CIVIL WAR MEMORY
The Online Home of Kevin M. Levin
For more on the story behind this fascinating image, click here.
She was a hero what she did for white people? Wasn’t her preservation of the lives of her black children as valuable as preserving Washington’s china.
On occasions like this, eBay proves it’s worth. But for a site like eBay, you have to wonder what might have happened to this photo.
As a Custis slave she wasn’t Robert E. Lee’s slave. He was the executor of the will but didn’t own any of the Custis slaves. They belonged to the Custis estate, and Lee administered that estate. The Custis slaves need to be understood separately from the slaves Lee personally owned, such as Billy Gardner, whom Lee rented to his cousin, Hill Carter of Berkeley Plantation.
I know, Al. Probably shouldn’t have run roughshod over that distinction in the title.
The last time I was at Arlington House the National Park Service did little in interpretation of the Lee/Custis slaves. The NPS dedicated the majority of the tour to its standing as a monument to Washington and Robert E. Lee. Granted, this was before the sesquicentennial started and I know interpreters use different topics to focus on when giving the tour.
Now lets not make Lee out to be a non slave abuser either.
What happened when they tried to escape from Lee’s plantation
Part of the Lee Myth is that Lee was personally opposed to slavery, that he joined the Southern secessionists only because he couldn’t bear to take up arms against his beloved Virginia.
Bull. Lee owned slaves and profited from their exploited labor. And when they tried to escape, he was as brutal as any other slave owner of the time.
This is the testimony of one of those enslaved Africans.
“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 to “lay 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.
Testimony of Wesley Norris (1866); reprinted in “Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, and Interviews, and Autobiographies;��? edited by John W. Blassingame; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (ISBN 0-8071-0273-3.)
Yes, we’ve been over this plenty of times. Lee’s views on slavery have been well documented by historians.
Checking the Alexandria census for 1860, I found no one named Richard or Dick Williams, and no one named Williams who is a constable. It’s interesting that there are many people named Williams on the Alexandria census who appear to be free blacks. I also couldn’t find anyone living in Alexandria named Gwin or anything similar. Surely some Lee researcher has checked this part of the story, but at the moment I have no evidence of either person mentioned in the Norris account. We also have nothing from Lee himself about this incident, which seems unusual to me.
Lee indicated earlier (1856) that he regarded slavery as a “political and moral evil.” But being confronted with a management problem involving slaves and forced to make a decision about punishment was another thing. In my opinion the Norris story sounds reasonable, but right now I have nothing to confirm the story as factual.
Go back and read the entire 1856 letter.
Did Robert E. Lee have Wesley Norris and other runaway slaves whipped?
I have seen NO PROOF that Lee had any of these slaves whipped. There are only anonymous accusations and one non-anonymous accusation which seems to have been made by Wesley Norris in an attempt to help his father get financial gain.
After the war, Wesley Norris gave an incomplete and no doubt exaggerated account of his runaway story as a slave. In that account, he claimed that Lee had him and two other runaways whipped. So, why would Norris come out with his account WHEN he did? My answer: to help his father get land (a financial gain)!
Ms. Pryor claimed that Wesley Norris had nothing to gain by telling his story after the war. Was she correct?
I believe that the Norris family had a lot to gain materially by exaggerating this runaway slave story and wrongly picturing Lee as a slave whipper. At the very time the Wesley Norris story received wide, geographical distribution in the newspapers, his father was petitioning Congress to get ten acres of land from the Arlington Estate.
It seems that the allegation, of Lee’s whipping Norris, was well timed as part of a campaign to emotionally influence Congress to give Wesley Norris’ father this “land.” So, the Norris family did have a lot to gain by libeling Lee as a slave whipper. Why didn’t Ms. Pryor mention this Norris family attempt to get land? After all, she did an amazing amount of detailed research into the Norris allegation?
Also, did the large amount of money, Lee spent on recovering these runaway slaves, prove that he paid someone to whip them? Absolutely not! And, to boot, this is a rank speculation on the part of Ms. Pryor.
Why does this large amount prove nothing? What Lee paid is very much in line with the advertised prices for the recovery of three runaway slaves in the state of Maryland (where Norris and others were apprehended). Also, the incomplete Norris account does not mention a fourth person who seems to have been captured along with the three Norris runaways. If Lee had to pay for that fourth person’s capture, this would have cost him even more money. So, Ms. Pryor’s speculation about this larger amount of money, indicating a whipping, seems to prove nothing and certainly does not prove that Robert E. Lee had anyone whipped, IMO.
Tom Forehand, Jr.
Robert E. Lee’s Lighter Side
Robert E. Lee’s Softer Side
(Both published by Pelican Pub.)
Your alternate theory has a serious problem: Why was Wesley Norris giving his account to a newspaper, and not interacting with Congress like his father was? This fact indicates a lack of coordination of efforts, which points against a conspiracy by the Norris family.
You mean to tell me that two anonymous letters can be taken as fact?
It should be noted that at the very time Wesley Norris put his name to the article alleging that Lee had Norris (and others whipped before the war), his family was trying to get financial gain after the war. IMO, part of their plan was to help get this “gain” was by libeling Robert E. Lee. Although, all will agree that there was a slave escape (by Norris and others before the war); that they were captured and returned to Robert E. Lee; that Lee had an official take them jail; and, that Lee soon sent them “South,” I have found no evidence that Lee had anyone whipped. Mrs. Pryor’s book only supports the details of the escape, capture, sending to jail, and sending South. I find nothing in her book, other than the Norris claim, to prove any whipping at the behest of Lee. Now that it has been discovered that the Norris family stood to make gain by Wesley’s allegation, his entire accusation against Lee must be brought in to serious question. Thanks, Tom Forehand, Jr.
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