Facts in Five- Lee and Slavery

Robert E. Lee and slavery edition: misinformation, hyperbole, and unfounded revision are clouding the facts behind Lee’s slave owning

  • There is very little evidence Lee personally owned slaves- his mother, Ann Carter-Lee, may have willed him six slaves upon her death in 1829; the same year he graduated from West Point and entered military service.
  • Lee married into the wealthy Custis family in 1831.  His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, owned as many as 198 slaves by 1856.
  • Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, were both lifetime members of the American Colonization society.  Lee did not speak publicly against slavery, which was typical of US military officers.  Lee’s opinions on slavery were neither progressive nor vehement.
  • George Custis’s will called for the manumission of his slaves within five years of his death in 1857.  Lee was the executor of the estate and kept the people in bondage all five years.  They were not freed until 1863.
  • Lee’s failure to free his father-in-law’s slaves nearly caused a slave revolt at Arlington in 1858.  Lee did oversee the capture and punishment of the Norris family, after a failed escape attempt. The evidence does not support Lee personally whipping the captives.


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