A Student of History

November 30, 2010

R E Lee on PBS

Filed under: The strange place called the South,Uncategorized,Wars — John Maass @ 9:38 am

Robert E. Lee is celebrated by handsome equestrian statues in countless cities and towns across the American South, and by no less than five postage stamps issued by the government he fought against during the four bloodiest years in American history. Nearly a century and a half after his death, Robert E. Lee, the leading Confederate general of the American Civil War, remains a source of fascination and, for some, veneration. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “Robert E. Lee” examines the life and reputation of the general whose military successes made him the scourge of the Union and the hero of the Confederacy, and who was elevated to almost god-like status by admirers after his death.

This film will be premiering on PBS at 9:00 p.m. on Monday, January 3, 2011


  1. Let’s see if PBS dares to uncover the real Lee.

    We all have heard how wonderful Robert E. Lee was — a man of God, a man against slavery, a man whose own slaves stayed with voluntarily because they loved him so much.

    A man who fought on the side of the slave owners because he “could not lift a sword” against his home of Virginia. A man who fought against impossible odds, and almost won. A man adored by his soldiers, and respected even by his enemies.

    A perfect man. Brave. Spiritual. Kind.

    That is the man that virtually everyone learned about from 1890 on.

    Well—– not so fast kimosabe. We might accept that view forever, except that, ironically, Lee kept meticulous papers.

    Could there be anything in his personal papers, especially his account books, that show Lee as something fundamentally different?

    You would think Lee’s life has already been gone over with a fine tooth comb, and that all but the smallest details were already out about “Masser Robert”.

    You would be wrong.

    What if Lee’s account books, in his own handwriting, show he tortured slaves, and sold infants?
    What if some of those infants were white?

    What if the Norris statements, which hit the newspapers in 1866, were true, and validated by Lee’s own comments?

    What if Lee kept obsessive details about escaped slave girls, 13-14 years old, and even more details about their infants?

    What if Lee paid six times the normal bounty for the capture and return of one young girl, who had a child that Lee wrote, “could pass for white”?

    Well, read the book “Reading the Man” by Lee scholar, and devotee, Elizabeth Pryor.Pryor had unprecedented access to Lee’s own account books.

    This former park ranger, who used to take dime admission fees while giving tours, had to be stunned to read Lee, in his own handwriting, keep obsessive detail about young girls who had escaped his plantation, and keep even more details about their infants and the shade of darkness — or whiteness – of the infant.

    She grew up to revere Lee. So when she read Lee’s own papers showing that most of Lee’s slaves hated him, and said he “was the meanest man I ever saw,” she had to wonder who to believe. Lee’s own papers, or the “historians” who proceeded her

    Pryor was up to the job. Pryor writes that Lee had “an epidemic” of run aways, and that his slaves not only ran away, but far more seriously, rebelled, several years before the Civil War. She also shows Lee was renting out slaves during the Civil War, still trying to sell them.
    What? Lee mean? Lee torturing slave GIRLS? Lee selling white looking children? Lee’s slaves running away?

    She reports that Lee went to court repeatedly to get permission to sell the slaves, despite clear instructions in the will that he could not. The Virginia Courts again and again refused Lee’s petitions to sell the slaves. The only reason Lee ever freed the slaves he did — he could not sell them.

    But apparently, though Pryor does not say so, or even imply it, Lee very likely sold the infants born to the slaves he could not sell.

    Pryor dances around things like WHY they all ran away, WHY did they say Lee was the meanest man they ever saw?

    Could it be that the slaves were running away – especially the young mothers — because Lee sold their babies? Would that not cause the young girls with infants to flee?

    These slaves had never run away before. Why did they start to run away under Lee? They risked life and limb and torture to run away– so why did they run? Those who were caught, were tortured, then disposed of to other plantations, some of which, Pryor notes, were known for treat slaves worse than Lee did.

    No doubt Mrs. Pryor knows she has raised far more questions than she answered.

    Still, Pryor does show “the warts” though she spreads them out over time and space, so they don’t hit the reader all at once.

    She shows dozens of things — from Lee’s own papers — that no one would have imagined before. For that she deserves credit as a scholar. She could have swept all that under the rug, and no one would have known, exactly as others have, so many times before.

    Yet Pryor is so flattering of Lee, in almost every sentence, that it’s possible to read her book and hardly notice the amazing revelations of torture, and the possibility Lee sold many infants born to his slaves.

    She claims that the torture of slaves came from Lee’s “poor cross cultural communication.” As if, had Lee just been able to communicate better to the slaves, there would have been no need for torture.

    Reminds me of the movie Cool Hand Luke, where the prison warden whips Paul Newman, after framing the problem this way “What we have here, is a failure to communicate.”

    She also claims — idiotically — that Lee “failed to appreciate” the slaves desire to be free. How could he NOT appreciate it? He was whipping them for trying to run away. He employed numerous bounty hunters to get them back. He appreciated it just fine — and used torture and terror to stamp it out. That’s like saying a serial killer “failed to appreciate” his victim’s need for a pulse.

