Skip to main content

On Slavery: Robert E. Lee Vs Ulysses S. Grant

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

Lee vs. Grant on Slavery

The year 1856 was significant for both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in regard to their attitudes toward slavery. Within a few years, these men would both be generals-in-chief on opposing sides in the nation’s Civil War, guiding multiple armies against one another in a desperate fight to either preserve or eradicate slavery.* Yet their personal views regarding the institution were in some ways the opposite of what would be expected.

Ulysses S. Grant Expressly Denied Being Anti-Slavery

In 1856 Ulysses S. Grant, probably the man most responsible (after Abraham Lincoln) for the destruction of American slavery, was no Abolitionist. In fact, he did not even see slavery as a moral issue. Years later, when he had become the Union’s foremost general waging a ferocious fight that would eventually ensure the demise of the slave system, he honestly declared that during the pre-war period he never thought of himself as being against slavery.

I never was an Abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery

— Ulysses S. Grant in 1863 concerning his pre-war attitude toward slavery

Grant's only concern about slavery in 1856 was the potential for the rapidly increasing strife between the free-soil North and the slaveholding South to tear the nation apart. That concern led him to vote for the pro-slavery candidate in that year’s presidential election so as to avoid, or at least postpone for a few years, the prospect of the country going to war against itself over the issue.

This article, which focuses on the views of Lee, is one of a two-part series. To get an in-depth perspective on Grant's attitude toward slavery, please see:

Ulysses S. Grant vs Robert E. Lee On Slavery

Robert E. Lee Thought Slavery Was Wrong

In contrast to Grant, Robert E. Lee, in 1856, was quite clear in his belief that slavery was morally wrong and should eventually be abolished. That year the man who would fight as fiercely to preserve slavery as Grant fought to eradicate it, explicitly declared his judgment concerning the issue in a letter to his wife:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.

— Robert E. Lee in 1856

But Lee Considered Abolitionism a Greater Wrong Than Slavery

In the context of the entire letter to his wife, Lee’s statement about the immorality of slavery says less than it might at first seem. The letter reveals that his moral objections to slavery stopped well short of a desire for immediate abolition. In fact, it was just the opposite. Lee thought that:

1. Abolitionists who pressed for an immediate end to slavery were morally wrong because they were trying to “interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South":

Their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable.

2. The evil of slavery was less its effect on the black victims of the system than its impact on white slaveholders:

I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

3. Blacks were actually better off as slaves:

The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically.

4. God was using slavery as a means of uplifting the black race:

The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

5. Emancipation should not be forced on white slaveowners, but should happen naturally over time under the influence of Christianity:

Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure.

6. The end of slavery should be left in God’s hands, rather than being forced by Abolitionist agitation:

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 who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.

7. Rather than Abolitionists continuing to pursue their “evil course” of agitating for immediate emancipation, they should be concerned about not upsetting slaveowners:

He [the Abolitionist] must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same.

Lee Became a Slaveowner by Inheritance

Lee first became a slaveowner in 1829, when he inherited, as his son Robert, Jr. termed it, "three or four families of slaves" from his mother's estate. Lee, Jr. goes on to say that his father liberated these slaves “a long time before the war.” But, as historian and Lee biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor states in her book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, surviving records indicate that Lee was still hiring out his slaves as late as 1852.

Whenever it was that he set his own slaves free, the experience that most clearly defines Lee's real attitude toward slavery and enslaved people was his dealings with the slaves that came under his control through his father-in-law's will.

Lee married Mary Anna Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, in 1831. When her father, Washington Parke Custis, died in 1857, Mary inherited his Arlington plantation, along with 196 slaves. Robert was named executor of the will. The estate was encumbered with a large amount of debt, and it was left to Robert to figure out how to carry out the terms of the will despite the fact that the financial resources of the estate were not sufficient to do so.

