Anonymous Letters Claim Lee Had Escaped Slaves Whipped

In 1859, three of the Arlington slaves—Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and a cousin of theirs—fled for the North, but were captured a few miles from the Pennsylvania border and forced to return to Arlington.

On June 24, 1859, the New York Daily Tribune published two anonymous letters (dated June 19, 1859 and June 21, 1859), each of which claimed to have heard that Lee had the Norrises whipped, and went so far as to claim that Lee himself had whipped the woman when the officer refused to. Lee wrote to his son Custis that "The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather's slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy." Biographers of Lee have differed over the credibility of the Tribune letters. Douglas S. Freeman, in his 1934 biography of Lee, described the letters to the Tribune as "Lee's first experience with the extravagance of irresponsible antislavery agitators" and asserted that "There is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had them or any other Negroes flogged. The usage at Arlington and elsewhere in Virginia among people of Lee's station forbade such a thing." Michael Fellman, in The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), found the claims that Lee had personally whipped Mary Norris "extremely unlikely," but not at all unlikely that Lee had had the slaves whipped: "corporal punishment (for which Lee substituted the euphemism 'firmness') was an intrinsic and necessary part of slave discipline. Although it was supposed to be applied only in a calm and rational manner, overtly physical domination of slaves, unchecked by law, was always brutal and potentially savage."

Part of the Lee Myth is that Lee was personally opposed to slavery, that he joined the Southern secessionists only because he couldn’t bear to take up arms against his beloved Virginia.

Bull. Lee owned slaves and profited from their exploited labor. And when they tried to escape, he was as brutal as any other slave owner of the time.

This is the testimony of one of those enslaved Africans.