Memory  /  Debunk

The Myth of Robert E. Lee And The "Good" Slave Owner

According to Lost Cause mythology, Lee was a benevolent slave owner who fought for states’ rights. His slaves said otherwise.
Laura Buckman/Getty Images

Because of the current controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, Robert E. Lee’s connection to slavery crops up repeatedly, as it did most recently in a New York Times article. Complicating the discussion is that his image remains tied to the legacy of the “Lost Cause,” a postwar effort to distort historical record. Insisting that the Confederacy had not seceded in the defense of slavery, but in defense of “states rights,” Lost Cause advocates painted slavery as beneficial to both whites and blacks, arguing the Confederacy’s leaders and soldiers were men of virtue who had merely endeavored to civilize and teach Christian values to an inferior people. In this southern revision of history, Robert E. Lee stands above all Confederate leaders as worthy of adulation; the very model of paternalistic southern gentlemen.

To challenge this image of Lee, historians have lately noted the experiences of African Americans who were the legal property of Lee’s father in law, George Parke Custis (George Washington’s step-grandson), who died in 1857. As executor of Custis’s last will, Robert E. Lee was charged with freeing the bondsmen within five years. Yet some of the enslaved insisted they were to be freed upon their master’s death, causing a conflict with Lee that resulted in a failed escape attempt from Arlington plantation by three of the enslaved. Under Lee's order to “lay it on well,” each of the rebels endured up to 50 lashes and suffered excruciating pain as the wounds were bathed in brine. Lee also broke with Custis and Washington family tradition, separating most of the enslaved families under his control.

So much for the image of Lee as a “good master.”

Telling an even more dishonorable story are the wartime diaries and letters written by United States soldiers and newspaper reporters who interacted with African Americans enslaved by Lee and his family. Besides Arlington, Custis’ will also dealt with two other plantations, one of which was in New Kent County, Virginia, known as White House (George and Martha Washington were married there). Robert E. Lee's son, William H.F. “Rooney” Lee was to inherit the plantation upon his mother’s death, but he went ahead and moved there in 1859, taking control of its operations. This included managing close to 100 of the approximately 200 enslaved peoples that his father now legally possessed. By the start of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee had yet to free them as the Custis will dictated.