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

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.

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.

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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

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 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.

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.

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.”

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).

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.