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Will the Real Mr. Lee Please Stand Up

Will the Real Mr. Lee Please Stand Up

(Brine in the Wounds De-bunked)

An issue appropriately described as a “point of contention among Lee scholars” has again raised its head, and in an effort to assist in resolving this matter, I feel it necessary to take the keyboard in hand and offer what I believe will be a well thought out and researched conclusion. But before I advance my thoughts any further, I suspect it necessary to provide readers with some background on myself.

For 30+ years I was gainfully employed as a private investigator, aiding some of the largest corporations in the world with matters germane to their particular industries.

Additionally, I assisted no less than 160 attorneys on a daily basis in resolving issues for their clients. Investigating matters of all kinds is far from strange to me!

Over the course of my tenure, it was necessary to attend regular classes on investigative procedures and from the very beginning it was emphasized that when conducting any investigation, it is necessary to “learn and confirm” all facts. That is to say that when interviewing anyone, the information “learned” from that source MUST be “confirmed” by no less than two (2) unimpeachable and able to testify sources in order to be deemed sufficient to advance what was “learned”.

Regarding my knowledge of Robert E. Lee, I submit the following:

I have been a student of the war since early childhood and visited Gettysburg and dozens of other eastern fields of battle on numerous occasions prior to my 15th birthday.

I began my focus on Robert Edward Lee over 25 years ago and since have been designated as a historical scholar by the State of West Virginia and awarded citations and certificates of recognition in this field by numerous other states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Arkansas.

I have served on panels with artists, leading historians, re-enactors and others with special interest in the War Between the States who, in most cases, regard my input as the final word.

In short, I feel my years of learning the man have qualified me to respond with a degree of accuracy to the accusations put forth by Mr. Wesley Norris and a few other disgruntled and obvious biased individuals.

Having established the proper protocol for investigative procedures, and my knowledge of Mr. Lee let us now address the alleged accusations surrounding the man known as Robert Edward Lee.

1. In paragraph 1 of the allegations below, it is said “these slaves were owned by Colonel Robert E. Lee”. I take issue with this statement. Upon the demise of George Washington Parke Custis (Robert E. Lee’s Father-in-Law) in October 1857, Colonel Lee was named Executor of the vast holdings of Mr. Custis, including some 160+ slaves.

He was not their owner; they were entrusted to him by virtue of his serving as Executor of the Custis estate. As Mr. Lee never owned any real property, neither did he ever own the Custis slaves. It might be noted here that Mr. Custis did give two (2) slaves to Lee early on in his military career. Mr. Lee emancipated them immediately, however they (Brian and Meredith), continued on with Mr. Lee for the balance of his life – as freed men.

2. In paragraphs 2 and 3 of the allegations below, mention is made of Mr. Custis’ instructions for all the Custis slaves to be emancipated within five (5) years after his demise. These were in deed his instructions and Colonel Lee set about to carry them out. It should be pointed out here that while educating slaves was against the law at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Custis and their daughter Mary (Lee’s wife) proceeded to teach their slaves to read and write. The philosophy of “happy slaves are contented slaves” prevailed in the Custis family, and being educated made for “happy slaves”. This said, it was the intent of Robert Lee to further the education process by making certain that when emancipated, each slave would have a trade upon which to fall in order to make a living, thus not becoming a burden to society. The five year period of time spoken of by Mr. Custis would provide the time necessary to educate each slave with a trade.

While a vast majority of the Custis slaves were content with Lee’s plan for furthering their education and the teaching of a trade, a small number – reported to be 5 or 6 – refused to accept his plan and tended to disrupt the others: Wesley Norris, his sister and cousin were among this group. In an effort to maintain harmony and camaraderie amongst the majority of slaves, Lee hired the few discomfiting slaves out to area farmers, thus eliminating tensions at Arlington and permitting the continuation of education and training. At the same time those hired out generated income for the cash strapped Custis estate. It is during this period that Mr. Norris and associates asserted their right to immediate freedom by running away, afterwards being captured.

