William Mack Lee Outed in Confederate Veteran

This is a follow up to an earlier post about the dedication of a headstone for William Mack Lee by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

This afternoon a good friend contacted me after having looked into the claim made by William Mack Lee that he served in the 27th Virginia Infantry and as a cook for R.E. Lee. It should come as no surprise that there is no compiled service record for WML in that unit. More interesting, however, is a thorough debunking of WML’s claims of having served as R.E. Lee’s personal body servant in the September 1927 issue (p. 324) of Confederate Veteran by none other than the magazine’s editor, E.D. Pope. I encourage you to read it for yourself.

William Mack LeeThe interesting thing from my vantage point is the emphasis right at the beginning of the article on ‘debunking’ WML’s claim to have been a “real friend” of R.E. Lee. Confederate veterans and white Southerners generally welcomed those African Americans who played to the Lost Cause narrative by expressing their undying loyalty to former masters and the Confederacy, but this account points to a line that could not be crossed.

The ridiculousness of the claim to have been a ‘real friend’ of General Lee is only equaled by the absurdity of the stories told by the old negro. If General Lee ever made a confidant of anyone with whom he was associated it is not known, and much less he would have revealed himself to a negro servant. (emphasis added)

This brief reference fits into a broader picture of the relationship between Confederate veterans and former slaves during the postwar years. They did not gather at reunions and other public events as equals. White Southerners used these occasions to reinforce the racial hierarchy and demanded unquestioned compliance from their former slaves. We have already seen that former slaves such as Steve Eberhart used their roles for financial gain and it looks like WML attempted to do the same. Claiming a close relationship with Lee, however, was apparently unacceptable.

The warning to the “press of the country” about accepting stories like WML’s certainly applies to the many news outlets and social media channels today that continue to pass these stories on without any kind of fact checking.

As for the Norfolk County Grays Camp No. 1549, Sons of Confederate Veterans, who recently dedicated a headstone for WML, all I can say is that they look like complete fools. And that is putting it kindly. They are promoting a story that not even their Confederate ancestors believed.

31 comments… add one
  • Rblee22468 May 27, 2016

    I find it interesting that this article was published in 1927. I did a search of newspaper articles on WML, and it looks like they did not start appearing until about the 1920’s. The earliest I have found yet was October 1919.

    • Andy Hall May 28, 2016

      The situation with Al Arnold’s ancestor, Turner Hall, is similar — he turns up de novo in the 1930s, 70+ years after the war, telling about his close association with both Lee and Forrest, long after anyone who might effectively refute his story had gone to dust. There seems to be no contemporaneous (or even 19th century) record of his involvement in the conflict. That itself is not unusual, but the claimed close connection to famous leaders makes the record a legitimate subject for historical scrutiny.

      • Kevin Levin May 28, 2016

        The Al Arnold/Turner Hall story is going to make a nice addition to my final chapter.

  • Kevin Dally May 27, 2016

    It seems this feller isn’t the only black man to play a con on the SCV, they have a modern day song-n-dance man in the form of H. K. Edgerton, doing the same thing today.

    • Kevin Levin May 27, 2016

      I am not so sure that H.K. is intentionally deceiving the SCV. That may be comforting to think.

  • Forester May 27, 2016

    Dang, I wish I had been the one to find this article. I would’ve felt so proud of myself. 😀

    Excellent posting, as always. I’m still embarrassed that this happened in my neck of the woods (they even made the stone in Portsmouth). Sigh. The Norfolk Grays camp is actually pretty moderate most of the time, which makes this all the more disappointing.

    • Kevin Levin May 27, 2016

      This has nothing to do with being moderate or extreme. It is about not knowing the first thing about historical research.

      • Forester May 27, 2016

        I agree, of course. It’s just that moderates are usually better researchers than extremists.

        Does the SCV not have some kind of soldier/service database? I can’t imagine other heritage groups like the SAR or DAR making such a research boner.

        • Kevin Levin May 28, 2016

          I agree, of course. It’s just that moderates are usually better researchers than extremists.

          I don’t know about that. Like I said, they simply don’t know how to go about the most basic historical research.

      • Shoshana Bee May 27, 2016

        I have to say that of all the topics related to CW, the Black Confederate Myth has completely blindsided me. I did not see it coming via study, rather, discovered it on the blogs. I have lightly participated in a few spirited discussions on the matter, and I have discovered a couple of realities to the Myth devotees ( I’m late to the party; everyone else is probably in the know) 1. There is almost a cult-like following in the belief that if a black man was present in a CSA camp, than he must have been a Confederate soldier. 2. Any attempts to prove otherwise is to risk “dishonoring” the Black Confederate- ‘degrading’ him to role of slave/servant – therefore, to present evidence in contrary is to risk being called a racist of sorts. It is a built-in defense that on the surface, could cause someone to not want to take on the task of disproving the “honour” bestowed upon said Black Confederate. This psychological intimidation against disproving the Myth suggests to me that there is no interest in verification, accuracy, or any research in general. I can only surmise that it is the modern day expansion of the Lost Cause. I am sure that I must be stating the obvious, as others have bee at this much longer than I.