Lee Tried to Hang On to the Arlington Slaves as Long as He Could

One very important stipulation of Washington Parke Custis's will was that his slaves were to be freed in no more than five years. Based on what Custis had told them, the slaves had a firm belief that they would become free from the moment of his death. However, to Robert E. Lee these slaves were critical assets of the estate. Their labor, and the funds that could be earned by hiring them out, were desperately needed to bring the Arlington plantation back to solvency.

For that reason, Lee had no intention of freeing the Arlington slaves one second sooner than he absolutely had to. In fact, he even went to court in an attempt to set aside the provision of Custis's will that mandated that the slaves be freed in five years or less, but his petition was denied.

Lee shared his despair in a letter to his eldest son, Custis:

"I can now see little prospect of fulfilling the provisions of your [grandfather's] will within the space of five years, which seems to be the time, within which he expected it to be accomplished & his people liberated."

Arlington slave Selina Norris Gray (right) and two of her children

Arlington slave Selina Norris Gray (right) and two of her children

Lee Was a Hard Taskmaster Over the Arlington Slaves

The enslaved people at Arlington, believing that by the express declaration of Washington Parke Custis they were now free, saw no reason why they should still be treated as slaves who were expected to work hard for no pay. Lee, however, not only considered them to still be the property of the estate, he believed they had a duty toward the Arlington plantation, and toward him as its manager, that they were obligated to fulfill. In attempting to hire an overseer, Lee said he was looking for "an energetic honest farmer, who while he will be considerate & kind to the Negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty." (Emphasis added).

The Arlington slaves believed passionately that they had become free when their former owner died. Robert E. Lee thought otherwise.

This divergence of expectations led to severe clashes between Lee and his workforce. As Elizabeth Brown Pryor puts it in her biography of Lee:

From his arrival at Arlington, Lee found himself "endeavoring to urge unwilling hands to work."

With his military background, Lee had little patience with subordinates who refused to fulfill what he considered to be their duties. He did not hesitate to hire out uncooperative slaves away from Arlington, often breaking up families in the process. In fact, according to Elizabeth Brown Pryor, by 1860 Lee had broken up every slave family at Arlington except one.

Slaves on the auction block being sold to the highest bidder in Richmond, VA.

Slaves on the auction block being sold to the highest bidder in Richmond, VA.

In his book The Making of Robert E. Lee, historian Michael Fellman relates the case of three men Lee hired out, tearing them away from their families. Deciding that they were under no obligation to accept Lee's disruption of their family relationships, they ran away from their new masters, returned to their families at Arlington, and resisted attempts to recapture them. In a letter to his son, Rooney, Lee described the incident this way:

Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them & lodged them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them."

Naturally, the slaves subjected to such treatment began to develop a deep resentment toward Lee. As one of them put it, Lee was "the worst man I ever see."

The worst man I ever see.

— How one of Robert E. Lee's slaves described him

Lee Had Slaves Who Tried To Escape Whipped

A predictable effect of Lee's harsh treatment of the Arlington slaves as he tried to get them to work harder was an increase in attempts to escape. One of those attempts led to the most notorious incident in Robert E. Lee's career as a slavemaster.

In the spring of 1859, three of Lee's slaves, Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and his cousin George Parks, decided to run away from Arlington. They got as far as Westminster, Maryland, but were caught just short of making it to Pennsylvania and freedom.

The three were thrown in jail, where they stayed for fifteen days before being returned to Arlington. Here is Norris's account, written in 1866, of what happened when they were brought before Robert E. Lee:

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 ashes 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 [heavily salted water], which was done.

Although admirers of Gen. Lee have defended him as being incapable of such cruelty, and Lee himself denied ever subjecting anyone under his authority to "bad treatment," Norris's account is backed up by independent evidence. As Elizabeth Brown Pryor notes in her book, "every detail of it can be verified." Not only were stories of the escape published in newspapers at the time, but corroborating evidence is available, such as court records and Lee's account book showing that the constable who did the whipping, Richard Williams, was paid $321.14 on that date for "the arrest, &c of fugitive slaves."

