did not mean that he and his friends did not insert some extra false details – a whipping at the order of Lee and the use of brine. They had strong reasons to do so.

      Thanks, Tom Forehand, Jr.

      • Letters (anonymous or not) and slave testimony are evidence. I think you mean “proof,” which is a different thing. I think Norris’ motives for relating the story are pretty obvious: he was held captive by another person who had complete legal control over him. Maybe the details aren’t 100% accurate. We’ll never know for sure. I just can’t understand why it’s hard to believe that a man who grew up in the largest and most prosperous slaveholding society in history, whose wife owned 200 slaves, and who defended on the battlefield a nation devoted to the maintenance of human bondage, would have shrunk from having a slave punished on his own plantation.

  2. I’m willing to credit that Freeman didn’t have Norris’ first-hand account, though given the exhaustiveness of his work (4 volumes, 2,400 pages) it’s a bit embarrassing that he missed it; I suspect he never bothered to look at the black papers of the time.

    What concerns me more is that his defense of Lee in this incident amounts to little more than “he would not have done this.” It’s a very weak argument, which is perhaps why he resorts to calling the accusation “libel.”

  3. Freeman’s work on R. E. Lee has many merits, but being realistic about slavery is not one of them. Freeman worshiped Lee to the point of being a hagiographer, and it clouded his notions about race. Dr. Freeman used to salute the Lee statue on Monument Avenue every day before going to work (I’ll post a picture of that soon). Hardly the posture of an objective Lee historian! Norris’ whipping story was published after the war in the Anti-Slavery Standard. I read it for the first time in Blassingame’s “Slave Testimony.” I guess Freeman never saw the Standard’s article. He also apparently never saw, or maybe ignored, an article in a June 1859 edition of the New York Tribune that discussed Lee’s (mis) conduct toward his slaves. Freeman just couldn’t bear the thought of Lee not acting like the stainless model of “Marble Man” mythology.

  4. Civil War Historian:
    “I think Norris’ motives for relating the story are pretty obvious: he was held captive by another person who had complete legal control over him.”

    This may have been one of the motives–and it does appear to have been the obvious motive. However, that is not the principle motive I am referring to. There was at least one more motive which I believe was even more important.

    You have made my point: even though what she wrote, you believed to be compelling, she never mentioned this other very “compelling” motive. This is where I believe she fell short (although, she did bring up a lot of information that is helpful.). I was let down that she seems to have overlooked this other fact in her research. I was also surprised that Freeman did not mention it either (at least I don’t believe he did–he wrote a lot). There is so much that has gone on, he may have overlooked it, too. He is the one who claimed that there was no “evidence” to prove that Lee had whipped anyone so maybe it was not important for him to mention it.

    I’d like to challenge your audience to come up with this motive–if they can find it. Yet, I doubt if they will.

    Tom Forehand, Jr.

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