William Mack Lee: A Black Confederate?

The bottom line:  No.

So-called “confederate heritage advocates” will often claim he was, but that simply proves their historical incompetence.

There is a program scheduled for February 14 in Suffolk, VA, and one of the presentations concerns William Mack Lee.  Perhaps the person giving the program will debunk his claims, but somehow I don’t think that will be the case.

You can read his claims here.


The front cover can be easily debunked.  Robert E. Lee brought two slaves to war with him:  Meredith, a cook, and Perry, a servant.

As we look at his claims inside the book, we can easily see how they don’t hold any water.

On page 3 we see:  “I was born June 12, 1835, Westmoreland County, Va.; 82 years ago. I was raised at Arlington Heights, in the house of General Robert E. Lee, my master. I was cook for Marse Robert, as I called him, during the civil war and his body servant. I was with him at the first battle of Bull Run, second battle of Bull Run, first battle of Manassas, second battle of Manassas and was there at the fire of the last gun for the salute of the surrender on Sunday, April 9, 9 o’clock, A. M., at Appomatox [sic], 1865.”  As we saw, he didn’t accompany Lee to the war.  Also, his name doesn’t appear on the list of enslaved people at Arlington.  The First Battle of Bull Run is the same as the First Battle of Manassas, and the Second Battle of Bull Run is the same as the Second Battle of Manassas.  They aren’t four separate battles as listed.  Finally, Lee wasn’t present at the First Battle of Bull Run [aka the First Battle of Manassas], so William Mack Lee couldn’t have been with him there.  And how many guns fired a salute for Lee’s surrender?  None.

The next two paragraphs read:

“The following is a list of co-generals who fought with Marse Robert in the Confederate Army: Generals Stonewall Jackson, Early, Longstreet, Kirby Smith, Gordon from Augusta, Ga. Beauregard from Charleston, S. C., Wade Hampton, from Columbia, S. C., Hood, from Alabama, Ewell Harrison from Atlanta, Ga., Bragg, cavalry general from Chattanooga, Tenn., Wm. Mahone of Virginia, Pickett, Forest, of Mississippi, Mosby, of Virginia, Willcox, of Tennessee, Lyons, of Mississippi, Charlimus, of Mississippi, Sydney Johnston, Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Marse Robert, and Curtis Lee, his son.

“The writer of this little book, the body servant of Gen. Robert E. Lee, had the pleasure of feeding all these men at the headquarters in Petersburg, the battles of Decatur, Seven Pines, the Wilderness, on the plank road between Fredericksburg and Orange County Court House, Chancellorsville, The Old Yellow Tavern, in the Wilderness, Five Forks, Cold Harbor, Sharpsburg, Boonesville, Gettysburg, New Market, Mine Run, Cedar Mountain, Civilian, Louisa Court House, Winchester and Shenandoah Valley.”  Albert Sidney Johnston never came east during the war, nor did Nathan Bedford Forrest, or Kirby Smith.  There wasn’t a “General Chambers,” but there was a General James R. Chalmers under Forrest, who also never came east during the war.  There were two generals named Harrison, James E. and Thomas, and they both never came east during the war.  He also claims to have cooked for Earl Van Dorn, who also never came east during the war.  Also, Lee’s son was named Custis, not Curtis.

He next claims, “At the close of the struggle, General Lee said to General Grant: ‘Grant, you didn’t whip me, you just overpowered me, I surrender this day 8,000 men; I do not surrender them to you, I surrender on conditions; it shall not go down in history I surrendered the Northern Confederate Army of Virginia to you. It shall go down in history I surrendered on conditions; you have ten men to my one; my men, too, are barefooted and hungry. If Joseph E. Johnston could have gotten to me three days ago I would have cut my way through and gone back into the mountains of North Carolina and would have given you a happy time.’ What these conditions were I do not know, but I know these were Marse Robert’s words on the morning of the surrender: ‘I surrender to you on conditions.’ ”  As anyone who’s studied anything about Lee’s surrender knows, Lee didn’t say these words, and no enslaved person accompanied Lee to hear what he said.  And we know that Lee specifically rejected the idea of using guerrilla warfare, so he couldn’t have talked about going “back into the mountains of North Carolina.”

He next claims, “I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender.”  We know the Arlington enslaved people didn’t remain there until after the surrender, as Arlington had been occupied by Union troops early in the war and the property had been turned into a cemetery during the war.

