LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Some facts about Robert E. Lee


Re.: “Where is Calhoun County’s celebration of MLK Day?”

In her letter, Ms. Johnson suggests that celebrating Robert E. Lee’s birthday is inherently divisive and somehow diminishes the legacy of Martin Luther King. If Ms. Johnson is truly interested in “bringing us together and not bringing us further apart — based on the past,” how is slandering Robert E. Lee, a man respected by many Americans, contributing to that goal? 

Robert E. Lee did not own “hundreds of slaves.” The only slaves Lee owned, according to legal documents, were a woman named Nancy and her three children whom he inherited from his mother in 1829. The slaves at Arlington were owned by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s stepgrandson and Lee’s father-in-law. Lee’s wife, Mary, inherited those slaves in 1857. As an executor of his father-in-law’s estate, Lee managed his wife’s properties from 1857 to 1859 and then returned to his post in Texas. The Custis will stipulated that all slaves be manumitted  no later than five years after his death, and Lee fulfilled those terms in 1862. No “slave revolts” resulted from anything Lee did.

The charge that Lee “mistreated” slaves at Arlington in 1859 stems from a newspaper article in the anti-slavery New Yotk Tribune and two anonymous letters. No corroborating evidence exists. Anyone who has studied the life of Robert E. Lee knows such behavior to be totally out of character. The attack on Lee has as much merit as J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that Martin Luther King was a communist.

The article cited by Ms. Johnson at History.com contains several factual errors and is grossly oversimplified. I suggest that Ms. Johnson organize a joint event next year celebrating the birthdays of two great Americans who courageously fought for what they believed in and unselfishly set aside personal comfort for a greater cause. Rather than slandering one in defense of the other, “send a message” that toleration in pursuit of human understanding is more important than race. Reading something in a newspaper or on a website or believing something to be true doesn’t make it true.

Dan Hayes