In the late spring of 1859, three enslaved people at Arlington House, Wesley Norris, Mary Norris, and George Parks, made the bold decision to emancipate themselves by running to the free state of Pennsylvania. They believed that they were freed as a result of a provision in George Washington Parke Custis’ will. They were captured in Maryland, near the Pennsylvania border and promptly returned to Colonel Robert E. Lee at Arlington House. Soon after their return, Lee hired the three out to plantations in lower Virginia, from where it would be more difficult to escape. What happened in between their forced return to Arlington and removal to lower Virginia has been a matter of historical debate for over 150 years.
On June 24, 1859, the New York Tribune published an anonymous letter to the editor describing how Lee ordered the whipping of three enslaved people as punishment for running away. The New York Tribune was a well-known abolitionist paper in the years preceding the Civil War. They often published sensationalized stories about slavery to build public outcry against the inhumanity of slavery and gain support for the abolitionist movement. This article described how after George Washington Parke Custis had died, his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, proved to be a strict slaveholder, which prompted the three enslaved people to run away. The letter then describes how the overseer took them “into a barn, stripped, and the men received thirty and nine lashes each, from the hands of the slave-whipper, when he refused to whip the girl, and Mr. Lee himself administered the thirty and nine lashes to her.”
Another anonymous letter also published in the Tribune claimed “Col. Lee ordered them whipped. They were two men and one woman. The officer whipped the two men, and said he would not whip the woman, and Col. Lee stripped her and whipped her himself.”
Lee never publicly responded or denied these claims but wrote to his son George Washington Custis Lee in July that “The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather's slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.” The Lees did not make any further comments about the event until after the Civil War.
In the middle of the Civil War, while commanding the Confederate forces, General Lee executed a deed of manumission on December 29, 1862 freeing all those enslaved at Arlington, including the Norrises. This timeline kept within the stipulations of G.W.P. Custis’ will that his enslaved people be emancipated within five years of his death (he died in 1857). Regardless, most of the people enslaved at Arlington had already been absorbed inside Union lines. Just two days after Lee’s manumission, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect at Arlington.
After the Civil War and about the same time that Robert E. Lee was called to testify before the United States Congress Joint Committee on Reconstruction in the spring of 1866, The National Anti-Slavery Standard published an article by Wesley Norris, one of the enslaved people who Colonel Lee punished. Norris gave an account of the whipping similar to that published by the New York Tribune seven years earlier:
“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.”
Lee never commented publicly on this story, but privately denounced it. Writing in a letter in March of 1866 to his friend E. J. Quirk, “There is not a word of truth in it . . . No servant, soldier, or citizen, that was ever employed by me can with truth charge me with bad treatment.” Lee made no further comments on the issue.
For many years, most historians believed that the story was fabricated. Lee’s most prominent biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, “There is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had them or any other Negroes flogged. The usage at Arlington and elsewhere in Virginia among people of Lee's station forbade such a thing.” He went on to label it as “libel” and the result of “the extravagance of irresponsible antislavery agitators” that became frequently reprinted with numerous “new embellishments.”
Subsequently, many historians who followed Freeman took his lead. In her 2007 book “Reading the Man,” historian Elizabeth Pryor Brown questioned her predecessors’ assumption that abolitionist papers, like The New York Tribune and The National Anti-Slavery Standard, contained unreliable and fabricated stories. While she questioned the initial stories in The NY Tribune saying they seemed “exaggerated,” she believed Norrises’ 1866 account and noted that it “rings true.” Based on the number of accounts and the fact that numerous parts of Wesley Norris’ statement can be verified, she believed it to be true. She also argued that Lee was a strict disciplinarian with his soldiers under his command, such as having deserters executed, that the idea that he could impose such a punishment on enslaved people under his control is not difficult to imagine, and Lee would not think it would be considered ‘bad treatment.’
Regardless of the specifics of what happened that summer in 1859, this story is indicative of the horrors of slavery and the efforts of enslaved people to resist and escape their forced bondage. It would take four years of bloody war that raged all around Arlington House, but by the end of 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would finally abolish the institution of slavery throughout the United States of America.