The Lee Family Slaves


            General Lee was born in 1807, at Stratford Hall,  a great Virginia plantation that had passed down to his father’s first wife, Matilda Lee, through six generations of his ancestors. By the time of his birth, the conduct of his father, Henry Lee, had reduced the family's position of high honor and great wealth to one of dishonor and poverty. During the early campaigns of the War of the Revolution, "Light Horse Harry," as Henry Lee was known, commanded the Calvary of the Continental Army under General George Washington. His galloping down the camp lanes of the Continental Army with his entourage, carrying the decapitated heads of captured royalists on pikes, however, resulted in his resignation from the Army sometime before the war ended.

            After Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, Henry Lee served as governor of Virginia for one term. When it ended, the Virginia House of Burgesses elected him a representative to Congress.

            During his term as governor, Henry Lee married his first cousin, Matilda Lee, who had inherited a life estate in Stratford Hall,  located on the Potomac in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The remainder of the fee—the “fee simple”—was bequeathed to her children at her death. When Matilda died, in 1791, leaving a son, who came to be known as "Blackhorse" Harry Lee, Henry Lee then married Ann Carter, a daughter of Charles "King" Carter, who owned Shirley Plantation on the James River and was one of the richest men in Tidewater Virginia.

Stratford Hall



            Henry Lee and Ann Carter had five children: Charles Carter Lee who disappeared from sight after his graduation from Harvard; Ann Kinlock Lee who married William Louis Marshall, a lawyer from Baltimore; Sydney Smith Lee who became a captain in the United States Navy; Robert E. Lee; and his younger sister, Catherine Mildred Lee who married Edward Vernon Childe of Boston, in 1831. (Mildred and Edward Childe left the United States, in 1834, and lived in Europe until Mildred died in Paris, in 1856. Ann and Louis Marshall’s son served on the Headquarters staff of John Pope during the Second Manassas Campaign.)

            Henry and his new wife, Ann Carter, resided at Stratford Hall where their first four children were born until 1808. At that time Henry's eldest son, Harry Lee, claimed his inheritance from his mother’s kin and took possession. He did not hold it long. Young Harry Lee married an heiress and became the guardian of her rich sister whom he promptly seduced; in the process, stealing much of her property. When his defalcations were discovered by the young woman's family, “Black Horse” Harry fled the United States and lived in Europe until he died in poverty in Paris, in 1838. He is buried in Pere-Lachaise.

            Stratford Hall was sold at auction to satisfy a judgment for damages the heiress's family secured against Harry Lee in his absence. A similar fate fell to General Lee's father, Light Horse Harry; having  lost possession of Stratford Hall to his eldest son, his creditors seized his slaves, together with his real property holdings in and around Richmond, and he was jailed as a debtor in Westmoreland County for several years. In 1810, his friends posted a bond to secure his release from the jail and he fled to Cuba. When he became ill with a terminal disease, Henry Lee left Cuba and landed on the coast of Georgia where he lived for a time as a guest of the revolutionary war general, Nathaniel Green. He died a pauper on Green’s property in 1818 at the age of 62 and was buried there. After the Civil War, his remains were removed to Lexington, Virginia and placed in the Lee Family mausoleum.

            Left with five children to raise, Ann Carter moved her family into a middle class residence owned by her relatives in the city of Arlington. General Lee lived at the town house in Arlington until 1824 when he entered West Point at the age of eighteen. He graduated from West Point, second in his class, in 1829, and was commissioned a second lieutenant of Engineers. Shortly after his mother's death, in 1830, General Lee married Mary Custis. Mary Custis was the great, grand daughter of Martha Washington. Martha, a Dandridge from the Shenandoah Valley, had first married Daniel Parke Custis and they had a child who married and from that marriage came Martha's grandson, Mary's father, George Washington Custis.


Arlington House



            George Washington Custis's parents died when he was an infant and, when Martha married George Washington, Custis went to live at Mount Vernon and eventually inherited much of the Washingtons’ property.. At the time of his death, in 1857, Custis owned three large farms: Arlington, composed of 1,100 arcs and a house built on the bluffs of the Potomac overlooking Washington City; Romancoke, located on the Pumankuy River; and the White House close by on the York River 15 miles west from Richmond, the place where Martha and George Washington made their marriage vows.