Lee Finally Did Free All His Slaves

When the five-year period specified in Custis's will ran out, Robert E. Lee faithfully carried out his responsibility to set all the Arlington slaves free. He did so, coincidentally, on January 2, 1863, the day after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

By that time, many of the slaves had freed themselves by running away into Union lines. Wesley Norris was one of them. He escaped into Union-held territory that same month. Lee was careful to ensure that all of the slaves who had been under his authority, even the ones who had already escaped, were included in the deed of manumission. The names of Wesley and Mary Norris were on the list of those who were being set free.

An Admirable but Flawed Man of His Time

When Robert E. Lee denied that he had ever mistreated anyone under his authority, he was, by his own lights, correct. Lee had a strong sense of duty, which included not only what he considered to be the slaves' duty to him, but also his duty to them. And he was very conscientious in carrying out those responsibilities as he understood them. He was committed to doing "what is right and best" for the enslaved people under his control. As Elizabeth Brown Pryor notes, "his estate accounts show that he spent considerable sums for the slaves' clothing, food, and medical care."

But what Lee was unable to do was rise above the prejudices of his time. Believing blacks to be morally and intellectually inferior to whites, he was convinced that he had the right to demand the loyalty and the labor of the enslaved people of Arlington.

How Lee Compares to Grant

The contrast between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant is stark. Although Grant never articulated (until long after the war) a belief that slavery was morally wrong, he nevertheless behaved as though that's what he believed. He set free the only slave he ever personally owned at a time when selling that man could have brought in a large amount of money that Grant's family desperately needed.

Lee, on the other hand, was ahead of Grant in his understanding of the moral dimensions of the slavery issue, but far behind him in consistently applying those principles. Although he knew in his heart that slavery was wrong, Lee somehow believed that the duty imposed on him by the terms of his father-in-law's will made it right for him to hold the slaves of Arlington in bondage as long as he possibly could.

* Although the Confederate states seceded specifically for the purpose of protecting the institution of slavery, the destruction of slavery was not the North's goal at the beginning of the Civil War. But with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it became an explicit Union war aim.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Ronald E Franklin


Leland Johnson from Midland MI on February 18, 2019:

I have to disagree with KM. Lincoln hated slavery since he was a child and saw a group of slaves chained together on a river boat. Lincoln and his father never did get along, but there was one thing Thomas Lincoln instilled in his son, a hatred of slavery. The elder Lincoln even broke off from his church because it was NOT abolitionist and started a branch of his own. KM only quoted 1/2 of what Lincoln said about freeing slaves to save the Union. The full quote goes like this: “If I could save the Union and free none of the slaves, I would. If I could save the Union and free all of the slaves, I would. If I could save the Union and free some of the slaves, I would do that too.” The whole objective of the Civil War was to end slavery. You can dissect it a million different ways, but it all comes down to that point. Lincoln believed that Southern Democrats were going to extend slavery into the western states and that eventually it would spread to the north and we would become a slave nation. Read his “House Divided” speech. IT’s all there. Lincoln said things from time to time that were expedient so he could garner support for his main goal- freeing the slaves. He gave his life for it. To say otherwise is to detract from his legacy.

KM13 on February 17, 2019:

Thanks for the article, history is never as cut and dried as people would like it to be. I'm not attached one way or another to as to whether or not he had some unruly slaves whipped, all in all he was a man of his word and upheld his side of the contract, making sure the slaves were well cared for, as you pointed out. However, due to Mrs. Pryor's questionable research, I think you would do well to see if the various "proofs" she cited are actually genuine. I understand that she didn't make much of her source material available. It would be nice to see the actual records she speaks of, to settle the question once and for all.

I object, however, to the description of the war, as "a desperate fight to either preserve or eradicate slavery." Even you, admit that "the destruction of slavery was not the North's goal at the beginning of the Civil War." The simple fact of the matter, is that if abolition wasn't the goal to begin with, then it's not what the war was "about." If anyone was in a position to say what the war was about, it was Lincoln, who wrote that: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it." That was the goal, plain and simple. One point I would like to impress however, is that as President Lincoln wrote the above words, a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation already lay in his desk drawer. Nothing changed in Lincoln's mind when it was published the following year, he was the same man with the same ambition, but now there was a noble cause to help him sell his war to save the Union.