On Page 5 he claims, “I have been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ the best I knew, with my limited preparation, for 57 years. My master, at his death, left me $360 to educate myself with. I went to school. I studied hard at the letter, but my greatest learning came from Jesus Christ. God sent me out to preach, and when God sends a man out, he is qualified both with the Holy Ghost and the Spirit. He makes his words sharp as a two-edged sword, and his feet as a burning pillar of brass.”  Robert E. Lee’s Last Will and Testament has no mention of William Mack Lee or leaving $360 to anyone.

William Mack Lee claims that after his 1881 ordination, he built the Third Baptist Church in Washington, DC for $3,000, pastored two years, and increased the membership from 20 to 500. But the actual history of the church tells a very different story:

[begin quote] The next efforts in the District of Columbia were of the Baptists. Albert Bouldin, who began public prayer services near Fourth and L Streets in 1857, was a prominent influence in the organization of the Third Baptist Church. 26 

        26 This account was taken from the records of the Third Baptist Church.

On June 20, 1858 there was held a council of ministers at which were present G. W. Sampson, Chauncey A. Leonard, A. Rothwell, Lindsey Muse, Evans Stott, Henry H. Butler, Sandy Alexander, and L. Patten. There were also the following laymen: Joseph Pryor, Joseph Alexander, N. Nookes, Henry Scott, John Minor, Charles Alexander, and Austin Robinson. The trustees were William B. Jefferson, Joseph Alexander, Henry Scott, Charles Alexander, Vernon Duff, and Henry Nookes, who assisted in effecting the organization and served it as the first deacons.

In 1863 there was secured on Fourth and L Streets a lot on which the people began to erect their meeting house. On account of disputes, four years afterward it became necessary to look elsewhere, and William B. Jefferson became the controlling spirit. Then a lot was purchased on Franklin Street between Fourth and Fifth at a cost of $1,198.50. In September, 1871, the church was dedicated. Rev. D. W. Anderson, at that time pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, delivered the sermon. After a lapse of thirteen years, August 2, 1884, another lot situated on the corner of Fifth and Que Streets was purchased. 27

        27 There were elected the following officers in 1885: W. C. Laws, Joseph Jones, Henry Hughes, James H. West, Daniel Lewis, Moten Waites, and Joseph Montgomery. P. H. Umbles officiated during the vacancy of the pulpit occasioned by the death of Mr. Jefferson, which occurred in October, 1885.

        On March 19 James H. Lee of New Bedford, who had formerly been connected with the Third Baptist Church, was called to the pastorate. He accepted and preached his inaugural sermon May 9 and was installed on May 30. During the first seven years of his administration 242 members were received by baptism, 49 by letter, 62 by experience, 59 by restoration. In the same period 24 were dismissed by letter, 65 excluded and 117 lost by deaths. A debt of $3,475.55 was paid during this period including balance due on site. The collections aggregated $28,729.

The next forward movement was toward the erection of a new building which was completed July 1893 at a cost of $26,000 and dedicated the fifth Sunday of July 1893. 28

        28 The following officers were then in charge: Deacons W. L. Laws, Daniel Lewis, Joseph Jones, Joseph Montgomery, James H. West, Henry Hughes, and Moten Waites; and Trustees Alexander Peyton, Henry C. Bolden, William Reynolds, Ottowa Nichols, Richard Basey, George Duff and Dennis Johnson. After the death of Rev. James H. Lee, Rev. Mr. Bullock became the pastor.

There soon followed another significant undertaking. After preaching regularly to four persons for four years, Sandy Alexander organized on October 5, 1862, the First Baptist Church of West Washington. Two of the four pioneer members were from churches in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Dr. G. W. Sampson, president of Columbian College, subsequently Columbian University, now the George Washington University, was of great service to Mr. Alexander in this work of the organization of this church. The church was first located on the corner of Greene and Beale Street, Georgetown, where it remained one year, after which a lot was purchased at the corner of Dumbarton and 27th Streets and a large frame building was first constructed at a cost of $15,000. 29 [end quote]

Cromwell’s history states that the church was completed in 1893, and cost $26,000, and that under James Lee around 200 members were added:

http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cromwell/cromwell.html (p.88)

On Page 6 he claims, “Having stayed on Marse Robert’s plantation 18 years after the war and with limited schooling, I am not ashamed to give my history to the world that it might cause some of the young negroes who have school advantages from childhood and early youth, to consider life more seriously and if men of my type had lived in their time, how far they would exceed them along lines of religious, educational and business activities.”  As said above, Arlington was turned into a cemetery during the war.  Lee died five years after the war, so there’s no way William Mack Lee could have “stayed on Marse Robert’s plantation 18 years after the war.”