        • Forester May 28, 2016

          Thank you! That is SO TRUE. The intimidation can be literal also, which is why I only use my middle name when I comment on blogs. I was doxxed in 2013 and had my family’s information falsely put on a Black Confederates blog (as evidence for the myth) against my will. And of course, I was also called a racist for recognizing that black Confederates were slaves, not soldiers.

          • Shoshana Bee May 28, 2016

            To me, the propagation of the Black Confederate Myth by the heritage groups is the ultimate confluence of incongruities. In order to validate their own “heritage”, said groups must elevate those in which their CW ancestors fought to enslave. Go figure.

            • Andy Hall May 28, 2016

              In order to validate their own “heritage”, said groups must elevate those in which their CW ancestors fought to enslave.

              ___

              The origins of the modern “black Confederate” movement go back to the antebellum period, when white southerners went to great effort to depict slaves as happy and contented with their lot, and the institution itself as being fundamentally benign and paternalistic. That view of the “loyal slave” follows right through the postwar period into the late 20th century, when changes in society (and particularly in popular media) made that untenable. The answer, simply, put, is to take the “loyal slave” and put him in a new, butternut uniform, fighting alongside his white brothers-in-arms to defend hearth and home.

              A hundred years ago, old black men attended Confederate reunions, sometimes dressing in military uniforms and marching in parades carrying live chickens, to the delight of the old white veterans and public. Is what Edgerton does today, in 2016, much different? Not really.

              Personally, I blame it all on Alex Haley.

              • Shoshana Bee May 28, 2016

                Andy Hall: “Personally, I blame it all on Alex Haley.”

                You sent me running to the archives to recollect the reference to Roots!:

                Kevin Levin:” Throughout the postwar period and much of the 20th century, stories of loyal black Confederate soldiers were decidedly absent. This changed in 1977 following the release and success of the popular television series Roots. At the time, the leadership within the SCV expressed concern over how the institution of slavery and race relations were portrayed in the film as well as the Confederacy itself.”

                There are big gaping holes in my understanding of this topic. Thanks for the clarification.

              • Kevin Levin May 28, 2016

                You may want to read this essay, which I wrote for The Journal of the Civil War Era. Beyond that you will have to wait for my book. Big announcement likely early next month.

              • Shoshana Bee May 28, 2016

                Fabulous article: nourishment for the hungry mind. Thank you! (once again, I realize that I do not have a single original thought on any given topic) Like everyone else, I anxiously await your book announcement.

            • Kevin Dally May 29, 2016

              “To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought.:

              Yep, they have it in black & white they are to vindicate their ancestors…no matter what the means taken!

  • Phil R. May 28, 2016

    This is the kind of stolen valor of which I approve. This guy was so good at his grifting game that the victims of his con are still buying into his story 100 years down the road. Supports my construct of heritage, where history plays only a minor part–one that often is not nearly as important as mythology, folklore, literary tradition and identity politics. I think it’s a valuable perspective for those of us who, trained as historians, by historians, often view heritage and history as the same thing.

    • Shoshana Bee May 28, 2016

      I have been giving this term “heritage” (used in relation to the post CW) a bit of thought, lately. I believe that it is a loosely defined identity that serves as an umbrella for disenfranchised individuals to congregate under. It’s the same sort of construct that arises on a broader scale within any mass movement…..or cult.

  • Rblee22468 May 28, 2016

    As if we need more evidence of WML’s history of lying, I found a newspaper article in which William Mack Lee, relates a story of Robert E. Lee’s favorite hen being hastily slaughtered and served up for dinner.

    https://blackconfederatemyth.blogspot.com/2016/05/october-7-1919-atlanta-constitution.html?showComment=1464465756460