It's funny, most who would criticize Lee give Lincoln a pass, yet there are probably more "damning" things to say about him. 1) Lincoln was racist: "He [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment."

2) Lincoln was a white separatist: "I think your race suffer... by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence... If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated."

3) Lincoln wanted to maintain white superiority: "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."

4) Above all, Lincoln did NOT want interbreeding: "Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing of blood by the white and black races. Agreed for once--a thousand times agreed!"

And people call Richard Spencer radical? Just listen to Lincoln "whitesplain" to an assembly of free Negroes, as to why they should pack up and head off to Central America, taking the newly freed slaves with them: "There is much to encourage you. For the sake of your race you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people... In the American Revolutionary war sacrifices were made by men engaged in it; but they were cheered by the future. Gen. Washington himself endured greater physical hardships than if he had remained a British subject. Yet he was a happy man, because he was engaged in benefiting his race---something for the children of his neighbors, having none of his own." "The place I am thinking about having for a colony [I.E. shipping you all away to] is in Central America."

Thanks for the service guys, now get outta Dodge, we don't want you here!!! Ah yes, good old Abe, the great "emancipator." How easily it would be to depict him in a bad light, but should we? Times change, and morals change with them; one cannot judge a person from centuries past, by the morality we have today. Slavery was ubiquitous and accepted, even the Bible admonishes slaves to: "obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ." People really believed all that, it was embedded into society. Don't forget that a few hundred years before that, we were burning witches. Yes, people like you and me, we burned witches, and it even seemed moral and right at the time.

Did Lee have some rebellious slaves whipped? Could be, so what? The current assault upon Confederate heroes won't just stop there. Already, calls have been made to remove memorials of Columbus, and even George Washington! There are those who would have us throw all of our national history under the bus and spit on it, as if it's a horrible thing to be ashamed of. Look, the fact is that every one of the founding fathers [to my knowledge] was a racist and nearly all of them owned slaves. Most of the slave owners probably had their unruly slaves whipped on occasion as well. And none of it makes an iota of difference to me; they were still fine men, just like most of the men involved in both sides of the Civil War, or any other war for that matter.

Anyhow, I do appreciate you sharing a bit of history with us. I can only hope that your motivation in doing so is to educate, not to divide. There's a whole lot of that going on right now, and most of the negative reaction to your piece is probably because folks are sensitized to it and automatically suspect you of engaging in it, particularly since you cited Pryor. Either way, it's still always helpful to have a deeper view of history. Take care!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 29, 2018:

Who was enforcing Virginia law in Northern Virginia in 1863? I think most of Northern Virginia around the Potomac was in Yankee hands by that time. This seems like Lee was grudgingly complying with Southern law but at the same time playing to Northern presses by saying "look at me the great Emancipator.". I have never been a Lee basher but your article has made me think about the hypocrisy of our revered Southern generals. Lee was playing both ends at once.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 28, 2018:

Thanks, Mel. Lee freed the Arlington slaves in 1863 because that's what the law required under the terms of Washington Parke Custis's will. If Lee could have legally held on to them longer (and he tried) all signs are that he would have.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 28, 2018:

The Lee myth of him being the enlightened man who set his slaves free is probably part and parcel of the post-Reconstruction drive to glorify Confederate heroes. Truthfully, I had always believed the story, but if he didn't do it until 1863, when the writing was on the wall about the eventual outcome of slavery, that casts considerable doubt on his sincerity. Maybe he was looking more to his post-war treatment at that point.

Thanks for exposing a misconception too often accepted as truth. Great article.

Joeryancivilwar on August 29, 2018:

We are standing on different planets looking at the same sun: you see emotionally; I see objectively.

