Harmless Old Man or Thoroughgoing Radical?

Published:April 29, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

Richard Cohen penned a provocative piece in the Washington Post this week asking us to get over Robert E. Lee already. He’s “swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism,” Cohen writes; a good general fighting for an evil cause.* The historian Brooks D. Simpson has a typically thoughtful reaction to the essay, tying in much of the week’s Civil War–related Internet chatter, but I just want to call your attention to this, from Cohen:

But in that exotic place called the antebellum South, there were plenty of people who recognized the evil of slavery or, if nothing else, the folly of secession. Lee was not one of them.

No, but Moncure Daniel Conway was. From our entry:

Born into a prominent Virginia slaveholding family, he nevertheless became an outspoken critic of the South’s “peculiar institution,” anguishing over how to reconcile his background with his antislavery convictions in his younger years. He first openly allied himself with abolitionists in July 1854 in the wake of the capture in Boston, Massachusetts, of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whom Conway claimed to have known in Virginia. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Conway accompanied thirty-one of his father’s slaves, all of whom had escaped to Washington, D.C., on a harrowing train ride to freedom in southwestern Ohio. There he established what came to be known as the Conway Colony; many African Americans continue to live in the area and identify their ancestors as Virginia slaves.

He was, the historian John d’Entremont tells us, “the most thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South.” And he is worthy of your attention. His is a remarkable story.

* Our entry on Lee in popular memory is a work-in-progress.

IMAGE: Moncure D. Conway, Eustace Conway, Moncure Daniel Conway: Addresses and Reprints, 1850–1907, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, ii.


2 Comments on “Harmless Old Man or Thoroughgoing Radical?”

  1. Mark

    Of course Lee defended slavery. In fact, other than one ambigous sentence in one letter ( a letter Lee plagarized, by the way) Lee was one of the most extreme defenders of slavery, although he used very slippery language to do so.

    Lee was not an evil man, but a man very much born into, and raised in, a vile system that gave horrific power to certain men. As we know, power corrupts.

    George Mason had predicted the Lee’s and Davis’s of the South, 40 years before Lee was born. I won’t go into what Mason said, you can look that up, but Mason was very clear that the men who would be raised from birth to regard slavery as normal and from God, were, in effect, poisoned mentally. They may look like gentlemen, but there were as brutish as anyone in history. He also predicted these men, if they were the leaders, would cause a violent calamaty for the nation.

    Mason pretty much hit a bullseye.

    Lee not only defended slavery — but the TORTURE of slaves. Lee wrote than pain was “necessary for their instruction” and Lee was apparently happy to supply lessons.

    Lee had 13-14 year old girls tortured — in fact, Lee personally stood by and screamed at one girl, while she was tortured.

    See the amazing book “Reading the Man” about Lee’s own papers, and what they reveal, by Elizabeth Pryor. Although Pryor is a devotee of Lee, she reveals stunning things from his papers, that no one dared mention before.

    For example, Lee was obsessed with his slave girls — the young ones, particularly the mulatto slave girl who had a white looking child. Lee paid six times his normal bounty to capture this girl — he kept his bounty hunters going for months to persue her, and Lee himself kept meticulous notes about when she was last seen, what she was wearing, what street she might be on.

    WHen his bounty hunters eventually caught her, Lee had them bring her to him personally, and taunted her. He then had her tied up and tortured, while he screamed to hit her harder.

    But the most amazing thing is – Lee apparently then sold the infant. We know he sold infants, it’s not clear whether that girl had one of the white looking babies Lee was so focused on.

    Why would Lee obsess over a white looking baby? We know there were white looking slave girls on Lee’s plantation — we have a picture of one. Lee sold that white looking child.

    Pryor tries so hard to smooth over and excuse Lee’s torture of slaves — she claims, idiotically really, that “Lee’s slaves tested him immediately” and that Lee’s torture of slaves was “due to his lack of cross cultural communication skills”.

    Pryor says bluntly that Lee “separated every family unit but one” — which is Orewellian speak for — he sold the babies. We know he sold the babies, because they were listed as being there — and then they were listed as being gone.

    You don’t rent babies out to work — Lee regularly rented his slaves out, in fact, he rented them out through much of the Civil War. SO where did the babies go? The only logical thing that Lee could have done, was to SELL the slave babies.

    Lee was forbidden, of course, from selling the adult slaves, per the will. But that didn’t stop Lee from trying. Pryor shows that Lee went into court, or his lawyers did, three times DURING the civil war, to get permission to sell the slaves alive at the time he inherited them. The VA courts refused him all three times.

    But that didn’t apparently stop him from selling the babies — including the WHITE looking babiess.

    Contrary to any notion that Lee’s slaves loved him, Pryor shows that Lee’s slaves considered him “the meanest man we ever saw” It’s very likely that they hated Lee because he kept selling the infants. Lee’s slaves ran away — despite the torture Lee promised them if they were caught.

    Lee’s letter to his wife does have one sentence which seems to indicate slavery was evil — but the letter goes on. He says it’s evil for WHITES — it’s good for BLACKS. God intends slavery — and only God can end it. It is evil for man to even try to end slavery. God might end slavery — in 2000 years, AFTER God has instructed the slaves. Very literallly, Lee saw himself as God’s tool to punish and correct black slaves, including the girls.

    By the way, Lee’s famous letter is almost verbatum to a letter written by Daniel Webster years before — and Lee had access to that letter. Apparently, Lee was pulling out all stops to convince his wife that slavery was from GOD, and that the pain of slavery was INTENTIONAL — it was GODS plan.

    In another letter to his wife, Lee wrote that abolitionist were trying to “bring down the American CHURCH” Yes — church. Lee very much saw slavery as a religious based enterprise, with whites as Gods chosen people, and blacks chosen to be slaves.

    A man who would torture a 13-14 year old girl, while he screamed to hit her harder — was a coward. Jefferson Davis had it right — he said all cruel men are cowards. Lee, contrary to what you have been told, was an especially cruel man. And he justified his abuse of slave girls as a calling from God.

    When you start to understand the religious balderdash from Lee and others, you will start to understand what kind of men they really were.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. It’s not clear to me who you’re responding to here — is it me, Richard Cohen, Brooks Simpson, or Elizabeth Pryor?

    You’ll note that Pryor wrote our entry on Lee, and I would hesitate before calling her idiotic in any context. That said, I’m not in a position to argue your points, not having read enough on Lee and slavery. I will offer one minor niggle, however, and with apologies. You write:

    “Lee was one of the most extreme defenders of slavery, although he used very slippery language to do so.”

    I’m not sure how you can be an “extreme defender” of something while using “slippery” (I assume you mean euphemistic or vague or, as you point out, plagiarized) language. A more extreme or committed defender of slavery — Alexander Stephens comes to mind — might have cut to the chase, as they say.

    Thanks again for your response.

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