In this letter, Robert E. Lee discusses a central dilemma of his own life, and of American history, slavery. Lee was a gradual emancipationist who criticized slavery as an evil system, but had only vague hopes that it would eventually end. He owned few slaves in his own right, but in 1857, as executor of his father-in-law's large estate, he became responsible for almost 200 slaves who lived and worked on three large Virginia plantations that George W. P. Custis had willed to his Lee grandsons. Lee's emancipation of slaves during the Civil War has been described as a personal rejection of slavery, but he was merely fulfilling his father-in-law's wishes, rather than acting in his own right. Lee had similarly provided for the liberation of the family of slaves that he owned after his death in a will written at the time of the Mexican War.
George Washington Parke Custis died in debt, leaving it to his son-in-law to sort out the financial obligations of his estate, including bequests to his grand-daughters (Lee's four daughters) and, at the same time, stipulating that all the Custis slaves be freed within five years. Before the Civil War, then Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee took an extended leave from the U. S. Army to attempt to settle the Custis estate, but without any great success. Lee saw his duty to emancipate the Custis slaves as a matter of honor-he had addressed it as the most important reason for requesting a leave of absence from the army-but he kept the slaves in bondage for the full period (five years) provided for in the Custis will in order to provide a source of income for the estate.
It was not until the end of December 1862, in the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg, that Lee finally signed deeds of manumission for the slaves that remained on the Custis (now Lee) properties. By then, however, events largely had moved beyond his control; the federal government had seized "Arlington" in Alexandria, Virginia (the property of his son, George Washington Lee, to whom this letter is addressed), and Union forces had raided "the White House" and "Romancoke (the Custis properties of Lee's other sons, Fitzhugh and Robert E. Lee, Jr.). Many of the slaves in Lee's charge had used opportunities created by the war to escape to freedom. As he noted in this letter, "those who have left with the enemy, may not require their manumission."
Robert E. Lee's liberation of the Custis slaves took place only a few days before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, simultaneously freeing-at least within the reach of Union forces-all the slaves that Lee set free. In no small part thanks to Lee's great skill as a soldier, it would take more than two additional years of bloody combat to put a final end to slavery in the United States. Paradoxically, in the last months of the Civil War, Lee would support an abortive attempt to enlist slaves into the Confederate army in exchange for their freedom.
Much of this letter concerns Lee family matters. It was written to George Washington Custis Lee, a colonel in the Confederate army who served as aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis. In the letter, Lee discusses the activities of three of his five other surviving children: William Henry Fitzhugh ("Fitzhugh" here, but often referred to as "Rooney") Lee-not to be confused with Lee's nephew, Fitzhugh ("Fitz") Lee who also is mentioned in the letter-and teenage Robert E. Lee, Jr. ("Rob"). The Lee sons and nephew all served with distinction in the Confederate army. Daughter Mary Lee was living behind federal lines, and, while Lee notes that his scouts brought news to and from her, he refused to exchange letters with her that might endanger the messengers. Not mentioned here are daughters Agnes and Mildred; the letter was written only a few months after another Lee daughter, Anne, had died from typhoid fever.
This letter was the 1913 gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society from the president of the Society, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents of the United States, had fought in the Civil War as a Union cavalry officer. He rose to the brevet rank of brigadier general and commanded an African-American regiment, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Although he led forces in the field against the Army of Northern Virginia (or perhaps because he had), Adams became a great admirer of Robert E. Lee and gave a series of addresses in the first years of the twentieth century that fostered national reconciliation by celebrating Lee not simply as a great soldier, but as a great American. Adams's 1901 address at the American Antiquarian Society, "Lee at Appomattox," called attention to the extraordinarily important role Lee played in ending the Civil War without a descent into guerilla warfare. The Boer War then raging in South Africa presented a stark example of what could have happened in the United States. The second lecture, Adams's Phi Beta Kappa address in 1902 entitled "Shall there be a Monument to Oliver Cromwell?" called for a reassessment of Lee's "treason." Adams delivered a third address, "Lee's Centennial," equally remarkable for its time, at Washington College, (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, on 19 January 1907, to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Lee's birth.