            When General Lee returned to Arlington from Texas in the fall of 1857, he was informed that he had been appointed executor of his father-in-law's estate. It appears that a holographic will was probated at the Alexandra County Courthouse in 1858, but neither it nor a certified copy survives. Either a fire at the courthouse destroyed the original will, or it was stolen by unknown persons during the Civil War.

            It is not disputed in the historical record that George Washington Custis had bequeathed his three farms to General Lee's three sons: upon the death of their mother, Mary Custis, G.W.C. (Custis) Lee was to inherit Arlington;  Fitzhugh (Rooney) Lee, the White House; and Robert E. Lee, Jr., the plantation of Romancoke. The will also provided that legacies of $10,000 were to be paid from the assets of the estate to each of General Lee's four daughters, Mary, Ann, Eleanor and Mildred. Nor is there any dispute as to the conditions that George Washington Custis made in his will for the emancipation of his slaves.


The Will of George Washington Custis


“In the name of God, amen. I, George Washington Custis, I give to my dearly beloved daughter and only child, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, my Arlington House estate. . . for her natural life. On her death it goes to my eldest grandson, GWC Lee, to him and his heirs forever. . . And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executor in such manner as he deems expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.”


            The Custis estate inventory records of 1858 list as assets, 93 slaves, 28 mules, 28 oxen, 73 sheep and 100 hogs at the White House in New Kent County; 43 slaves, 10 mules, 38 cattle, 44 sheep and 50 hogs at Romancoke in King William County. The inventory records list 62 slaves on the grounds of Arlington, grouped among seven families named: Bingham, Norris, Grey, Check, Burke, Parke and Taylor. Some of these slaves belonged to the Dandridge family and were inherited by Martha Washington and passed down to her great grandson.


The Arlington Slaves



The White House Slaves




The Romancoke Slaves



            According to the will of George Washington, the slaves he owned in his own right and which passed to his wife, Martha, were to be emancipated upon her death: to emancipate them immediately Washington wrote, "would be attended with insuperable difficulties on the account of their intermixture with the dower negros," which he had no power to emancipate. The “insuperable difficulty” Washington was referring to was the impossible situation that would exist if one spouse was held to service and the other one was free.

            Following his stepfather’s lead, George Washington Custis included a provision in his will for the emancipation of his slaves. But before it could be operative, circumstances required it be interpreted in a court of law.   One of the female slaves held at Arlington, possibly Custis's mistress, claimed after his death that Custis had promised her his will would provide for emancipation immediately upon his death. The slaves obtained support for this claim from white persons who came from across the Potomac and went among them in the fall of 1857, telling them that Custis's will had made them free immediately.

            The issue became a matter of litigation in the probate court of Alexandria County after several of the male members of the Bingham slave family, Reuben, Henry, Edward and Austin, refused to accept assignments to work at jobs off the premises of Arlington.

            Reuben, the leader of the rebellion, told General Lee, who was acting then as executor and manager of Arlington Plantation,  that he and his brothers were as free as he. A melee ensued between them when General Lee organized a posse to forcibly remove Reuben and his brothers to the Arlington county jail.

            After a short struggle, the rebelling slaves were subdued and taken to the jail where they were held until taken south to Richmond under guard. Wesley and Mary Norris, siblings in the Norris slave family, fled across the Potomac into Maryland at this time, but were caught before they reached the Pennsylvania line and returned to Virginia: whereupon they too were sent down to Richmond.

            In October 1858, General Lee wrote to the Adjutant General of the Army requesting an extension of his leave of absence from Texas. In his letter Lee stated that the terms of emancipation in Custis's will were subject to different interpretations, because in his view the timing of emancipation depended upon the condition in the will that called for the payment of the monetary legacies Custis bequeathed to Lee’s four daughters.