On Page 8 we find the following:  “The onliest time that Marse Robert ever scolded me,” said William Mack Lee, “in de whole fo’ years dat I followed him through the wah, was, down in de Wilderness–Seven Pines– near Richmond. I remembah dat day jes lak it was yestiday. Hit was July the third, 1863.

“Whilst we was in Petersburg, Marse Robert had done got him a little black hen from a man and we named the little black hen Nellie. She was a good hen, and laid mighty nar every day. We kep’ her in de ambulants, whar she had her nest.

“On dat day–July the third–we was all so hongry and I didn’t have nuffin in ter cook, dat I was jes’ plumb bumfuzzled. I didn’t know what to do. Marse Robert, he had gone and invited a crowd of ginerals to eat wid him, an’ I had ter git de vittles. Dar was Marse Stonewall Jackson, and Marse A. P. Hill, and Marse D. H. Hill, and Marse Wade Hampton, Gineral Longstreet, and Gineral Pickett and sum others.”

R. E. Lee was otherwise occupied in Pennsylvania on July 3, 1863 and wasn’t anywhere near the Wilderness or Seven Pines.  And it must have been a very smelly meal if they brought Stonewall Jackson’s body with them to eat a meal with it while they were in Pennsylvania. Interesting that they brought D. H. Hill back for the meal, too.

On Page 9, talking about what he claims Lee told him about the death of Stonewall Jackson, WML says, “A little later I cum back an’ he tol’ me dat Gineral Jackson had bin shot by one of his own soljers. The Gineral had tol’ ’em to shoot anybody goin’ or comin’ across de line. And den de Gineral hisself puts on a federal uniform and scouted across de lines. When he comes back, one of his own soljers raised his gun.”  As we know, Jackson didn’t put on a Federal uniform when he went between the lines.

William Mack Lee was nothing more than a con man.  He conned the gullible racists of his time by playing the “faithful Negro,” and he’s still conning gullible, historically ignorant racist confederate heritage people today with this “faithful Negro” act.


  1. E.A. Mayer · · Reply

    Great post as usual. Elizabeth Brown Pryor also shot down WML’s claims in her notes from, “Reading the Man”.
    One non sequitur comes to mind though, the link to the list of the Arlington slaves is a piece by Joe Ryan; the lawyer who thinks that the events surrounding Lee’s Special Order No,191 before Antietam was some sort of sly plot by Lee to trick the Union, and apparently his ‘proof’ of this is Lee’s obvious infallibility. And he then claims that the events as historians describe it are just a giant conspiracy to detract from Lee’s greatness. I usually consider him to be somewhat a crank and in the anti-historical revisionist camp. He also asserts that it was Lincoln that started the war and many other fallacious claims.
    Any familiarity with him? Comments?

    1. Not much familiarity. It certainly sounds quite a bit out there; however, I don’t think his other hypotheses taint primary documents he posts. It seems to me that it depends on what we or he do with those documents.

  2. I am not certain, but I think that both Kirby Smith and Earl Van Dorn were at First Bull Run before going west. Yes, if we trust their Wikipedia bios, they were. However, this does not really contradict your main thesis here, which is that this memoir is probably much more fiction than fact.

  3. Pat Young · · Reply

    Great debunking Al. W M Lee sounds like a hoot. He had his idiots figured out pretty good.

    1. Thanks, Pat. He had a great con going. He knew all he had to do was drop a few names and associate himself with Bobby Lee and he was home free.

  4. The William Mack Lee presenter is Billie Earnest, wife of B. Frank Earnest, the very public and outspoken former SCV Virginia Division Commander. So there’s likely a thick layer of heritage on top of the history in her talk.

    1. I agree, Andy, especially considering the other person on the program, although the first presenter likely will have more verifiable information, since she will be focused on combat support personnel.

      1. I’d like to see some of what Roane has written or presented in a more formal venue. I’ve seen some of her posts on Facebook, but that’s not the best place for presenting her scholarship.

        1. Understood. I would assume that since she’s focusing on men in combat support roles she has quite a bit of good information on what they did. I don’t know of anyone who denies African-Americans in large numbers were used in combat support roles by the confederates. The kicker, though, is what she claims it means.

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