Over the last several days, white nationalist terrorists descended on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia in order to protest the recent removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. As a direct result of their actions, at least three people are dead.
This is merely the latest outrage perpetrated by white nationalists in defense of Confederate symbols in general and memorials to Lee in particular. Yet there are “moderates” on the right who would have us believe that Lee was a good and noble man, that the use of him as a symbol by bigots and terrorists represents a perversion of his legacy.
White supremacists aren’t perverting Lee’s legacy. They are the embodiment of his legacy.
So in the interest of correcting the record, let me present to you Part I of what will likely be a lengthy series about the man behind the myth, the real Robert Edward Lee.
When George Washington Parke Custis died in October 1857, he left behind a will that named his son-in-law Robert E. Lee as one of the executors of his estate. As historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor explained in an essay for the Essential Civil War Curriculum, Custis had “liberated his slaves in a messy will that stipulated they be released within five years. Lee interpreted this to mean the slaves could be held for the entire period.” The slaves, on the other hand, “interpreted it to mean they were already free, and rebelled against Lee’s authority, physically attacking him and escaping in large numbers. Lee responded by hiring away most of the men, breaking up families that had been together for decades.” What’s more, Pryor notes that Lee “subjected several [slaves] to the lash. Although such practices were well within his legal rights, they were out of keeping with the long traditions at Arlington, and of his own relatives, whose treatment of slaves was comparatively mild.”
He didn’t stop there, filing “legal petitions to keep the blacks enslaved ‘indefinitely.’ The courts ruled against him in early 1862, requiring that they be manumitted before the end of the year. Lee complied with the court, but waited until the last possible day to do so, keeping the people in bondage for eleven additional months.”
One of the slaves subject to Lee’s tyranny was a man named Wesley Norris. In 1866, Norris told the National Anti-Slavery Standard about his experiences:
My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams tolay it on well,an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.
In case you are wondering, “brine” is water with a high concentration of salt. Robert E. Lee literally ordered that salt be poured on the wounds of his victims. His actions were nothing short of torture.
– P. Sicher