            As executor of the Custis estate, General Lee was, in fact, bound by principles of equity to carry out the wishes of the testator under circumstances in which he believed the testator's wishes were in conflict. Custis apparently wished that the slaves be emancipated immediately, yet the only way payment of his legacies to General Lee's daughters could be funded was through the cash received from the labor of the slaves. To resolve this conflict, General Lee applied to the circuit court of Arlington for an interpretation of the will provisions, and for an order specifying the point in time when the will’s provision regarding emancipation must be executed. Eventually, the Court ruled that Lee was legally empowered to hold the slaves in service to the estate until the legacies were satisfied, but that, notwithstanding this, the slaves had to be freed no later than five years from the date of Custis's death, October 10, 1857. (The available evidence does not disclose whether the interest of the slaves were represented by independent counsel in the probate court proceeding, but the Court's ruling seems fair under the circumstances.)

            It appears that, over the ensuing five years, in addition to paying the legacies, the income derived from the labor of the slaves was used by General Lee to renovate dilapidated farm buildings and repair farm machinery that had fallen into disuse in the years before Custis's death as well as tend to the farms. The healthy adult male and female slaves located at the tidewater farms were needed there to secure the animals, harvest the annual crops of rye, oats, wheat and corn and bring in the hay; while the slaves located at Arlington, who were not needed as garden boys, yard girls, gardeners, market men, coachmen, maids and the like, were available for hiring out to third parties for the value of their labor.

            In December 1862, shortly after the battle of Fredericksburg, General Lee, as executor of the Custis estate, fulfilled the duty he owed the Custis family slaves by executing a deed of manumission which listed most of the slaves recorded on the estate inventory lists.

General Lee’s Emancipation Proclamation

Dated January 2, 1863






            Under his legal authority as executor of the Custis Estate, vested in him by the common law of Virginia, General Lee pronounced the Custis slaves "forever set free from slavery." The deed was recorded on January 2, 1863 in the Henrico County courthouse, located in Richmond, one day after the operative date of President Lincoln's extralegal Emancipation Proclamation. Among the names included in General Lee's deed of manumission are Wesley and Mary Norris and Reuben Bingham and his three brothers.

            Also included in Lee's act of manumission is the slave, Nancy, and her children, who Lee had apparently inherited from his mother, Ann Carter. In 1846, just before he left Arlington to join General Scott’s Army of Invasion, in Mexico, Lee wrote a will which identified Nancy among his property. The will was probated in Rockbridge County courthouse shortly after Lee’s death in 1870. Here it must be said, that Lee’s manumitting Nancy as part of his action as executor as the Custis estate is curious. According to his will, Lee wished “Nancy and her children" “to be liberated as soon as it can be done to their advantage.” But apparently not before his death. Yet, in the midst of war he decided to include Nancy—apparently his property, not Custis’s—in the emancipation of the Custis slaves. Perhaps, he just wanted to be done with it.


General Lee’s 1846 Will





            In his letters to his wife Mary at the time he freed the Custis slaves, General Lee recognized the moral responsibility of the master who holds persons and their offspring to life service.  He wrote this, for example, on December 16, 1862:

“As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in it as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those of the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like if I could to attend to their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible.”


            Again Lee returned to the subject in a letter to Mary dated December 21, 1862:


“As regards the servants, those that are hired out can soon be settled. They can be furnished with their free papers and hire themselves out. Those on the farms, I will issue free papers as soon as I can and see that they can get a support. Any who want to leave can do so. The men could no doubt find hires, but what are the women and children to do?

As regards Mr. Collins (the overseer) he must remain and take care of the people until I can dispose of them in some way. I want to do what is right for the people. The estate is indebted to only me now. The legacies and debts have been paid, and I wish to close the whole affair. Whether I can do so during the war I cannot say now.”


           Finally, after Lee executed the emancipation proclamation, he wrote Mary on January 8, 1863, from his camp at Fredericksburg:


I executed the deed of manumission sent me by attorney Caskle and returned it to him. I perceived that John, Lawrence, and James, names had been omitted and inserted them. I fear there are others among the White House people that I did not discover. As to the attacks of the Northern papers I do not mind them. If all the names of the people are not embraced in the deed I have executed, I should want a supplementary deed to be drawn up containing all those omitted. Custis will have to get the lists from my box of papers if he has not them. I wish to emancipate the whole, whether of the estate or not. They are entitled to their freedom and I wish to give it to them.