    Pryor shows that the Norris letter is “unquestionably accurate” as to the dates times and places mentioned by Norris, the slave. Lee fans have long dismissed Norris as a disgruntled slave, or his statements as the outright lies of New York papers.

    Strange that Lee never claimed they were false, though the Norris statement disturbed him so much, he wrote to his son about it. Lee told his son that some were trying “to destroy my legacy.”

    Pryor validation of the Norris statement is a tour de force of scholarship, and made credible by the fact, she adores Lee. She is not out to rip the halo off Lee’s head, but to level it. She has written such a flattering biography of Lee, that the Journal of Southern History has called “an important work.”

    If Pryor had but written two pages, and only validated the Norris statements of 1866, that is crossing the Rubicon. It’s now a different world for Lee devotees, they just don’t know it yet.

    The only question is, what else did Lee do, besides torture young women?

    Well, Pryor shows that Lee put sharpshooters behind his own troops, to kill rebel soldiers who ran during battle (Page 410). She also shows Lee’s army had masssive desertions, far more than any fan of the “Lost Cause” would care to admit.

    (Although not in Pryors book, surely she knows about Jefferson Davis speech in Macon Georgia, in September of 1864, where he claims 2/3 of his own soldiers had deserted — and that if just half returned, the South could not possibly lose.)

    Pryor wrote that Lee had every right to “discipline” his slaves. Oh really? Well, that’s like saying Hitler had every right to kill inferior races. It’s true that Virginia law required slaves to be whipped if they ran away. But did the infant childrem deserve to be sold away from their mothers?

    Did a young girl deserve to be screamed at while she was tortured? Let’s all pretend Lee only had her tortured because he had to. Okay. What about Lee screaming the whole time, “Hit her harder!”?

    Lee may have been required by law to whip run away slaves — but

    1) He seemed to enjoy it, and certainly “got into it.”

    2) No law required him to sell the babies.

    In fact, selling the infant child away from it’s mother was barbaric in Lee’s social circle.

    If Norris statement is true, and it is, then Lee was a man who took delight in causing pain, and screamed at young women as he had them tortured. And that was just one case we knew of. What did Lee do in his barn to naked girls other times?

    There is no way to honor Lee as anti -slavery, as a kind man, as a man loved by his slaves, if the Norris statement is true. You can not square that circle.

    No wonder Lee would write to his wife that “Merciful Providence” (God) intended slaves feel pain, because it is “necessary for their instruction as a race.” When you know what Lee was actually doing, then his words take on a far more sinister luster.

    Furthermore, it’s irrefutable that some of the girls who ran away had light skinned babies — so light, they passed for white. It’s irrefutable because Lee wrote it.

    Did Lee just like to write unimportant details in his account books? Why was Lee so keenly interested in the infant’s skin tone. There had to be a reason he pegged the value of run away slaves, to the shade of their infant’s skin.

    Did he want them back more, because light skinned females sold for high prices, often to whore houses? Was it possible Lee himself had fathered those babies?

    There had to be some reason, some FINANCIAL reason. Regardless — what did he do with those girls?

    Whatever the reason, Lee was taking his time and focusing his mind on getting these babies back. Fine. But — what did he do with them, once he got them back?

    We don’t know. Yet Pryor had his account books, which show amazing details. Did they show the disposition of these infants, and the prices Lee got for them? She does not say.

    Why not fill us in on the really obvious question — what did Lee do with those light skinned children? Surely Lee was not just “doodling” in his account books — he was keeping track of MONEY, meaning the value of slaves.

    Who on earth, in their wildest dreams, would imagine Robert E Lee keeping a Hunting List of slaves, mostly girls, and fixating on the shade of color of the babies?

    As to the Norris charge — some will still insist Norris statement was fiction. Strange fiction indeed.

    For this uneducated, illiterate man, Norris, to say things that Lee himself validated in his account books, Norris would have had to sneak across enemy lines during the Civil War, get into Lee’s tent, read the pages, remember the details, sneak back across enemy lines, then plant those details in his elaborate lie after the war.

    Norris would have had to do all that sneaking –in the HOPE of 150 years later, someone would find Lee’s papers, and notice that Lee confirmed his statements.

    That would be one smart slave.

    But why is Pryor so vague about the children of these slave girls? Was the Norris girl the only one caught? Did she have a light skinned child?
    Maybe she is hiding nothing — but maybe she found things she just can’t reveal.

    If she candidly revealed Lee sold infants — and white infants at that — her book would be an affront to not just Lee himself, but to the entire Confederacy, and the entire notion of Southern Honor. Lee might get away with selling the black infants. We are used to that idea now.

    But if Lee sold the female child he said could pass for WHITE –no amount of double talk can save the Lee Myth. If Lee sold that white looking infant (and there is no proof he even found her) then at one fell swoop, Lee has damned himself, and the Lost Cause, forever.

    Selling black babies — well the South can pretend “that was a different time.” But selling white babies? Selling white FEMALE infants, knowing they would be used in whore houses?