    I’d never heard this story before. While researching Lee’s many servants while at war, I came across another reference to the same story, only it isn’t William Mack Lee who killed the General’s favorite bird, it was Bryan, the Irish mess-steward. I have found the exact same story reprinted in multiple sources, all listing Bryan as the servant. The only source I can find for William Mack Lee as the servant are his own tall tales. William Mack Lee has been big time busted as a liar and a grifter, and sadly, this story is being repeated by news media and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They held an entire ceremony dedicated to this con man’s memory. If that isn’t the definition of dishonoring your ancestors, I don’t know what is.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=edlTCAAAQBAJ&pg=PT270&lpg=PT270&dq=robert+e+lee+mess-steward+bryan&source=bl&ots=AJerxj-eqG&sig=OdIF7cplVVSnK43INmq9CxQnHDI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicnZrTxf3MAhWGHD4KHWwrAg0Q6AEIHTAA#v=onepage&q=robert%20e%20lee%20mess-steward%20bryan&f=false

    https://books.google.com/books?id=uIZ2AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA243&lpg=PA243&dq=robert+e+lee+mess-steward+bryan+hen&source=bl&ots=7IMQBkdF19&sig=7FYpsrewdVMq4IJu72PggCWeInI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi41pzeyf3MAhWBGD4KHStnCW0Q6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q=robert%20e%20lee%20mess-steward%20bryan%20hen&f=false

    http://leefamilyarchive.org/reference/books/hamilton/11.html

    • Forester May 28, 2016

      I never knew the bird was killed. Darn. :_(

      So anyway Rblee22468, I read William Mack Lee’s story in your link. This is the comment I left: William Mack Lee’s story is a hot mess! They cooked the bird on July 3rd 1863? He says that they were at Petersburg on that day, but that’s the day of Picket’s Charge! Also, he says Jackson was there — even though Jackson had been DEAD for two months! And Jackson was never anywhere near Petersburg. This is fourth grade history … I don’t even have to use Google to poke holes in this nonsense. That guy did not know what he was talking about. >_<

    • TFSmith May 29, 2016

      More importantly, is there no one in the Southron heritage community willing to honor the gallant sacrifice of the Gallus Domesticus-Confederates, so the descendants of said GD-Confederates can acknowledge the contribution their faithful ancestors made to the cause?

      Which, of course, had nothing to do with the condition of said GD-Confederates, their supposed wish to be free range, and the alleged desires of the GD-Unionists to free their southern brethren? We all know the GD-Confederates served to prevent the intrusion of Northern chicken inspectors onto the hallowed soil of the sunny south’s coops…

      After all, the Sons of Chicken Veterans says so.

  • bob carey May 29, 2016

    I,m stating the obvious, but I don’t think the “Heritage” crowd will acknowledge this research or concur with its’ evident finding. To do so would admit to their flawed research and conclusions and force them to re-evaluate all “Lost Cause” tenets.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2016

      Stay tuned for a follow up post on this very question.

  • Bryon Aug 23, 2017

    I don’t mean a bit of harm, but any Civil War buff would have known that it was common for Black men to have served as servants to Men of importance and not to have had their names on the Rosters. In fact it was more often the case than not. I am not doubting that it could have been a hoax, but many a black man served the Confederacy and never got credit for it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2017

      Servants were not soldiers. End of story.

      • Bryon Aug 23, 2017

        It was still not uncommon for black men not to have been on the company rosters. They were viewed differently than white men. I do know that some blacks were on rosters, but some rosters would list others by just one name. I don’t know how many black men even got a pension but I expect there were many that didn’t due to if no other reason than not having the educational ability to apply. Many black servants while they may not have been soldiers, served and died for their service. They played a vital role in the war effort, one that today would be done by “Soldiers”.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2017

          I am not going to debate you on this. I have been writing and lecturing on this topic for years. I am close to finishing a book-length project on this subject for an academic press.

          The pension that you are referring to were organized in a few former Confederates state for former slaves who functioned as servants and not as soldiers. I have seen the rosters as well. Their inclusion did not make them soldiers. The Confederacy debated the question of whether to recruit slaves as soldiers in late 1864-65. The final decision was made in March 1865 and a few were recruited, but they never saw the battlefield.

          I recommend that you read Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation for an overview of this subject.

  • Alice Lynch Aug 24, 2017

    The fairy tale of William Lee Mack is rearing its head again, this time in support of the Lee monuments in Virginia. Your article has come in handy to try to educate people on the fallacy of the story of this “obedient and reverent slave” that the Lost Cause proponents like to celebrate. One former Facebook friend has posted the book, retrieved from the UNC website, and over 1,200 persons have shared it as proof that their beloved General Lee was a friend to the black man. Thank you for trying to keep people honest. Your blog is a helpful resource – and a true source of Civil War history unlike our bronze second-place trophies sprinkled heavily throughout the south.

  • Robert Hand Apr 24, 2018

    Seeing Kevin Levin, the ultimate revisionist “historian”, as a contributor here tells me to not expect much truth here. Shame!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2018

      I am just going to assume that you don’t disagree with anything written here. 🙂

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