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

Updated on June 11, 2018
RonElFran profile image

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.

General Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee | Source

The year 1856 was significant for both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant with 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 insure 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

General Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee | Source

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.

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 to not upset 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.

A Dispassionate Reading of Lee's Letter on Slavery

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 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 Cound

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 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 | Source

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. | Source

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.

A slave being whipped
A slave being whipped | Source

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."

Does Lee having escaped slaves whipped make him a villain?

See results

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 insure 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.

Robert E. Lee Was 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 to 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Ronald E Franklin

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      • profile image

        Joel M Bridge 

        2 weeks ago

        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 profile image

        Leland Johnson 

        5 weeks ago from Midland MI

        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.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        5 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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'." [ https://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/med... ]

      • Leland Johnson profile image

        Leland Johnson 

        5 weeks ago from Midland MI

        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.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        6 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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 profile image

        Yves 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Fergus 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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 profile image

        Genna East 

        2 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

        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.

      • profile image

        Michael Milec 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

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

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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 profile image

        Readmikenow 

        2 months ago

        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 profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        2 months ago from The Caribbean

        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.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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.

      • MarleneB profile image

        Marlene Bertrand 

        2 months ago from USA

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

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

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

      • dougwest1 profile image

        Doug West 

        2 months ago from Raymore, MO

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

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        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.

      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 

        2 months ago from Auburn, WA

        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.

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