Young Robert E. Lee’s Cherubs

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I don’t normally share reader mail, but this struck me as worth posting.  It’s been a few years since I last visited Stratford Hall and while I had a pleasant visit I too was struck by the emphasis on the cherubs.

Today I visited Stratford Hall.  The Great House obviously demonstrates the Lee family’s tremendous wealth during the eighteenth-century, and, while I was generally impressed with the interpretation of the plantation, I was a bit disappointed that there is not a more significant effort to interpret the slave life enforced and endured at Stratford Hall.

The docent pointed out the cherubs in the nursery’s fireplace that young four-year-old Robert E. Lee said good-bye to when he and his family moved to Alexandria.  Apparently, as the story goes, young Robert recognized the gravity of his family’s move and that he would not see his cherubs anymore.

What struck me with this story is how it conveys his sense of childhood innocence, which of course we should expect from a small child. Sheltered from the world around him, he had become attached to these cherubs set into the fireplace’s iron backing.  He regarded them as something real, something deserving of a farewell, all the while his family enslaved dozens of African Americans and denied them the opportunity of any similar sense of childhood bliss.  Did young Robert ever hear the crack of a whip or the crying horror of a slave being sold away from his family?  We’ll never know perhaps.  But if he did, his family and possibly even black servant protectors shielded him from the oppression outside and away from the Great House and its more immediate and stately environs.

I have young children who have neither experienced nor have come to understand the ugliness that the world perpetuates and endures. For this, I am thankful beyond expression.  I often wonder what they will grow up to become, to believe and to defend as worthwhile. Young Robert grew up to defend a slaveocracy- an institution that represented everything opposed and contradictory to those cherubs in the fireplace.  Acknowledging our history, even its ugliness, helps to strive to do better for the next generation.

24 comments… add one

  • Bob Huddleston Aug 11, 2012

    “Apparently, as the story goes, young Robert recognized the gravity of his family’s move and that he would not see his cherubs anymore.” I wonder if a 4 year old would understand the “gravity” of moving out and sincerely doubt a 4 year old would remember some cherubs in his own bedroom.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2012

      So then the question is how this particular story functions within the overall interpretation of Stratford and how it reinforces a popular memory of Lee.

    • Matt McKeon Aug 12, 2012

      I don’t know. I remember the Easy Bake oven my sister had when I was four, and it wasn’t even my toy. And it was cool, not some stupid cherub.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 12, 2012

    This is slightly overwrought, IMO. “While young Robert was riding his birthday pony, did he realize the slavocracy he was born it, treated human beings like the little pony, merely chattel?”

    “While Robert was whipping his slaves as a adult, did he recall the pinata from an early birthday party? As a child he struck with a stick as vigorously as he did now with a whip. As a child he was blindfolded, but now he wore the blindfold of prejudice, not seeing the humanity of his victims. But this beating would not result in a flood of delicious candy, but the bitterness of civil war, as if the pinata of the Union contained only sourballs.”

    • Thomas Forehand, Jr. Sep 21, 2012

      Matt states: “While Robert was whipping his slaves as a adult, did he recall the pinata from an early birthday party? As a child he struck with a stick as vigorously as he did now with a whip.”

      Who claimed Lee ever had anyone whipped? — anonymous sources and one named, former Arlington slave who was disgruntled at Lee. However, did anyone ever think that those who made this accusation may have had their own agendas to falsely make this claim against Lee? So, was this accusation true? I think Matt should supply proof that Lee had anyone whipped before he just repeats an accusation that seems to have come from such sources.

