Was Robert E. Lee a Woman Whipper?

This article is based on the testimony of Wesley Norris, a formerly enslaved person at Arlington who was under Robert E. Lee’s management after George Washington Parke Custis died. It starts with the basic facts. “On March 26, 1866, the New York Daily Tribune published a shocking account of Robert E. Lee’s actions in 1859 by a former Arlington slave named Wesley Norris. After offering details about his escape from Arlington and subsequent capture, Norris said, ‘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.’ After the brutal punishment, all three slaves – Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and their cousin, George Parks – were eventually hired out to other slave owners far away from Arlington. Shortly after Norris’s testimony appeared in the Tribune, another anti-slavery periodical, The Independent, published an excerpt for ‘the admirers of General Robert E. Lee’ under the headline, ‘Gen. Lee a Woman Whipper.’ That particular piece concluded with the line, ‘A woman whipper a Christian gentleman!’ Exposing Lee as a hypocrite was a preferred line of attack for the radical press at the time. Lee acknowledged that the three slaves had run away in a letter to his son shortly after the events in question, though he didn’t mention that they had been whipped. After Norris’s testimony appeared in the press seven years later, Lee wrote privately, ‘The statement is not true; but I have not thought proper to publish a contradiction, being unwilling to be drawn into a newspaper discussion.’ The former Confederate general-in-chief refused to publicly defend his treatment of the Arlington slaves. He hoped national reconciliation would result in a correction of the record at some point in the future.”

Douglas Southall Freeman didn’t believe a word of it, but Elizabeth Brown Pryor, in her book, Reading the Man, has verified several details of the story.

“We will never really know for certain if Lee had the three slaves whipped and then had their backs washed in brine. The evidence isn’t strong enough to allow us to pass judgment, one way or another. Could Wesley Norris have made it all up? We can’t answer that definitively. Without more direct testimony from the victims, we’ll probably never know the complete story. We do have plenty of evidence, however, that Lee optimized the value of his slaves by sending them away from their homes and families to work for hirers in lower Virginia. Just because it was a traditional practice in the South at the time doesn’t make it any less harsh, from the perspective of the slaves. Even if Wesley Norris, Mary Norris, and George Parks were never whipped, we do know they ran away in order to be free only to be captured, jailed, and sent away from their community. The bare facts of their story alone are heartbreaking enough. Lee took over the responsibility of managing approximately 200 slaves, across three different properties, after his father-in-law died in 1857. He then began hiring out slaves as a means to raise funds for the estate and get rid of the most recalcitrant servants. Of the 35 slaves over twelve-years-old at Arlington in 1858, Lee hired out eleven of them that year. Over time, he would hire out even larger numbers, sending them to Richmond and other locations in lower Virginia. According to the historian Joseph C. Robert, all of the best field hands from Arlington had been hired out by 1859.”

Court records show Lee wasn’t all to keen about emancipating the Arlington slaves on the timeline his father-in-law’s will demanded. “Lee also attempted to protect his family’s economic interests in the courts. In an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, he asked if he could hire out his slaves even farther south outside the boundaries of Virginia. He argued that some of the slaves had become insubordinate and that hiring them out down South would make it more difficult for them to run away. The Court declined his request. According to Wesley Norris’s statement, he eventually was hired out in Alabama, which would have been contrary to the guidance of the court. In the appeal, Lee’s lawyer also questioned a stipulation in the will about liberating the father-in-law’s slaves, ‘I submit that the emancipation of the slaves should be postponed till the said legacies are raised, and the debts of the estate are paid off.’ Lee was clearly asking the court to place the financial interests of his wife and children above the freedom of 200 slaves. He believed his father-in-law would have wanted it that way.”

