Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Letter to Mrs. Lee

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A significant component of what can be best called the Lee myth is his attitude towards slavery. You hear it all the time at conferences, roundtables, in print, and on the battlefield - Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. Much of this part of the overall myth stems from a letter Lee wrote his wife in December 1856 while serving in the U. S. Cavalry in Texas.

December 27, 1856 - I was much pleased the with President's message. His views of the systematic and progressive efforts of certain people at the North to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South are truthfully and faithfully expressed. The consequences of their plans and purposes are also clearly set forth. These people must be aware that their object is both unlawful and foreign to them and to their duty, and that this institution, for which they are irresponsible and non-accountable, can only be changed by them through the agency of a civil and servile war. There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day. Although the abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right not the power of operating, except by moral means; that to benefit the slave he must not excite angry feelings in the master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the results will be the same; and that the reason he gives for interference in matters he has no concern with, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbor, -still, I fear he will persevere in his evil course. . . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?

Alan Nolan argued in his excellent book, Lee Considered, that Lee's words are too often taken as gospel. They are true because he said them. But when examined in context, one could begin to chip away at the myth that rests on this so-called Lee gospel. In regard to the letter. As an abstraction, it makes sense that Lee would find slavery troubling. He was an educated and enlightened individual - and was not alone among other educated and enlightened individuals when it came to moral questions concerning slavery.

But in reality, Lee was perfectly comfortable with the southern institution and felt that Providence would decide when the time was right for slavery to meet its end. Later, Lee even stated that slavery was "the best [relationship] that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country."

Lee belonged to an aristocratic slave-holding family in a society where slavery had long existed and was taken for granted. When northern agitation threatened his society both before and during the war, including threats to the institution of slavery, Lee let his dissatisfaction be known. Only after the war did he claim he was always in support of emancipation.



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  1. The mythologists like to ignore Lee's 1865 letter to Andrew Hunter in which he said he thought the master-slave relationship was the best that could exist between the white and black races when they were in the same country.

  2. Yes indeed - that was the very letter I was referring to. There is also the question of the ANV and the gathering, enslaving, recapturing - whatever you want to call it - of black people during the invasion of Pennsylvania...and the exchange issue too.

  3. You take Lee's letter as being AGAINST slavery? Think again.

    That letter itself is a tenacious but velvety defense of slavery -- and the torture of slaves. Yes, it does say slavery is evil -- but read it. It's GOOD for slaves, and ordained by God. Pain, he tells his wife, is "necessary for their instruction"

    Lee's letter seems to be an effort to manipulate his wife, and pacify her about the pain he was inflicting on the slaves she grew up around.

    First of all, much of the letter is almost a verbatim copy of an earlier letter by Daniel Webster, which was printed in papers Lee would have seen. So these sentences were NOT Lee's anyway, he copied them.

    Second, Lee was trying to mollify his wife, who grew up with these very slaves. In fact, she owned them, and Lee got control of them only after he married her.

    As we see from Lee's other personal papers, he tortured slave girls, and paid 600% higher bounties for the capture and punishment of certain slave girls, about 13-14 years old. Lee had a whipping pole installed at his plantation, and used it.

    Lee's slaves hated him, according to his own papers, and with reason. Lee was separating nearly every mother from their child, in cruel disregard for social customs, according to Lee biographer Elizabeth Pryor.

    So Lee had to answer to his wife, in some ways. His two or three letters to her are very careful efforts to assure her that he was doing God's will with the slaves, and had their best interest at heart.

    But the slaves didn't think so. Lee had an ongoing and "epidemic" problem with his slaves running away Did the young mothers run away to stop Lee from selling their babies?

    The Custis slaves -- which came down to Lee's wife, had a relatively easy life, for slaves, before Lee got hold of them. No one would think of selling the mother or child to a different plantation, apart from each other.

    But Lee instituted much harsher working conditions, and had that whipping device installed. This had to be terrifying to the slaves.