Noteworthy at this point is the fact that the Dred Scott decision of 1857 declared slaves to be property and as Executor of the Custis estate, Lee was duty bound to gather, preserve and protect the assets of that estate, no small part of which were slaves. Had he not sought the return of the slaves, he would have been guilty of failing in his duties and subject to sanctions by the Probate Court. Lee, like other government employees, then and now, had taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. He had no part in making the laws but had an obligation to abide by them, whether he liked them or not!

3. Concerning the accusation of Mr. Norris that “Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams [the constable] 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.”

Norris’ testimony was corroborated by two anonymous letters in the New York Tribune. The first, signed “A Citizen” and dated June 19, 1859 but published on June 24, alleged that not only had the slaves been brutally flogged, but that Lee himself had administered lashings to Mary Norris. The second, also published on June 24, included remarks on the general decline of living conditions among Custis’ slaves following his death. The authorship of these letters is unknown..

At this point, I would refer the reader of this piece to recall the proper investigative protocol for any investigation: that is to “learn and confirm”. Mr. Norris, a man who was obviously at odds with Mr. Lee regarding the issue of his emancipation, made an accusation. And this accusation was “corroborated by two anonymous letters”, certainly individuals who could not be categorized as “unimpeachable sources”; nor even be made available to be called upon as witnesses of any type! And as for the comment “washing our backs with brine”; as is the case now-a-days, the same was true in the 1860’s. IF the lashing did take place, salt would have been used as a cleansing and healing agent - any accuser would have knowledge of this. While pain would have been experienced, healing would have been accelerated.

4. Mr. Lee is said to have “refused to respond to them publicly. Privately, however, he denied them.” A thorough study of Mr. Lee would bring anyone to the conclusion that he was not one to speak publicly about any matters of grave concern. For example, after accepting the position of a Brigadier in the Virginia Militia he offered only a brief 2-3 minute acceptance speech to the Virginia assembly on April 23, 1861. Also, he confined his post war comments about the contest to only a few of his closest aids, and refused most interviews with any editors. Following obvious breeches of military duty such as with General Jackson during the Peninsula campaign, Generals Longstreet and Stuart at Gettysburg, General A. P. Hill at Bristow Station and General Ewell during the Overland campaign, he showed great restraint. Robert E. Lee was not a man to act irrationally as Mr. Norris might have one to believe.

5. As a testament to Mr. Lee’s love, concern and relationship for all people, I beg to recall an incident during the Gettysburg campaign that focuses on a side trip made by him to a home in Chambersburg, PA. Local residents were extremely curious why he had stopped, dismounted and approached the home of Ms. Berry, a black lady of many years. Ms. Berry later told the locals of how she had been a slave to the Mother of Robert E. Lee, how the Lee’s had provided her with an education and treated her with the greatest kindnesses. Mrs. Berry married around 1812 and gained her freedom, after which she located to Chambersburg, this at a time when Robert was still in his youth. She and Robert’s mother corresponded regularly and in her last letter dated 1827, spoke lovingly of her time with the Lees, comparing her early years as a slave to her present status of being a slave to 12 children. On June 28, 1863, while passing through Chambersburg on his way to Gettysburg, Lee recalled that she lived in Chambersburg and made it a point to stop for a visit. Unfortunately she was not home at the time. (This story – in total - is recorded in the local library and official records of Chambersburg PA.)

Another incident indicative of his concern for his fellow man (black or white) involves a Sunday service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. The time was early June 1865 and at the end of the service, a recently freed black man approached the alter for communion; shortly after his kneeling, the white bearded Robert E. Lee knelt beside him to the astonishment of all others in attendance.

And lastly, I call upon the words of General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower who, in responding to an inquiry as to why he had an image of Robert E. Lee hanging on the wall in the Oval Office, said:

“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages or our history.

“From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that any present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained”.

