William Mack Lee Conned the UCV & SCV

William Mack Lee Headstone

William Mack Lee’s Headstone

A few people have inquired as to the likelihood that the Norfolk County Greys Chapter, Sons of Confederate Veterans or the national organization will take steps to correct the history reflected on the headstone that was recently dedicated to William Mack Lee. The SCV claims, among other things, that WML was a cook and servant to Robert E. Lee. I wouldn’t hold your breadth.

This headstone dedication fits neatly into a disturbing trend involving the appropriation of the lives of former slaves by the SCV and United Daughters of the Confederacy to reinforce their own agenda that goes back decades. We saw it in the placement of a Southern Cross of Honor in front of Silas Chandler’s grave and more recently in the dedication of a headstone and marker to Weary Clyburn in North Carolina.

The Confederate heritage crowd defends their actions on the grounds that they alone have the right to interpret and commemorate the history of their ancestors and the Confederacy. Anyone who deviates from this narrative is brushed aside as a “revisionist,” “politically incorrect,” or as harboring a deep hatred for all things Confederate. At least those are some of the most popular labels that have been directed at me over the years. They provide a useful shield with which to defend their celebration and commemoration of the lives of so-called “black Confederates.” In short, folks like me can be easily brushed aside.

William Mack Lee

William Mack Lee with the UDC

The problem in this case, however, is that the evidence undercutting the recent dedication of this particular headstone does not come from an outsider, who can be easily dismissed, but from the very pages of the Confederate Veteran magazine, which to this day is published by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. You may remember that it was the editor of CV who challenged the very narrative pushed by Mack Lee that appears to be the sole source used to justify this ceremony. The engraving on the headstone above is pulled in its entirety from Mack Lee’s published pamphlet. According to the editor, none of it is true.

It seems to me that the shoddy research that has always been a staple of the SCV has landed them in a tough spot. Acknowledging their mistake exposes their inability to engage in even the most rudimentary kind of historical research. Their idea of research comes down to accepting at face value whatever they are disposed to believe from a document, regardless of whether it is a pamphlet or photograph.

Some may be tempted to single out Mack Lee himself as a con man, who sought to deceive Confederate veterans and white southerners generally. Now it is certainly the case that Mack Lee knew he had published a false narrative and it might certainly be true that he intended to deceive his supporters to raise money, but it misses the important point that his actions took place within the broader con that was the Lost Cause narrative. He took advantage of what white southerners wanted or needed to hear from former slaves and “servants”.

But acknowledging that Mack Lee was a con man is damaging in another way. If they accept this assumption, it raises the question of how many other black participants in Confederate veterans activities were engaged in some type of deception. In their own way, the SCV managed to highlight the very myth that they defend as historical truth.

There is no easy way out for the SCV and others who rely on these stories, which is why I suspect they will do their best to ride this embarrassment out as best they can.

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17 comments… add one
  • Richard McCormick Jun 2, 2016

    If slaves could try to “con” masters by pretending not to know how to do certain tasks or by “accidentally” breaking equipment, why couldn’t they perform similar acts (for a different reason) post-war?

  • Andy Hall Jun 2, 2016

    William Mack Lee aside, the old Confederate Veteran magazine is an invaluable resource for understanding how African Americans were viewed by actual old Confederates. It was at best patronizing, and often insulting and dismissive. But you’re not likely to find many True Southrons™ who are aware of that, much less willing to acknowledge it.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016

      I agree completely. Have you seen other examples of editorials challenging accounts like Mack Lee’s?

      • Andy Hall Jun 3, 2016

        I haven’t, although I haven’t looked to closely.

    • Jimmy Dick Jun 2, 2016

      That’s because they would have to actually look up something that might prove them wrong.

  • Joe Overstreet Jun 2, 2016

    I don’t want into a discussion about the “Con Man” William Mack Lee but you are so determined to debunk any claim in the History of the Confederacy. That;s all well and great that is your right under the First Amendment. I understand you don’t believe the determinations of the UDC and SCV. I didn’t hear of anything to contradict Wm Mack Lee’s claim from the contemporary soldiers who were aware of who was working in Gen’l Lee’s Headquarters camp. Of course, they might have served in a different war and didn’t know. I think, since you and I were’t there, we owe it to them to trust in their testimony. Overstreet

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016

      I didn’t hear of anything to contradict Wm Mack Lee’s claim from the contemporary soldiers who were aware of who was working in Gen’l Lee’s Headquarters camp.

