Recently the Norfolk County Grays Camp No. 1549, Sons of Confederate Veterans installed a military style marker to honor William Mack Lee, who they claim was Robert E. Lee’s “cook and body servant” during the war.” In addition to the headstone, a Cross of Honor reaffirms the belief among the organizers of the event that WML was indeed a soldier.
They are convinced of this fact based largely on a pamphlet published about WML in 1918. But even a quick glance at this pamphlet reveals a number of problems with WML’s claims about his connection to Lee and his role in the war.
Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor raised a number of questions about WML’s account in a footnote in her wonderful book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters:
Rev. Lee claimed that he was raised a slave at Arlington and served as a cook tot he general throughout the war. He is not listed on any inventory of Arlington slaves, however; places Lee (and himself) at battles such as First Manassas, and claims to have cooked for a group of southern officers “in de Wilerness” on July 3, 1863, that included Stonewall Jackson and George Pickett as well as Lee. On this date, Jackson was dead, and Lee and Pickett were fighting the last desperate throes of the battle at Gettysburg. Lee’s letters make no mention of William Mack Lee. His personal servants and cook during the war were Perry and Lawrence Parks and Billy Taylor. (n. 39, p. 562)
WML was clearly involved in the writing and publication of this pamphlet, but he clearly had more in mind than producing what he hoped would be seen as an accurate historical account. In 1881 WML was ordained as a Baptist Minister in Washington, D.C. and was involved in the construction of a number of churches. He clearly believed that his story as a loyal servant might be leveraged to raise funds from the white community.
He will be in town all of this week, and if you want to help him pay for his church you will find him on the streets or some one will tell you where he can be found.
WML’s account is another wonderful example of how former camp slaves (assuming WML was ever one) responded and played to the tenets of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War for their own benefit.
The fact that the war had set him free was of small moment to him, and he stayed with his old master until his death.
Former camp slaves like Steve Perry (a.k.a. Steve Eberhardt) reinforced the belief among former Confederates that their war united white and black alike around a common cause. In WML’s case, it may have assisted him in maintaining and expanding his congregation at a time when financial support was limited from within the community.
Interestingly, at no point in the pamphlet is WML referred to as a soldier. He remained a loyal and trusted former servant whose service to Lee and the Confederacy was likely understood as an inspiration behind his own sense of mission.
Former Confederates and white Southerners generally needed WML to vindicate their failed cause and the recent ceremony that begins this post suggests that for a select few he is still needed.