Your first paragraph changes the subject from the subject I referred to--the racism the two men shared, to the view both men publicly expressed, of slavery per se. Yes, Lincoln's agenda was to "restrict" slavery, not abolish it, and in this Lee begged to differ. But Lincoln made it emphatically clear in his public statements that, though he wished the Africans to be "free," he wished them to be free someplace else. The key to understanding how the war happened is to face the reality the whole white people of the Union did not want to live with Africans as citizens in community. The Ohio River was a wall over which, around which, under which, or through which the Africans, "freed," were not wanted to go. If Lincoln had taken the position that not only should the Africans be free, but citizens, oh the howl from the white people above the Mason-Dixon Line.

Your second paragraph suggests I missed as your basis for the statement that Lee inherited "Several families" the letter his son wrote a biographer in 1908, three years before his death in 1911. R.E. Lee Jr.'s statement to Page is objectively incorrect. The will, itself, is the best evidence of what, in fact, Ann Hill Carter Lee possessed as property at her death, in 1829, and who got what. The son, not being alive in 1829, had no personal knowledge of this fact, and he obviously did not know or, or read, his grandmother's will. Ann Lee, with her children, lived in an ordinary house in Alexandria, about seven rooms, on an ordinary residential street. She did not own any real property. One must wonder where these supposed "several families of slaves," not listed in the inventory of her estate, lived and worked.

The third paragraph of your response cannot be answered by me, because it is pure emotion. In the middle of it you insert the claim that Africans held as slaves in the antebellum Union were held "unjustly." You invoke the concept Seward was the first to push, of a "higher law." You paint slaveowners as "kidnappers" and the Africans as "victims." The kids go for it, I am sure. But the objective fact of American history remains: the Constitution, the "supreme law," sanctioned the institution of slavery until the war resulted in the ratification of the 13th Amendment. And, notwithstanding the claim of "higher law," the common law of Virginia required persons who assumed the duty of Executor of a dead person's estate to dispose of the estate according to the intent of the testator, not according to Executor's personal state of emotion.

Your last paragraph of response is a bald assertion without foundation in fact and another appeal to emotion. No, it is hardly likely that a trial court judge would allow the New York Tribune's "statement from the lips of Norris," Selena Gray's brother, to be received into evidence in the trial against Lee for assaulting Mary Norris. Had Mary been whipped at Lee's command, in 1858, her sister, Selena, would hardly have written Lee's daughter after the war expressing to her nothing but pleasant memories of Arlington. The Norris "statement" is plainly a concoction of the New York Tribune, certainly not a statement "from the lips" of Norris as the words the reporter puts in Norris's mouth, no one in Norris's position would have used. Moreover, the "facts" the New York Tribune asserted as "from the lips" of Norris are patently false. Norris, for example, did not "escape" as the Tribune claimed, from Lee's clutches, in 1863, but appeared at the Union lines, in September 1863, at Culpeper, with a pass from Lee in his hands.

Yes we all rejoice that the nature of war brought an end to slavery in the Union and, in the process, changed the Union's fundamental political nature, from that of a compact between sovereign States to that of a unitary State; but teaching students to use emotion to form their understanding of American history is a sad thing, indeed. If you stopped talking about the antebellum union in the language of slavery and instead talked about It in the language of racism, the kids might get comprehension of the deepest, lower layer of the cause of the war.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 29, 2018:

Thanks, Joeryancivilwar, for taking the time to comment.

1. You are right that both Lee and Lincoln expressed a belief that slavery was wrong. I think it fair to say that Lincoln was much more emphatic in his moral condemnation of the institution: "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel," he said. And remember that while Lee fought in defense of a system based on slavery, Lincoln built his political career on restricting it and putting it "in the course of ultimate extinction."

2. Regarding "three or four families of slaves", you apparently missed the fact that in the article that quote includes a link to its source, which is a letter Lee, Jr wrote to Dr. Thomas Nelson Page in 1908.

3. On the idea that Lee had a duty to hold slaves as long as possible: Suppose I’m in a gang that kidnaps you for ransom, and the leader gives me responsibility to watch you so you don’t escape. On one level, I have a duty to the leader hold you in bondage as long as I can. But surely it’s clear that because you are being unjustly held, I have a much higher duty to set you free. I deliberately use kidnapping as an example because that’s exactly what slaveholders were doing to their victims.