      You also won’t find anything proving that Lee and his staff didn’t travel from place to place on llamas. 🙂

  • Shoshana Bee Jun 2, 2016

    “I think, since you and I were’t there, we owe it to them to trust in their testimony.”

    What a colossal waste of time that I have engaged in over the last 5 months! All of this time squandered on learning how to use Primary Source when I could have just picked up Jubal Early’s screed and been done with the Civil War months ago, (’cause he was there).

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016

      These are the kinds of of things people say when they feel threatened.

  • David Kent Jun 2, 2016

    Nice plaque. Bet you it set them back a bunch. Too bad they didn’t proofread it. Saying…….”There was no other person in a Confederacy uniform”, just isn’t going to make it with me. Now, “There was no other person in a Confederate uniform”, I could live with.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016

      LOL. I completely missed that.

    • Leslie Ackel Jul 9, 2016

      Sirs,
      Your arrant bigotry is becoming a disturbing trend.
      Did it occur to either of you that perhaps the Grey’s plaque was worded to mirror the exact phrasing, grammatical errors included, of this man’s memoirs?

      • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2016

        You forgot to mention that it includes all of the historical errors contained in the Mack Lee’s pamphlet. Thanks for the good laugh. 🙂

  • Rblee22468 Jun 2, 2016

    B Frank Earnest replied to my email inquiry as to his quote in the article about the dedication ceremony. I would characterize his reply as dismissive and distracting from the original inquiry. In the quote he claimed that he believed that WML was a soldier based on the documents. We’ve also seen the documents, and there was nothing in them to indicate he was a soldier. I’m not even convinced he was a cook.

    I think someone said earlier that the 4 people who swore on the affidavit were not ex-Confederates, does anyone know if that’s the case? If no one knows, I will research that. The best way to combat this is to do exactly what Kevin has been doing, challenging them with facts and putting them on the defense of their own claims. You absolutely can’t lose by challenging them on their own claims when they aren’t based on fact to begin with.

  • Rblee22468 Jun 3, 2016

    Border Ruffian left this comment at my blog. I haven’t researched this article yet, but it appears that another article titled “Not Lee’s Servant” was apparently written back in the day calling out WML on his con game. I’m assuming that the article also appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch, the source of his quote:

    “William Mack Lee has a Defender

    This appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch (November 20, 1932) a few weeks after Lee died. It’s a long letter so I typed only the last part. It makes the point-

    “This writer has often met William Mack Lee at our Confederate Reunions, and talked with him, as he was always surrounded by the ‘Old Vets,’ officers and privates alike, and his claims were never disputed nor doubted by any. We wonder if the party who says–heading his article, ‘Not Lee’s Servant,’ ever saw and conversed with Mack Lee in his life? We fear not, for to do so is only to be convinced that Mack Lee had been with and associated with the great general, and that in him was reflected, in some measure, the dignity and bearing of his beloved ‘Marse Robert.’ ” -J. K. Culbertson, Greenleaf, NC”

  • bob carey Jun 3, 2016

    Kevin,
    The “heritage correctness” folks can and will deny any fact or research which puts the Confederacy in a negative light.
    However there is one fact that they cannot deny and that is their “lost cause” narrative was allowed to be written and published and their leaders were allowed to live relatively unmolested after the surrenders because of protections afforded them by the very government they sought to destroy.
    I am not an expert in world history, but off the top of my head I cannot think of any event which compares to the magnanimity afforded to the leaders of a failed rebellion.

  • Andy Hall Jun 3, 2016

    “Off the top of my head I cannot think of any event which compares to the magnanimity afforded to the leaders of a failed rebellion.”

    Examples are few and far between, for sure. Julius Caesar was famous for his magnanimity toward defeated enemies, provided they were fellow Romans, and in 1815 Louis XVIII came to regret his generosity to Marshals Soult and Ney. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule, as it were.

    The heritage crowd generally ignores the fact that the United States essentially let both the military and civilian leaders of the Confederacy off lightly, blustering loudly that they were forced to accept formal pardons “at bayonet point,” etc. It’s nonsense. While I’m sure that applying for a formal pardon given under the hand of the hated Andrew Johnson was something those former Confederates resented, those who actually knew something of history also recognized it was a remarkable gift.

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