Postwar claims by Lee and attributed to Lee make it seem Lee was a slavery opponent, a view accepted by several. As we’ve found, that was not the case. In fact, Lee was a slavery supporter. “An understanding of Lee’s personal experience with slavery helps us to better evaluate his postwar comments on the institution. Just days after the war, Lee declared of slavery, ‘the best men of the South have long been anxious to do away with the institution, and were quite willing to-day to see it abolished.’ Lee added that the South had only supported slavery because there hadn’t been a plan to ‘dispose’ of the ‘negroes.’ Eight months later, in his testimony before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Lee stated that he wished Virginia could get rid of its ‘negroes’ and that he had ‘always been in favor of emancipation – gradual emancipation.’ Like many Americans after the war, Lee preferred to move forward as if he had been opposed to slavery all along. A year before his death, Lee apparently offered additional thoughts on slavery to the Reverend John Leyburn. Sixteen years later, in May 1885, Leyburn published the interview in The Century, a popular monthly magazine in the nineteenth century. According to Leyburn, Lee was hurt by Northerners who ‘insisted that the object of the war had been to secure the perpetuation of slavery.’ Lee told the Reverend that this wasn’t true, and that he had never been an advocate of slavery. Indeed, he was happy that slavery was abolished, and would ‘cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.’ Lee concluded the interview by asking that journalists use their pens to ‘see that justice is done us.’ The views put forward in the interview with Leyburn, alas, are not consistent with Lee’s actions and statements during his adult life. Most likely, Reverend Leyburn embellished Lee’s remarks somewhat, fifteen years after his meeting with the Confederate hero. Or perhaps Lee didn’t want his memory tarnished by a former connection with increasingly reviled institution. Inexplicably, by 1885, despite overwhelming and conclusive evidence to the contrary, Lee had become a quasi-abolitionist in the minds of many of his admirers. Even today, this is the Lee that many Americans still honor and remember.”

Postwar lost cause writings sought to whitewash slavery from the confederacy. It looks as if Lee and his worshipers tried to do the same thing with Lee. We may never know for sure if Lee had a woman runaway slave whipped, though it would have been standard punishment for running away, and Lee in many ways acted like a typical slave owner. We do know, however, that postwar denials to the contrary notwithstanding, Lee was a supporter of the slave system, which to me adds credibility to Wesley Norris’ claims.


  1. Al,

    It’s been a few years since I read Pryor’s book, but if I recall correctly, she discusses the existence of a receipt book reflecting the whipping of Arlington slaves by a constable.

    Such a receipt doesn’t bear on the issue of washing with brine or other lurid aspects of the story, but it would seem to be strong support of the core allegation that Lee had his slaves whipped, an act that was completely routine among slave owners.

    1. The receipt book showed an increase in a payment to Constable Williams over a previous return of fugitives. In addition:

      This is from the account in the Cincinnati Commercial. A correspondent interviewed one of the former Custis slaves:

      “Is this one of General Lee’s cabins?”
      “Yes sir.”
      “Are you one of General Lee’s servants?”
      “Yes sir, I am. Will you come in, gentlemen?”
      ” … I suppose, Aunty, that these are sad times compared to the good old days up at Arlington, yonder?”
      “Dese days are a great deal better, sir.”
      “Why, was not General Lee a good master?”
      ” ‘He was the worst man I ever see,’ said the old woman. ‘He used to have po’ souls cut most to pieces by de constable out here, and afterward he made his oversee’ wash dere backs wi’ brine.’ ”
      “… But Mrs. Lee, everybody thinks to be a good woman.”
      ” ‘I don’t call no woman good, gentlemen,’ said the old lady, ‘who cheats po’ souls out of dere time. Mr. Custis leff all us people on the place $50, and sot us free. General Lee an’ his wife keep our money. Dey sold all my children away off Souf, and dey keep five years of my time and my old man’s.’ ” [Cincinnati Commercial narrative, reported in the New York Independent, 4 June 1868, quoted in Walter Creigh Preston, Lee: West Point and Lexington, pp. 76-77]

      The June 2, 1859 issue of the Carroll County Democrat [Maryland], which I personally reviewed at the county historical society, has a story on page 2 that says:

      “Four negroes, two men and two women, were arrested near Westminster and committed to jail. They say they are from Fairfax County Va., owned by Robert Lee, Esq.”

      This newspaper came out on a weekly basis, so the capture could have been anywhere from June 1 back to May 26. Highly unlikely it was June 2, since the paper had to be typeset and printed for people to read it on June 2.

