Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert E. Lee on Slavery and the South

Maria Carter Syphax was possibly the daughter of her master, George Washington Park Custis, and was freed by him.  For much of the rest of her life, she lived in the shadow of slavery on the Arlington property.

Some time ago, I read Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Her incredibly insightful work provided a point of view on Lee that I and few others had ever contemplated. Often, Lost Cause mythology has proclaimed that Lee was against slavery. However, through his letters, we come to see that Lee fought like hell to keep the slaves of his late father-in-law at Arlington House. He did in fact free his slaves in 1862, but several years after he was legally bound to by the stipulations in George Custis's will. Records reveal Lee showed little hesitation in laying the whip upon Arlington slave he viewed as impudent. Like many southerners, he invoked paternalism toward slaves--believing them incapable of independent thought or governance. In an 1856 letter to wife Mary Custis, he wrote:

... In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & 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, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
This sympathetic quotation does not change the fact that Robert E. Lee owned thirty five human beings and was eager to keep them in bondage.  His words are rife with the condescension that defined the ideology of the southern planter class.  In the views of the white elite in Dixie, African Americans were incapable of fending for themselves.  To Lee, slavery was the only possible option for either race.
Arlington slave Charles Syphax with his grandchild. (NPS)
Other historical instances of the beloved general are shrouded in mystery. Did he really advocate for the Confederacy to enlist blacks into his army much like Patrick Cleburne?   Confederate nationalists such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were not opposed to black recruitment because it would allow them to preserve slavery on their own terms.  This seemed a more suitable preference than defeat and the complete dismantling of slavery.  What about the event in post-war Richmond when he received communion at a black man's side? Very doubtful. That tale did not appear in print until the earl 1900s--a likely fabrication of the Lost Cause. In the following years, he wrote that he felt kindly toward blacks and they had the right to be educated but "they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways." Just as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Lee was a brilliant yet complex leader who sometimes contradicted the very principles he fought for.  Such was the irony of slavery based in a republic grounded in democratic principles.  650,000 men perished in the quest to determine and correct this fundamental flaw of American nationhood.

An 1858 slave inventory list from Arlington. (NPS)

The Private Thoughts of a Southern Icon
Lee's Real Feelings about the Confederacy and Slavery
By Diane Cole
Can there possibly be any secrets left to discover about the life of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee? Yes—and the source is the general himself.

For her newly published biography, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor draws on a cache of previously unknown Lee family papers, discovered in 2002 in two sturdy wooden trunks that Lee's daughter stored in a Virginia bank about a century ago. Quoting from these and other overlooked letters, Pryor presents a multifaceted man, more accessible and at the same time more puzzling than ever. He was an irrepressible flirt, and, contrary to popular belief, Lee not only believed in slavery; he was capable of treating his own slaves cruelly.

How does the Lee of textbooks differ from the Lee you discovered?
I was struck by the discrepancy between the formidable stone icon and this warm, witty, lusty, vulnerable human being filled with foibles and bafflements.

He was quite a ladies' man, right?
A lot of those letters are very foxy. He's obviously attracted to women and likes to write naughty notes to them. But as far as I can tell, he was not unfaithful, and his wife [Mary Anna Randolph Custis] accepted his flirtatiousness with great humor. For instance, he will write these saucy letters, and she will add a friendly note at the end. She'll write, we're going to a reception, and I hope Robert doesn't pass himself off as a young widower!

His letters about his children are tender.
He writes about holding his children, swimming with his son on his back. It's endearing that this dashing soldier read parenting manuals when he was stationed away from home when they were little.

But you found troubling aspects, as well.
When I was reading these letters, I had to keep questioning my own assumptions about Lee: Was he really against slavery and secession as has been claimed for many years? Was his decision to fight for the Confederacy as inevitable as many maintain? How do we assess these huge questions of patriotism and loyalty that he had to address?

What were his views on slavery?
These papers are filled with information about slavery. This is not something you have to read between the lines; Lee really tells us how he feels. He saw slaves as property, that he owned them and their labor. Now you can say he wasn't worse than anyone; he was reflecting the values of the society that he lived in. I would say, he wasn't any better than anyone else, either.

It is shocking how he treated his father-in-law's slaves.
Lee's wife inherited 196 slaves upon her father's death in 1857. The will stated that the slaves were to be freed within five years, and at the same time large legacies—raised from selling property—should be given to the Lee children. But as the executor of the will, Lee decided that instead of freeing the slaves right away—as they expected—he could continue to own and work them for five years in an effort to make the estates profitable and not have to sell the property.

What happened after that?
Lee was considered a hard taskmaster. He also started hiring slaves to other families, sending them away, and breaking up families that had been together on the estate for generations. The slaves resented him, were terrified they would never be freed, and they lost all respect for him. There were many runaways, and at one point several slaves jumped him, claiming they were as free as he. Lee ordered these men to be severely whipped. He also petitioned the court to extend their servitude, but the court ruled against him and Lee did grant them their freedom on Jan. 1, 1863—ironically, the same day that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

In another departure from the conventional portrait of Lee, you show him agonizing over joining the Confederacy.
Lee's decision to go with Virginia was not inevitable at all. It was very wrenching, and we trivialize it if we say, as some biographers have, that it's a no-brainer, that it was the choice he was born to make. To put it in some context, Gen. Winfield Scott remained with the Union, and he was from Virginia, and so did two fifths of all West Pointers from Virginia. Lee himself said he held on to his letter resigning from the U.S. Army for a whole day before he sent it because it was so painful. The description of Lee at home pacing and weeping and praying, trying to decide what to do is almost a Shakespearean moment.

Yet two days later, Lee accepted the offer to lead Virginia's forces.
Lee's explanation was, "I could not raise my hand against my home and my family." The irony is that many of his friends and family members sided with the North, including his sister, whom he never saw again. Her son and two of his closest cousins fought for the North. So either way, Lee would fight against members of his family, and that's why it was an impossible decision.

After the war, how did he feel about his decisions?
Lee was devastated. He was never able to give a candid assessment of his own role in the war—where he was wrong or could have done things differently—because it was too overwhelming. Outwardly, Lee conducted himself with great dignity and was a model of how to endure the unendurable and to stay in Virginia—even though his wife has lost her home, he has lost a huge number of relatives, and he has not a penny to his name. But beneath the facade, we see some explosive feelings inside. I found scraps of paper, unfinished essays, letters to cousins in Europe with quite a lot of bitterness and anger, which is not the way he has been perceived. He's a disappointed, heartsick man in old age. And it's tragic because he is an appealing figure in so many ways.

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