Lee was born in 1807, into two of Virginia's most prominent families. His father, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, served as a cavalry officer in the American Revolution (1775–1783), a governor of Virginia (1791–1794), and a member of the House of Representatives (1799–1801), while his mother, Ann Hill Carter Lee, was the great-granddaughter of colonial-era Virginia's most prominent slaveholder, Robert "King" Carter. Lee spent his early childhood at Stratford Hall, the family plantation on the Northern Neck, surrounded by more than thirty enslaved African Americans. Even after various financial setbacks and a move to diminished quarters in Alexandria, the family still retained slaves, including at least six at the time of Ann Carter Lee's death in 1829. There is no record of Robert E. Lee owning slaves prior to that year, which coincided with his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Ann Carter Lee itemized the slaves she bequeathed to her daughter, Ann Kinloch Lee, but the only designation of property to her youngest son was a vague division of "the remainder of my estate" among Robert and his two older brothers, Charles Carter Lee and Sidney Smith Lee.
This "remainder," however, may have included other slaves, since a letter written by Lee to his brother Charles Carter Lee, on February 24, 1835, mentions "Mrs. Sally Diggs" and "Mrs Nancy Ruffin & her three illegitimate pledges," who are "are all of the race in my poss[ession]." Lee may well have owned one other slave as a result of his mother's estate, a man known only as Nat (or "Nate"), who accompanied Lee to his first posting as an engineering officer on Cockspur Island, Georgia, at the mouth of the Savannah River. But Nat was evidently both elderly and ill—"very weak & his cough is still bad," Lee wrote to his brother Charles on January 4, 1831—and died soon after.
With his connection to slave owning being mostly tangential rather than direct, Lee preferred to treat the enslaved people around him as invisible. In an 1832 letter to his brother Charles, written during his first posting in Georgia, he noticed only that "Blacks in this part of the Country are mostly Labourers, & Mechanics white." Twenty-five years later he was posted in Texas as lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Cavalry. In a letter to his wife, dated March 28, 1857, he remarked obliquely on "our troubles" in maintaining "servants" at Camp Cooper. Before the 1850s, his only comments on the larger controversies roiling the nation about slavery were brief and disapproving.
Civil War and Slavery
Lee did so with serious reservations about the constitutionality of secession. In a letter to his son, George Washington Custis Lee, dated December 14, 1860, he blamed in equal parts "the aggressions of the North" and the "selfish and dictatorial bearing […] of the cotton states." According to the postwar recollection of Lee's friend William Allan, choosing to serve Virginia and the Confederacy "was a hard thing for him […] thinking as he did that Secession was foolish." He was even more alarmed at how "unprepared" the South was to wage a war, and that unpreparedness and the unpopularity of defending a regime built on chattel slavery, in Lee's eyes, spelled doom from the start.
Enlistment and Emancipation
Rumor of Lee's endorsement of slave enlistment was met with incredulity by Confederate hardliners. Howell Cobb, a general and politician from Georgia, denounced the notion of enlisting and emancipating slaves as "the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began." Cobb found it "a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy." Still, on January 7, 1865, the Virginia state senator Andrew Hunter wrote directly to Lee to ask his views on "the expediency and propriety of bringing to bear against our relentless enemy […] the element of military strength supposed to be found in our negro population."
Lee replied swiftly, writing that "the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity" was "the best that can exist between the white and black races." But the Union armies will "in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population" and recruit them into the Union forces. It was time for Southerners to decide whether "slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institution." That would, however, require "giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully." Nor could it stop merely with those who served in the Confederate forces. Once begun, military emancipation would have to be accompanied by "a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation."
Race and Reconstruction
After the war, Lee remained adamant that the war had been fought by the Confederates not for slavery but "for the Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers." When, in the autumn of 1865, he took up the presidency of the struggling Washington College, he was careful to restrain rambunctious students (a number of whom were Confederate army veterans) from harassing black schools and churches and personally expelled a student involved in a harassment incident. When called to testify before the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction in 1866, Lee averred that "every one with whom I associate expresses kind feelings towards the freedmen. They wish to see them get on in the world, and particularly to take up some occupation for a living and to turn their hands to some work." The freed slaves, he added, were "as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is."
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Guelzo, A. C. Robert E. Lee and Slavery. (2019, February 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lee_Robert_E_and_Slavery.
- MLA Citation:
Guelzo, Allen C. "Robert E. Lee and Slavery." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Feb. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 19, 2017 | Last modified: February 13, 2019