4. As to your claim that the evidence for Lee being harsh toward slaves would not be admissible in a court of law: first, that’s an opinion many would emphatically disagree with. More importantly, conviction in court is not the standard. It’s clear that Lee held in involuntary bondage people who had done nothing to merit that bondage, and who desperately wanted to be free. He took the most effective measures the law allowed to prevent them from doing so, which would include whipping.

Joeryancivilwar on August 29, 2018:

I misstated the place of Ann Lee's residence as "Arlington;" between the age of four and seventeen, Lee lived with his mother and siblings in a house owned by Ann's brother, in Alexandria.

Joeryancivilwar on August 29, 2018:

May I remark on the accuracy of your well-written piece?

First, as an objective matter of fact, Lee's letter of 1856 which you quote, makes plain that Lee was no more or less a racist as was Lincoln. Both men held publicly to the view that there was a distinct difference between the races, and since this was so in their minds, they wished their race to possess the superior position. The essential point being that the whole white people of the Antebellum Union did not want to live with Africans as citizens in community.

Second, you do not tell us where you get the words you put in R.E. Lee Jr.'s mouth. There is no objective basis to claim Lee inherited "three or four families of slaves" from his mother's estate. His mother, Ann Hill Carter Lee, though from a very rich family, was not herself wealthy but lived in Arlington with her brothers' support. She did own three or four slaves and these she gave to her children in her will which can be found in the Fairfax County courthouse. Lee inherited "Nancy" and by 1846, when he filed his will in court, Nancy had "children." What happened to Nancy and her children the record does not say.

Third, as executor of his father-in-law's estate, it was Lee's duty "to hang on the slaves as long as possible," which means, in point of law and fact, as long as the will allows the executor to hold on to the slaves, for the purpose of using the value of their labor to pay the legacies of the estate, which is what Lee did.

Fourth, there is no objective evidence admissible in an American trial court that supports the claim Lee "was a hard taskmaster over the Arlington slaves." Your reliance on Pryor reveals your prejudice. The letter Selena Gray wrote Mary Custis after the war and the letter Lee wrote Amanda Parks in 1866, reveal no whiff of resentment or anger from the two women who once were Arlington slaves, part of large families seeped in the history of Arlington.

Fifth, similarly, there is no objective evidence admissible in court which supports your claim Lee had "slaves whipped who tried to escape." The "statement" presented by a abolitionist newspaper is not "testimony." "Testimony" is a statement made under oath in a courtroom. As such it is subject to cross-examination which would follow the lines offered in the article, General Lee Slave Whipper? at

Joel M Bridge on July 05, 2018:

My knowledge is little rusty I did take a civil war last two semesters ago. But if I judge them by the ethics of their action that was contemporary to their day through the lense of Kant categorical imperative and Mills principle of utility. Lee is wrong in both accounts one for the very action is objectifying the individual by action in of it self a logical paradox Least his justification . Then they’re being robbed of their sovereignty and not being treated as a responsible moral agent.

With Mill the massive amount of pain and suffering slavery is causing both of as a institution but even in Lees case of ownership and preventing their emancipation. So Southern Genteel society get pleasure and benefit of feo, institution as a whole it unethical because the consequences causes such massive suffer.

In many ways Lee was the exemplary example of southern gentry He is up there with Andrew Jackson. But in the end of the day both are slavers the only things that made the other better is the one would die for the union.