            General Lee also wrote to the overseer on the White House Plantation and instructed him to "take care of the people" who wished to stay, on the condition that they continued as before until it could be determined "how to close the affair." For General Lee, the affair was closed 15 months latter, when, after his flank march from the North Anna River, in April 1864, Ulysses S. Grant interposed the Army of the Potomac between the Custis farms and the Army of Northern Virginia.


            In Virginia before the Civil War, the ownership of persons held to service was commonplace throughout all classes and conditions of society. The whites held legal title to Africans as chattel under the common law of Virginia. The whites used the labor of the slaves primarily as collateral for the payment of mortgages, family settlements and negotiable instruments transferable through the banks anywhere in the South. By 1857, the ordinary plight of the Africans held to service in Virginia was not much different than the plight of the serfs in Russia, the peons of Mexico or the Irish in Boston. They were held to service as much by the economic and social realities of the times as they were by the threat of shackles and chains. They were certainly better off than the decimated, starving Comanche band held under the thumb of the American military on the reservation on the Clear Fork. (See Lee in Texas) Of the 500,000 Africans in Virginia, in 1857, 60,000 were free outright and many others were leased for one year terms to third parties who paid wages to the owners in exchange for the Africans' labor. Of the 170,000 Africans residing in Maryland, in 1857, 84,000 were free inhabitants. In Delaware, of the 21,000 Africans in the state, 20,000 were free. The Africans held on the Virginia farms, like those at the White House and Romancoke, cared for the animals, tilled the fields and brought in the crops. They lived a way of life that remained unchanged for fifty years after the end of the Civil War; except for the fact that after 1865, they held the paper right to claim the fruits of their labor as their own.

            General Lee had curious ideas about the concept of slavery, at least seen through our eyes. In 1858, while in Texas, he wrote to his wife, Mary, about the subject, expressing himself in words of circular contradiction:


“I think slavery a greater evil to the white than the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa (certainly this is true). The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race (perhaps this was once true but in 1858?). . . While we see the course of abolition is onward, and we give it the aid of our prayers. . . we must leave the progress in the hands of him to whom two thousand years are but as a single day.” (As if Lee would be as passive when his freedom was on the line.)


            If General Lee had not been bound by the law to fulfill the death wish of Washington Custis that his slaves be freed, it is reasonable to believe that the unruly ones General Lee sent under guard to Richmond, in 1858, might have found themselves hustled down the back allies to some mean slave den and sold to the highest bidder from one of the Gulf States. There were almost two million slaves in the Gulf States, in 1858: for the most part, confined under miserable conditions on malarious plantations cut out of dense swampy pine forests. As the whites relentlessly pushed the red men out of their tribal homelands and westward across the Mississippi, they pushed their black men on to the vacated land to make cotton fields. Working from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields, the captive Africans produced three-fifths of the annual exports of the United States, containing twenty-three million people. The need to replenish the slave labor force, as the cotton fields spread westward toward the Mississippi, created a seller's market for Virginia slaves, guaranteeing that none of them sold south would ever find their way to freedom among the whites in the Gulf States.

            The common law of slavery was based squarely on the deep-seated prejudice of the whole white people of the United States that the Africans among them constituted an inferior race (which certainly in the “civilized” sense they did in 1789). The people of the Free States equally with those of the Slave States saw the African race among them as unfit to possess the rights, much less perform the duties, of American citizenship. Most of the Free States established laws to discourage if not prohibit outright the immigration of the Africans into their towns and cities; expelling them from their borders or restricting their presence. The census-takers of 1850 and 1860 could find hardly any increase in the presence of emancipated Africans in the Free States despite the fact that by 1860, there were 170,000 free Africans residing just south of the Mason-Dixon line. Yet, during the same period, hundreds of thousands of Germans, Irish, French and Scandinavians crossed over the Atlantic and poured through the eastern states to settle down on the open lands of the western states and territories of the United States.