In summary: I submit that the accusations of Mr. Wesley Norris and unidentified (therefore uncorroborated) witnesses are those of individuals who harbored a dislike for another and unless or until these accusations can be substantiated should not be taken into consideration for any cause.

Respectfully submitted,

Al Stone Zephyrhills, Florida



On June 2, 1859, the Carroll County Democrat reported that four fugitive slaves had been arrested in Westminster, Maryland. There was little to distinguish this report from the many others published in the Carroll County Democrat except for one small detail: these slaves were owned by Colonel Robert E. Lee, of Arlington, Virginia. This part of the story is not in dispute. The events that followed the slaves’ return to Arlington, however, remain a point of contention among Lee scholars, and provide an interesting prelude to the Civil War.

On April 14, 1866, one of the captured slaves, Wesley Norris, offered a personal testimony to the National Anti-Slavery Standard that chronicled the events of June 1859. Norris had fallen under Lee’s ownership following the death of Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. According to Norris, Custis had given his slaves the impression that upon his death they would be free, and they now considered themselves free men. The actual contents of the will, however, stipulated that Custis’ slaves would remain as such until the estate’s debts, of which there were many, were paid off, but that emancipation would be granted before five years had elapsed.

As executor of the will, Lee carried out its contents to the letter, much to the resentment of Custis’ slaves. Norris, his sister Mary, and a cousin resolved to assert what they believed was their rightful free status by running away, and almost made it to the Pennsylvania line before they were apprehended in Westminster, as reported in the Carroll County Democrat. Upon their return to Arlington, Norris alleged that Lee ordered the overseer to administer fifty lashes each to himself and to his cousin, and twenty to his sister Mary. When the overseer refused, the county constable was called in to execute the order. The portrait that Norris paints of his master is very different from the image of the benevolent slave owner often invoked by Lee admirers. Norris writes:

“Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams [the constable] 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.”

Norris’ testimony was corroborated by two anonymous letters in the New York Tribune. The first, signed “A Citizen” and dated June 19, 1859 but published on June 24, alleged that not only had slaves been brutally flogged, but that Lee himself had administered lashings to Mary Norris. The second, also published on June 24, included remarks on the general decline of living conditions among Custis’ slaves following his death. The authorship of these letters is unknown, and Lee refused to respond to them publicly.

Privately, however, he denied them. Following Norris’ testimony in June 1866, Lee seemed to be personally aggrieved at the accusations, writing to E.S. Quirk that “There is not a word of truth in it…No servant, soldier, or citizen, that was ever employed by me can with truth charge me with bad treatment. ”Lee’s supporters dismissed the Norris story as “exaggerated” and a “libel,” the “extravagance of irresponsible anti-slavery agitators.” Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, however, argues that “the facts are verifiable.” She relies on the consistency of the five extant descriptions of the episode (the only element that is not repeatedly corroborated is the allegation that Lee gave the beatings himself), as well as the existence of an account book that indicates the constable received compensation from Lee on the date that this event occurred.Robert E. Lee would eventually free the Custis’ slaves. On January 2, 1863, one day after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, General Lee declared the Custis’ slaves “forever set free from slavery.” Among the names in this deed of manumission: Wesley and Mary Norris.


Webmasters note: The accusations leading Mr. Stone to write this article surfaced recently in Hollywood, Florida, as NY transplant Ben Israel called for Lee Street in that city to be renamed. In a public meeting on February 22, 2017, Mr. Israel called Robert E. Lee a "subhuman" " animal'" dredging up these century and a half year old charges, which only those who have an agenda, like Mr. Norris, believes. Thank you Mr. Stone for proffering your expertise in finally debunking these allegations. We can only hope that Mr. Israel decides to go on back to New York, or that he cracks a book and learns about the Robert E. Lee whom tens of thousands of American babies, of all races and creeds, have been named for. You can see Mr. Israel's ignorant rant here.

In our opinion, Mr. Stone is humble about his credentials. You can see more about him here.

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