Leland Johnson from Midland MI on June 12, 2018:

Yes, I know he and Stonewall Jackson could be very hard on soldiers disobeying orders, Jackson was known for "bucking" soldiers- tying their hands and feet to a chair in a sitting position for hours at a time. It would've been miserable.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 11, 2018:

Thanks, Leland. I think Lee's treatment of his slaves, both in caring for their needs and severely punishing them when they defied him, was entirely consistent in his own mind. The key is his sense of duty. Lee really believed the slaves owed their labor to him, and that he was fully justified in doing what was necessary to hold them accountable for performing that duty. Historian Gary Gallagher notes: "Lee was not sympathetic to soldiers who didn't do their duty from his perspective - deserters, shirkers. Lee's response to desertion was often, 'we need to hang some people'." [ ]

Leland Johnson from Midland MI on June 11, 2018:

Ronald- excellent article. I need to do more study to reconcile the statements that Lee had his slaves harshly beaten. I've not heard or read that before, and I read a fair amount. It doesn't seem reasonable to me that Lee would have a slave mercilessly beaten and yet make sure he was clothed, fed, and medical expenses were covered, and then on top of it all, set them (him) free. Human beings are certainly filled with flaws and contradictions and I thank you for sharing this evidence and inspiring me to further study.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 08, 2018:

The cited material consists of a series of surmises about what could have happened. No actual evidence is offered that refutes the Norris account or the documentary evidence that backs it up.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 02, 2018:

Thanks, Yves. I still struggle to understand Lee. He was, by his own lights, an honorable man. But he made what I consider to be some morally unacceptable decisions. Grant was simpler, and his actions, both as a general and as president, reveal that his heart was in the right place.

savvydating on May 02, 2018:

Actions speak louder than words. I see Grant as the superior individual. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating article regarding Lee's mixed feelings regarding his obligations to his father-in-law and his beliefs about slavery.

Fergus on April 30, 2018:

Taking on face value the Late Elizabeth Pryors Book is a sad mistake. It is full of half-truths speculation and an abundant animus for Robert e lee I would suggest anyone really interested in the veracity of the claims put forward take the time to read the following /Civil-War-Subjects/General-Lee-Slaves/General-Lee-Slave-Whipper.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 28, 2018:

Thanks, Genna. I think the lives and beliefs of both Lee and Grant offer some important lessons that are very relevant to issues we are still dealing with today.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on April 28, 2018:

This is an excellent article. We know so little of RE Lee, other than the fact that he led the rebellion of the South, and was commander of the Confederate States Army, or of Grant in terms of how he viewed the immoral equivalence of slavery. I think that in their own ways they were both a paradox, yet with varying degrees, monuments to the deeply ingrained culture of the evils of slavery.

Michael Milec on April 27, 2018:

This part of the US history has been unknown to me so far. Thank you Sir for the detailed explanation the way of how the freedom has been born.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 24, 2018:

Thanks, Mike. I'm glad it was an enjoyable read. I hope it illuminated something of the character of both men.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 24, 2018:

Thanks, Dora. Although Grant and Lee came to different conclusions regarding how enslaved people should be treated, both were faithful to what they believed was right.

Readmikenow on April 24, 2018:

What a great and objective bit of writing. Excellent job! Enjoyed reading it! I think the views of Lee and Grant were quite ironic.

CaribTales on April 24, 2018:

Thanks for this moving report of how the two men came through different mental routes to doing the right thing. We really have to try to understand people who do what they do differently than we would.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 24, 2018:

Thanks, Marlene. Soon after the Civil War the legend of Gen. Lee was co-opted by people who wanted to glorify their "heritage" and the real man was overshadowed by all the glorification. I think it's now finally possible to begin to understand real Lee in all his complexity.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on April 24, 2018:

My goodness, that Robert E. Lee was quite a character. Your article has enlightened me. They never teach us about such things in school.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 24, 2018:

Thank you, Doug. I hope to probe deeper into Lee's complexities both as a general and as a man in future articles.

Doug West from Missouri on April 24, 2018:

Good article. Robert E. Lee was a more complex individual than I thought.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 24, 2018:

Thanks, CJ. The irony is that Lee himself would be horrified at his deification by elements of the body politic today. After the war he made it clear he didn't want his name associated with any displays that would engender more divisiveness.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 24, 2018:

Ron, another great piece, and important topic. It's about time we knocked down the myths about Robert E. Lee. Especially timely in these times given the increased "nostalgia" over Confederate monuments.

Sharing everywhere.

Related Articles