    Lee's letter essentially boils down to this "Dear Wife, slavery is from God. Pain is necessary for their instruction. Yes, slavery is evil, but God ordained it, we should not question God. God alone can end slavery, perhaps in 2000 years. Meanwhile, we must instruct slaves as God wants. They are much better off here, than in Africa. We are doing God's will, mysterious as that might seem"

    Of course, it was all balderdash. Lee was not a religious person -- he just had that gift of religious gab when trying to get what he wanted. Lee virtually never went to church for example. But he sure spent a lot of time with his slave girls.

    Why was Lee obsessed with his young, light skinned slave girls? Think real hard. Why did he pay 600% higher bounties for his LIGHT skinned slave girls? What did he do with the babies born to these girls? And why was at least one slave baby born so white looking, that even at 2 years old, it was mistaken for white. And what did Lee do with that white baby?

    We know he got rid of the white looking toddler -- a girl. Where did he send her?

    Guess what, your Lee myth is about to be challenged, and ironically, by Lee's own handwritten account books. Books where he kept track of his slave girls -- especially the light skinned oness.

  4. No - I don't...but many other people have - is not my Lee myth. Maybe you should have read the entry a little more closely. Further...I believe you are making several assumptions here, especially concerning Lee's religious nature. Your tirade sounds more polemical than anything else, as do most of your comments. I suggest a level-headed assessment of the man's words and actions with evidence (not your imaginatively interpretive paraphrasing). People will probably take you more seriously. At least I will.

  5. Seeker, I forgot to aerddss one of your major falsehoods, that "the violent spread of slavery was the reason for the Civil War." The statement is so preposterous that you should be embarrassed, but it does prove your extreme bias for the North.The South did not want to "spread slavery by violence," they wanted to secede and be left alone. After secession, they would have no more legal right to the western territories -- so how could secession help them "spread slavery"? Ridiculous.Further, the plantation system did not work well outside the South, where neither the climate nor the soil supported cotton, tobacco or sugar cane, the main crops produced by plantations (sugar was in Cuba and elsewhere, not in the US). Therefore, there was no economic reason to "spread slavery" beyond the South. Some Southerners did want access to the western territories as a place to free slaves so they could support themselves farming; however, the white populace in those areas strongly resented blacks, either free or slave, and wouldn't allow it. So your argument about "the violent spread of slavery" is a transparent lie with no basis in reality.However, with the South gone,the South could now open its ports to free trade, ending the tariffs that funded Northern interests and industries. The result would be a massive transfer of international trade from Northern ports to Southern ones and this would have been financially devastating to Northern ambitions and Northern corporatism. This is also an important reason why Lincoln would not freely give up Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. To do so would end Northern collection of the tariff in that port.

  6. All of you Southern whites who apologize for slavery, think of this: Now you are the enslaved. All of the women you love, mother, sister, wife and daughter, are subject to rape at the master's (in)discretion. If you complain, you're stripped naked and whipped. If you try to steal away -- and that's what it is, you know, theft of your master's property, you by you -- you're whipped and your back salted to increase the pain. If you run too often, a foot is dismembered to keep you from running too fast. The rulers complain that you smell bad even as you are worked from daylight to dusk. The masters laugh at you because clearly you are stupid, but it is they who deny you education exceeding the needs of your plantation. They say you're shiftless, but they have forced you into a society where the winners are those who find a way not to work. In the topsy-turvy world of the slave, he who works least achieves most, particularly in the eyes of his fellow slaves. Now imagine this continuing from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

    Lee should have been tried (and, of course) convicted of treason and executed, but not before spending a few years at hard labor. It would have been a growth opportunity. Maybe he could have prayed on it.

  7. Thomas Forehand, Jr.September 21, 2012 at 2:40 PM

    Mark stated: "Lee had a whipping pole installed at his plantation, and used it."

    I think Mark should document this claim. Please give us the page number, the name of the book it comes from, and the actual quoted statement from that book that Lee had such as device installed. I'd like to read that statement word for word, and I am sure that the bloggers at this site would like to read it, too.

    Also, it seems that the idea that Lee had anyone whipped, comes from anonymous sources and from one, named, disgruntled (former slave at Arlington).

    Could Mark also give us an unbias witness who claims to have seen Lee have anyone whipped? I'd like to read that an unbias testimony, too. If he cannot provide this testimony, he should be more cautious in his accusations against Lee.

    Tom Forehand, Jr.