      Thanks,
      Tom Forehand, Jr.
      taftj@juno.com

      • Andy Hall Sep 22, 2012

        Wow, you’ve been all over the Internets trying to debunk that story. I understand that the image of Lee having slaves beaten challenges your own views (and personal economic interests), but it’s become clear to many of us that no amount of evidence would be sufficient to count as “proof” for your purposes. You will not be convinced, regardless, and should just say so.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2012

          That’s got to me one of my favorite titles and book covers. I love the pouting Lee look. :-)

          • Andy Hall Sep 22, 2012

            There’s also the companion book about Lee’s sense of humor. Alas, it doesn’t appear to contain Lee’s mocking anecdote about the pretensions of African American servants to being soldiers.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2012

              Is Lee cracking a smile on the cover? :-)

      • Bob Huddleston Sep 22, 2012

        My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Curtis; after the death of Mr. Curtis, 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. Curtis 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 to ‘lay it on well,’ and 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 Nation Cemetery on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; by sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

        [National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 14, 1866]

        Reprinted in Slave Testimony, edited by John. W. Blassingame p 467-68

        http://www.agoron.com/~furlanm/norris.txt

      • Bob Huddleston Sep 22, 2012

        Why should anyone be surprised that Lee ordered — you will note that Norris did not claim Lee actually did the whipping — punishment of a recaptured slave. It was a common occurrence with “disgruntled” slaves. And it was legal to punish disgruntled soldiers with the lash, so why would it have bothered career army office RE Lee?

      • Bob Huddleston Sep 22, 2012

        Flogging was abolished in the Army in 1861 after the slave state members of congress left. They had opposed such leniency since it might lead to Congress also banning the whipping of disgruntled slaves.

      • Matt McKeon Sep 23, 2012

        Dude, it was a joke. Irony. Wit. And if you reply with a heavy breathing post about how whipping people isn’t funny, then you’ll become the joke.

  • Ken McFadyen Aug 14, 2012

    While I’ll steer clear of any references to easy bake ovens, I think that Stratford Hall’s emphasis of the cherubs is a subtle reference to the romanticism of remembering and memorializing Lee, inasmuch as the illustration that you used for the post or the other later story of Lee returning a bird to its nest during artillery fire. These stories create the mystique of Robert E. Lee and deify him quite honestly. Cherubs and the “Marble Man.” Without them, we may not think of Lee any differently than Jubal Early or James Longstreet. Stonewall is different because he became the Confederacy’s martyr and because he secured a nickname in battle.

  • Thomas Forehand, Jr. Sep 23, 2012

    Bob,

    You stated:

    “Why should anyone be surprised that Lee ordered — you will note that Norris did not claim Lee actually did the whipping — punishment of a recaptured slave. It was a common occurrence with “disgruntled” slaves.”

    If Lee had been in the habit of having people whipped, you would be on taget with your statement. However, as far I know he never had anyone whipped! Period!!!!!

    You also repeated Norris’s accusation. He says that it was said to Lee: “we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free.” Thus, Norris and others obviously held a grudge against Lee for not freeing them soon enough (17 months earlier).

    It would have been very easy for Mr. Norris, and his media handlers, to have changed parts of the real runaway story, which just as likely involved no whipping ordered by Lee. The could have easily included a Lee-order whipping to spice up this post-war libel against Lee.

    It would also have been easy to impeach Norris’s story under cross-examination because of his dislike of Lee. And, the same could be said for his sister. Also, who were these other witnesses Norris refers to? Were they other Arlington slaves also aggravated at Lee because he did not free them 17 months earlier but kept them as slaves for five years plus? Who were these “white” witnesses? Could any of them have been the pro-abolitionist types who probably wrote the first error-filled, anonymous stories that first appeared in 1859???

    However, maybe Lee was involved in a lot of whippings as you imply. So, please speed up my research and list some of these other whipping incidents for me. However, don’t just repeat an anonymous accusation because I won’t even know if that person even existed. Also, if you name a person who gives such testimony about Lee, please give us the full name and something about the person so we can see if that individual may have had a reason for exaggerating this runaway-slave story involving Lee.

    As you are well aware, during the heat of the abolitionist movement and because of the many deaths due to the war, there were many who hated Robert E. Lee personally and would have done anything to besmirch his character. Is this part of what really happened?

    Thanks,
    Tom Forehand, Jr.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2012

      I suggest you spend some time with Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters.

