There are many myths and misconceptions regarding Robert E. Lee’s relationship with the institution of slavery. It has been falsely claimed by some that Lee never owned enslaved people. Others, often confusing the enslaved people owned by Lee with the enslaved people who he managed at Arlington House, falsely claim that Lee owned hundreds of enslaved people. The specifics of Lee’s relationship with slavery are complicated.
Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, Virginia. In 1811, at just three years old, Lee and his immediate family moved to a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Throughout his early life, young Robert E. Lee would have had close association with enslaved people that lived and worked at Stratford Hall, at Alexandria, and at his mother’s family home, Shirley plantation in southern Virginia.
In 1825, Lee entered the military academy at West Point and graduated in 1829. He returned to Virginia and that summer his mother died. Lee’s mother, Ann Hill Carter Lee, owned 35 enslaved people when she died in 1829. Her will dictated that 5 of her enslaved people would go to her daughter Anne K. Marshall. She doesn’t mention the other 30 but notes that after her debts and legacies are paid, her remaining “property” was “to be divided in equal portion between my three sons, Charles, Sidney and Robert.” It is likely that at this time Lee inherited about 10 enslaved people as they would have been deemed part of her “property.” Lee though was a soldier with the United States Army and had little need for enslaved people and managed them from a distance. It is likely many were hired out to other slaveholders to manage and he would collect money for their labor.
In June of 1831, Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis at her father’s home, Arlington House. Custis was a large slaveholder, owning more than a hundred enslaved people at three different plantations: Arlington House on the Potomac River, and White House and Romancoke Plantations along the James River in southern Virginia. Many of these enslaved people had previously been enslaved at Mount Vernon by Mary Custis Lee’s grandmother, Martha Custis Washington.
Now married into the Custis family, Lee would occasionally discuss the enslaved population at Arlington or the other Custis plantations, but neither he nor his wife technically owned these enslaved people, her father did. In a letter to his new wife, written in 1831, Robert E. Lee mentions by name some of the enslaved people he presumably still owned that were living in Georgetown, where his mother lived before her death. He mentions by name only a few: Nancy, Cassy, Jane, and Letitia. Lee writes a letter in 1835 to his brother in which he talks about sending "Nancy Ruffin and her three illegitimate pledges" to New Kent County where the Custis White House plantation was located. Lee also notes that Nancy and her children “are all of the race in my possession.”
In other letters he mentions an enslaved person named Gardner (or Gardener) who was working at Shirley Plantation (his mother’s family’s plantation). Lee receives money from his labor as well, at least until around 1845 when he disappears from the historical record.
In 1846, as Lee prepared to join the U.S. Army in fighting the Mexican War, Lee made a will in Rockbridge County, Virginia. In his 1846 will, Lee says that "Nancy and her children at the White House, New Kent” were owned by him and were to be "liberated so soon as it can be done to their advantage & that of others” in the event of his death. Nancy Ruffin then disappears from the historical record after this.
In 1852, there is evidence Lee still owned an enslaved man, Philip Meriday (or Minday) whom he rents out in Washington, DC. This is the last direct evidence that Lee still owned enslaved people.
What happened to all of people owned by Robert E. Lee? We do not know. There are no records of Lee freeing or selling any of them. Lee may have sold or freed them, or they may have died. Dr. James Leyburn interviewed Robert E. Lee after the Civil War and Leyburn claimed that Lee “had freed most of his Negroes before the war” and sent some to Liberia. Lee’s son, Robert E. Lee, Jr., claimed that he “inherited three or four families of slaves and ‘let them go . . . a long time before the war.’” He also suggested that there were no official manumission papers as he wanted to prevent the former enslaved people from being forced from the state, which was the law at the time. This is all we know of Lee as a direct owner of enslaved people.
In 1856 Lee wrote his views on the institution of slavery to wife. He described it as “is a moral & political evil.” He however notes that it is “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” and that “the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” He wrote that “while we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands.”
In 1857, Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis died, and Lee became the executor of his will. Custis owned 197 enslaved people at the time of his death on three plantations. In his will, Custis directed that the enslaved people be freed after the payment of legacies and debts and within five years. Lee then became the manager of these enslaved people. There is often confusion with Lee’s personal ownership of enslaved people and managing his late father-in-law’s enslaved people, whom Lee did not own.
The time of Lee’s management of the Arlington plantation between 1858 and 1861 was marked with strife and discord. Many of the enslaved people believed they would be freed immediately at Custis’ death. Lee was a strict disciplinarian and some enslaved people defied Lee’s orders or attempted to seek the freedom they felt had been promised by the late Custis. In that regard, Lee wrote to his son that Custis had “left me an unpleasant legacy.” Wesley Norris, who was enslaved by Custis, recalled how Lee ordered the whipping of himself and two others who tried to free themselves from Arlington House by running north. Lee often rented enslaved people to other plantations or owners to avoid managing them. Forced to adhere to the confines of Custis’ will, Lee continued to keep the enslaved people working to pay off the debts and legacies. He sought to see if the state of Virginia could allow him to continue working them past the five year mark. However, the state refused and Lee executed a deed of manumission for all the enslaved people in the Custis estate in December of 1862, ending Lee’s personal management of enslaved people. He would hire at least two former enslaved people from the Custis estate, Perry and George Parks. They were freed in December 1862 and then hired by Lee to act as cooks during the Civil War. They were paid $8.20 per month.
In January 1865, with the war ending, Lee argued that the Confederate States of America should begin enlisting enslaved people into the Confederate Army in exchange for freedom. While Lee argued he was not a proponent of African American equality, he noted that without their aid, the Union would be victorious and slavery would be destroyed regardless. In this context, Lee hoped they could salvage independence and went so far as to recommend a “gradual and general emancipation.” With Lee’s support, the measure to arm enslaved people in the Confederate Army passed and in March of 1865 a few units of Confederate soldiers made up of enslaved men drilled in Richmond, Virginia. They would see little or no service. The next month, Richmond fell and Lee surrendered his Confederate army at Appomattox Courthouse. At the end of 1865, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution officially ended slavery in America.
After the Civil War, Lee praised the ending of the institution of slavery but continued to have negative views of African Americans and believed they should not have equal rights with white Americans. While his views on race never changed much in his life, his views on slavery were complicated and occasionally contradictory. The record is still incomplete in many places and hopefully more research and more documents will continue to add to our knowledge of Robert E. Lee as a slaveholder.