      Westminster is about 12 miles from the Maryland/PA border. One of the letters to the NY Tribune that Freeman claims were false said the slaves were captured about 9 miles from the border. This confirms that detail, since they were captured “near Westminster.” No idea who the extra woman is. She may have been another Arlington slave not related to Norris, and in his testimony he only talked about himself, his cousin, and his sister Mary.

      Lee himself is a source. In a 2 July 1859 letter to his son, Custis, Lee wrote George, Wesley, and Mary Norris “absconded some months ago, were captured in Maryland making their way to Pennsylvania, brought back and are now hired out in lower Virginia.”

      https://books.google.com/books?id=G…d are now hired out in lower Virginia&f=false

  2. chancery · · Reply

    Thanks for that additional material. I’ve seen “the worst man I ever see” quoted in a number of texts discussing Lee’s behavior, but hadn’t recalled the further remarks by the former slave about whipping by the constable and washing with brine, which appear to be independent confirmation that the claims of Wesley Norris are plausible (I say “appear,” because there’s always the possibility that an earlier text might turn out to be the source of an apparently independent later text. But I’m not suggesting that it’s likely in this circumstance.)

    Is the text or an image of the constable’s receipt available online? When I was writing my earlier comment, a nagging inner voice was reminding me that I had never seen the text of the receipt quoted, and that it was unlikely to have contained express language to the effect of “received from R. Lee for whipping slaves.” Your description of the receipt supports my suspicion that, while the receipt is probative evidence, its meaning and value, like that of most pieces of historical evidence, can only be teased out by careful examination of similar documents and other materials that supply context and background.

    As you, Andy Hall, and other writers have pointed out, all of the evidence with respect to Lee’s views of slavery supports the conclusion that he held views that were conventional for supporters of a slave system under which whipping was routine. People who insist that particularly strong proof would be required to demonstrate that Lee whipped slaves under his control (like some who have recently posted comments on Kevin Levin’s blog) don’t seem to consider that a nineteenth century slave owner who would _never_ consider using corporal punishment would probably be exceptional, and that the burden of proof should run the other way.

    I’m reminded of a comment by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in the “Concluding Chapter” of his “Two Years Before the Mast” (1840), a narrative of his time as an ordinary seaman on a merchant ship in the 1830s. The book vividly describes a cruel and brutal flogging, an incident that helped to form Dana’s later career as an advocate for the rights of seamen. Yet though Dana was, unlike Lee, a prominent opponent of the _use_ of corporal punishment, even he rejected _abolition_ of corporal punishment.

    With your indulgence Al, I’ve quoted it below:

    “Those who have followed me in my narrative will remember that I was witness to an act of great cruelty inflicted upon my own shipmates; and indeed I can sincerely say that the simple mention of the word flogging, brings up in me feelings which I can hardly control. Yet, when the proposition is made to abolish it entirely and at once; to prohibit the captain from ever, under any circumstances, inflicting corporal punishment; I am obliged to pause, and, I must say, to doubt exceedingly the expediency of making any positive enactment which shall have that effect.

    “If the design of those who are writing on this subject is merely to draw public attention to it, and to discourage the practice of flogging, and bring it into disrepute, it is well; and, indeed, whatever may be the end they have in view, the mere agitation of the question will have that effect, and, so far, must do good. Yet I should not wish to take the command of a ship to-morrow, running my chance of a crew, as most masters must, and know, and have my crew know, that I could not, under any circumstances, inflict even moderate chastisement. I should trust that I might never have to resort to it; and, indeed, I scarcely know what risk I would not run, and to what inconvenience I would not subject myself, rather than do so. Yet not to have the power of holding it up in terrorem, and indeed of protecting myself, and all under my charge, by it, if some extreme case should arise, would be a situation I should not wish to be placed in myself, or to take the responsibility of placing another in.”

    http://www.bartleby.com/23/1003.html (I’ve added a carriage return in the middle of the passage to make it easier to read.)

    Dana’s comment did not concern slavery, and it dealt with the situation of people who, unlike slaves, possessed civil rights. Nonetheless I submit that it usefully highlights the absence of evidence for Lee as someone who objected to whipping slaves.

    1. I’m not aware that Lee’s account book has been digitized and placed online.

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