      • Thomas Forehand, Jr. Sep 23, 2012

        Kevin,

        I have read it.
        She packs a lot of valuable information into the pertinent chapter about the Norris escape attempt. However, this chapter, in my opinion, falls short in proving that Lee had anyone whipped.

        The main points in this chapter re: the Norris runaway incident are (as I recall):

        1. Anonymous stories about the Norris escape in 1859.
        2. Ledger entries showing Lee paid six times more for the recovery of the Norris runaways than he did for the recovery of others (especially in 1858). Some “infer” this proves that Lee paid the constable to whip the slaves. However, there are other reasons why this particular payment was much higher. So, in my opinion,
        this point is far from conclusive in proving that a whipping took place.
        3. The Norris testimony. However, Norris clearly had a grudge.

        Thanks,
        Tom Forehand, Jr.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2012

          I suggest that you go back and re-read the relevant sections of Pryor. Even a cursory glance through the endnotes indicates that her interpretation is built on multiple secondary and primary sources.

          • Thomas Forehand, Jr. Sep 23, 2012

            Kevin,

            Your response: “Even a cursory glance through the endnotes indicates that her interpretation is built on multiple secondary and primary sources.”

            There are dozens and dozens of these endnotes in that one chapter. The ones that I was able to check, did not seem to me to prove the allegation that Lee had anyone whipped.

            Apparently, you found some that did. So, please speed up this discussion and tell us specifically which sources did you find that proved that Lee had someone whipped. Also let us know:

            1) Who was behind the information in that source? (The person who reveals such information is extremely important. Would you trust Mao to give a positive discourse on capitalism?)

            2) When was this information put on paper or heard by a witness)? (The “time” can have a connection with accuracy or with possible motive concerning truthfulness.)

            Teach us….
            Thanks,
            Tom Forehand, Jr.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2012

              Why do I need to do your work for you? Your comments seem to suggest that a fairly mainstream view about Lee’s view of slavery and how he treated slaves is based on one account. I pointed out that this is simply not the case. If you wish to challenge historians such as Pryor and others than it is up to you to present something more here and what is likely in your book, The Softer Side of R.E. Lee.

              • Thomas Forehand, Jr. Sep 24, 2012

                Kevin,

                Again, I remind you that you stated: “Even a cursory glance through the endnotes indicates that her interpretation is built on multiple secondary and primary sources.”

                I was discussing the reliability of the Norris story and anonymous sources when you, Kevin, interjected Ms. Pryor’s book and her notes–the size of which seem to have overawed you due to her many primary and secondary sources.

                Since only a “cursory glance” of these notes could show us the many sources supporting the Norris story, could you give just a cursory list these points found in her book.

                You also said: “Why do I need to do your work for you?” Kevin, have you done yours? If so, where did you find sufficient support from her book to back up the view that Lee ordered whipping of Norris?

                I gave a “cursory” list of specific points which I recalled reading in her book.
                I have also, in this overall blog, stated why I do not think these points prove the point. So, right or wrong, I did my homework to bring these points into the discussion.
                Will you do the same from your point of view so we may discuss these points from her book, if necessary?

                Frankly, I would rather stay on the issue: where is there unbias support for the Norris allegation?

                Thanks,
                Tom Forehand, Jr.

                • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2012

                  Fair enough. I was simply adding my voice in regard to the broader subject of Lee and slavery.

        • Bob Huddleston Sep 23, 2012

          Norris had a grudge? Yeah, do you think? How about Lee? Did the Marble Man also have a grudge? I am on the road so cannot get to my notes, but, IIRC, the 1859 reports on Lee whipping a slave was his first appearance in national media.
          Lee paid a large amount to recover Norris and his sister. So, when he got them back, what did he do? Did he tell them to behave in the future and sin no more? Or did he make an example of them?