    Why would Lee NOT sell a white child? It was legal to do so, if the mother was mixed. We know Lee likely sold other infants — because they vanished from his plantation. Where did they go?

    We know Lee tortured young women. So a man who would torture young women, and sell dark skinned babies, would have some qualm about selling LIGHT skinned babies, if it was legal?

    Okay, let’s say Lee did not sell the light skinned babies. What did he do with them? In a list of slaves, Lee did not apparently list these light skinned babies.

    No nation, no historical period, has ever depended on the status of one man, as much as the Confederacy has depended on Lee, for it’s glory. Lee is the face, the heart, and the soul of the Confederacy.

    If Lee was a brute, if he tortured slave girls, if he sold white or black infants for profit, then the whole Southern Myth crumbles into dust.

    Pryor mentions the Hunting List, but notice, it’s not in her index, they are only briefly mentioned at all. And they are mentioned “in passing”.

    If Lincoln kept a Hunting List of slave girls, and kept meticulous details of the infant’s color, and if Lincoln paid six times the normal bounty to get a certain slave girl back — who he then tortured — do you think Southern biographers were just briefly mention it?

    Do you think it’s an accident that Pryor herself just touches on this astonishing fact? She gives us just a peek. Why dance around that?

    Does anyone doubt that if Lincoln had a hunting list of slave girls, and paid six times the normal bounty to get one girl back, the title of their book would be “Lincoln’s Hunting List”?

    Pryor could have given us the Hunting Lists verbatim. Why did she not? Why not list them in her index? Why mention them as little as possible?

    Pryor’s hat dance around the truth was systemic –she writes that Lee “separated every [slave] family unit, but one.” What does “separating the family unit” really mean?

    Separating a brother from a sister could be “separating the family unit,” but selling the infants could be the same thing. Selling the white children to whore houses, could be the same thing.

    Was Pryor deliberately using Orwellian “double speak” to cover up things she knew, but did not have the heart to reveal?

    Pryor certainly saw far more information than she is sharing with her reader. She gives the conclusions – -such as “Lee separated every family unit but one.” Fine. But why does she say that?

    Did Lee write “I separated every family unit, but one”? No of course not.

    Lee wrote lists of his slaves, and very likely, a list of prices and where they were sold or rented. Why not show us those lists?

    She is like a defense lawyer, who reads her client’s diary, sees that he dissected his victims and scattered the parts in the woods, and reports to the court: “Well he did some bad things, let’s leave it at that, no need to see the details, let’s move on.”

    Lee’s papers should be examined again. Pryor did a great first step, but there is more there.

    It’s been 150 years. It’s time. We can handle the truth now. And the truth matters. Not to trash Lee’s reputation — but to see what the South was really like, and even more importantly, to expose the under belly of historical nonsense that has grown up around the Confederacy, the Civil War, and the Lost Cause.

    Comment by Mark Douglas — November 30, 2010 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

    • Mark,

      I would greatly appreciate it if you would post your sources including titles and page numbers.


      George Purvis

      Comment by George Purvis — December 26, 2010 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

    • Mr. Douglas,

      Could you please give us any evidence (or testimony) which comes from any source othere than the Arlington slaves that Lee ever had anyone whipped?
      Tom Forehand, jr.

      Comment by Tom Forehand, jr. — June 23, 2012 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  2. Mr. Douglas, I that see it has been about four years since I asked you (or other possible bloggers) to give us any evidence that Lee ever had anyone whipped. I now write this for those who may stubble onto this long statement of yours. I suppose you have found no such evidence in Mrs. Pryor book, unless you put stock in Wesley Norris’ testimony. Mrs. Pryor proves that there was an escape by Norris and others; they were captured; they were returned to Lee; and, apparently she proves that they were taken to jail by an official; and afterwards, that Lee shipped them “South.” However, she gives not evidence of a “whipping” at the behest of Lee. That is why I originally asked you to find this evidence in her book. It seems to me now, even Mr. Norris’ claim should be called into question since it is known that his family, at the very time Norris’ story was published, was trying to “get gain” IMO this libeling of Lee was done, at that time, to arouse public sentiment so that the Norris family could get the financial gain they wanted. Thanks, Tom Forehand, Jr.

    Comment by Tom Forehand, Jr. — February 28, 2015 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  3. 2015 Update Concerning Wesley Norris:

    As far as I know the only non-anonymous claim that Lee ever had anyone whipped was by Wesley Norris (after the war). Did he have a motive to exaggerate the story of his alleged whipping at the behest of Lee?

    It is now known that at the very time Mr. Norris made this claim, his father (and other ex-Arlington slaves) were priming Congress to give each of these families 10 acres of land.

    Could the timing of the Norris allegation against Lee and Norris’ father’s attempt to get this land from the Lee family home, have been a coincidence?

    With this new information, it seems now there is a motive for the Norris family to have had Wesley exaggerated his story to libel of Lee. .

    Tom Forehand, Jr.

    Comment by Tom Forehand, Jr. — March 14, 2015 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

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