            When Abraham Lincoln first appeared on the National stage in opposition to Stephen Douglas for a seat in the Senate of the United States, in 1858, he readily acknowledged that even though he believed the Nation must extinguish slavery, his own feelings were against accepting Africans as politically and socially the equal of whites. The Republican party, Lincoln told the crowds that appeared in the towns where he debated Douglas, hoped for the extinction of slavery but its immediate goal was to keep the territories for free white settlers to bring their families upon; not blacks. Like the rest of the white people of the Free States, Lincoln didn't want the Africans to be slaves, but he didn't want them as his friends or neighbors either. "As God made us separate," he said, "we can leave one another alone and do much good thereby.” Lincoln did not explain to his listeners, how God communicated his will or what good he expected the human race to gain thereby.

            What a stark contradiction Lincoln's political ideas present: On the one hand, Lincoln saw clearly that what guarantees the people's liberties is the tenuous belief that all men are created equal and thus endowed with certain abstract rights such as the right to live freely in the pursuit of happiness; yet on the other, Lincoln saw the color of the Africans' skin as a sign of something so dangerous to his pursuit of happiness that the white person must live separately from them. The African had the same right as whites to the fruit of his labor, Lincoln said, but the "physical difference" between the African and the white forbad them living together on terms of social and political equality. In Lincoln's mind, something in the nature of things which made the African's skin unchangeably black, made him inferior to the whites; incapable of sharing equally with the whites, a school room, a church pew, an omnibus, a train, a work place or a residential street. A black person was entitled to the fruit of his labor, Lincoln thought, in 1858, but not entitled to enjoy it, sitting next to a white person. What real difference, then, was there between the minds of Lincoln and Lee?

            What did Abraham Lincoln or any white person of his times have in common with the African negro slave? It is true that he spoke the same language, lived in the same country and was a member of the human race; but he was really from a different world entirely, at least in the beginning. The white person came from the world of Christian Europe that over the span of two thousand years had created a great culture based on laws, literature, arts and industry that built great cities and fought great wars. The African came from a savage, natural world, which over the same span of time failed to take a single step away from the kraal toward a remotely similar civilization. This made amalgamation between such disparate members of the human race impossible in Lincoln's time; it would take, Lincoln said, one hundred years for the prejudice of culture to pass away. And it did.


            Ten years after the end of the Civil War, in 1874, thousands of whites massed in Liberty Place in New Orleans and stormed the custom house the carpet bag Republican governor, William Kellog, was hiding in, and ousted him from office. City police and black militia troops, under the command of the old Confederate war horse, James Longstreet, attempted to block the entrance into the building, but the white mob charged through Longstreet's line and took him prisoner. The white supremacists broke into the building, deposed Kellog and ran the government until regular U.S. Army troops arrived and regained control of things. Thirty eight persons were killed in the fighting.

Similar events occurred frequently over the next seventy-five years. In the summer of 1908, in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's hometown, a mob of 12,000 whites, incensed by a rumor that a white woman had been raped, tore through the black residential neighborhood and burned it to the ground. In the summer of 1919, a dispute over the use of a beach resulted in five days of race riots in Chicago that left 23 blacks and 15 whites dead. During the same summer one hundred blacks were killed and thousands wounded in race riots in such places as Washington D.C., South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Nebraska. In 1921, fifty whites and hundreds of blacks were killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma when a mob of 10,000 white persons attacked the black residential area. In 1943, in Detroit, mobs of whites and blacks poured from their neighborhoods across the borderland of Woodward Ave, which separated their respective segregated neighborhoods, and engaged in 36 hours of guerilla warfare: 9 whites were killed and 25 blacks, 17 of them killed by police. From 1874 to 1950, 3,500 African-Americans were hanged, shot, burned at the stake, maimed, dismembered, or castrated by civilized white Americans. Only New England citizens refrained from participating in the horror of this despicable conduct.


Then fifty years more and finally a certain peace at last. Not without a church bombing, a few more murders, a few crosses burned, but finally a white generation arose with the prejudice gone, for the most part, and the world has now America as an example of a country that has amalgamated into its social and political structure huge populations of Asians, Latins, Caucasians, and Blacks who truly have equal opportunities to share in its wealth. And Lee, in giving the country Gettysburg, holds an equal hand with Lincoln in achieving this. The forms of government rarely change without Gettysburgs.

Joe Ryan



Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works


About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.

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