          The whipping of slaves – and enlisted men – was quite common. Historians are not required to prove a fact beyond a reasonable doubt – too many incidents in the past do not lend themselves to that kind of prove. Instead they have to examine the evidence and make an educated guess. And the evidence is that Col. Lee was reported long before he became famous to have ordered a recaptured escaped slave whipped. Whipping of slaves, both escaped and for other reasons, was unfortunately quite common. Lee was not on record as criticizing the Peculiar Institution. The balance of evidence is that Lee would probably have had to hesitation in ordering Norris and his sister whipped as an example for the other Custis Lee slaves.

          • Thomas Forehand, Jr. Sep 24, 2012

            Bob,

            You wrote:

            “Norris had a grudge? Yeah, do you think? How about Lee? Did the Marble Man also have a grudge?”

            The first question about Norris’s having a grudge (which I raised) is on target and pertains to this discussion. If true, it suggests that he had a motive to exaggerate his story about Lee and possibly help damage Lee’s reputation.

            You mentioned a Lee grudge: Whether or not Lee had a grudge (or many grudges) has no connection on whether anonymous writers or Wesley Norris made truthful allegations.

            Again, you said: “I am on the road so cannot get to my notes, but, IIRC, the 1859 reports on Lee whipping a slave was his first appearance in national media.”

            I’m not sure exactly how this pertains to the truthfulness of the Norris allegation.

            Again: “Lee paid a large amount to recover Norris and his sister.”
            Yes, I mentioned this earlier. Yet, this does not prove that Lee had anyone whipped.

            Again: “So, when he got them back, what did he do? Did he tell them to behave in the future and sin no more? Or did he make an example of them?”

            He sent them South. Yet, this does not prove that he had any of them whipped.

            Again: “The whipping of slaves – and enlisted men – was quite common. Historians are not required to prove a fact beyond a reasonable doubt – too many incidents in the past do not lend themselves to that kind of prove. Instead they have to examine the evidence and make an educated guess.”

            Okay, I’m willing to learn…
            Before the 1859 allegation that Lee had Norris and two runaways whipped, how many whipping incidents was Lee involved with concerning soldiers? (Although, I really don’t think this directly pertains to the Norris incident, it is an interesting question.) Now, let’s take your answer and make an educated guess about Lee’s history of having people whipped.

            So, before we make that educated guess, how many of these incidents have you documented that Lee was directly involved with? Was it “one?” Or “five?” Or “twenty?” Remember, until we know an answer, we cannot make an educated estimate, as you said historians do.(Also, remember: Lee sat as a judge in many situations where a court martial was taking place and was kind of like a member of a jury concerning these matters, as I would think.)

            Again: “And the evidence is that Col. Lee was reported long before he became famous to have ordered a recaptured escaped slave whipped. Whipping of slaves, both escaped and for other reasons, was unfortunately quite common.”

            Maybe I misunderstood part of this statement. I know of Lee’s name only being associated publicly with one whipping incident and that was the 1859 Norris situation. Is this the one you are referring to? However, an anonymous letter to the editor about this incident does not even come close to proving that Lee had any slave whipped at any time. .

            Again” “Lee was not on record as criticizing the Peculiar Institution.”
            What does this have to do with the veracity of Norris’s interview? Lincoln opposed slavery but allowed rebellious Indians to be hanged at one point.

            Again: “The balance of evidence is that Lee would probably have had to hesitation in ordering Norris and his sister whipped as an example for the other Custis Lee slaves.”

            The balance of what evidence?
            You are assuming your conclusion; then, you are arguing from silence about it. The whole point of this discussion, I thought, was to determine the credibility Norris’s accusation that Lee ordered the whipping of Norris and two others. And, it seems that the only “evidence” before the war consisted of was anonymous claims (which cannot be relied on and would never have been allowed in court because they cannot be cross examined); after the war, the only named person testifying was that of a disgruntled, ex-slave who upon cross-examination in court would have to truthfully admit that he had a grudge against Lee.

            I do appreciate the fact that you did list specific points for discussion. That allows for an on-the-point discussion from which we all learn.

            Thanks,
            Tom Forehand, Jr.

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