Research Exercise: Rumor at Arlington

Some blogs like to start things off with a bang, and this just may be the case with a new one, called civilwarhistorian.  For in only the second post on this blog, we find the following except from an 1863 Massachusetts newspaper, publishing the comments of a member of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry about a visit to Arlington, the home of Robert E. Lee:

“At the cook house for the overseer’s family I noticed an octoroon, nearly white, with fine features. She told me that her mother, long since dead was a quadroon and Gen. Lee’s housekeeper at Arlington, and to the question, ‘Was your father a colored man?’ she answered without hesitation ‘No,–master’s my father.” And this father and master now leads an army, the sole purpose of which is to establish a government founded on an institution which enslaves his own children, making his own flesh and blood saleable property!”

Okay, folks … what do you make of this?  How would you go about finding out exactly what’s going on?

UPDATE:  Just in case you were wondering, our intrepid blogger, Colin Woodward, has also posted the answer to that question, an answer which you can encounter in the comments section below.  Tony Gunter and Andy Hall get a gold star.  I would have sent them a t-shirt from The History Channel, but the publicist who promised me some swag does not seem to have come through.

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59 thoughts on “Research Exercise: Rumor at Arlington

  1. Ray O'Hara June 14, 2011 / 6:41 am

    I can find no record of the Courier & Gazette, but there does seem to have been a Gazette & Courier in Greenfield { extreme western Mass}.
    The comment by the slave also seems much too glib.
    I suppose a search of any records of slaves in Va would be in order although the lack of a name or even a hint of age is problematic.
    In the 19th Century newspapers were very loose with the facts and inconvenient stuff like that
    and while it would be fun to flog Lost Causers with it I don’t see what practical historical value it has on the narrative of events.

    • DonM September 9, 2016 / 4:39 am

      Look at the use of the quotes. “Master is my father” is not glib. The following words were those of the paper.

  2. Chuck Brown June 14, 2011 / 7:03 am

    The story would have to be corroborated, if possible. You’d have to examine the newspaper itself as to the veracity of other stories it published, as well as determining it’s political leanings and those of the staff. I believe you would need to search for any hints of miscegenation in Lee’s family.

    Personally, I’m suspicious of the story. Certainly, if true, there would be some rumors to that effect. I would think that if there was that the story was credible, someone would have investigated.

  3. TF Smith June 14, 2011 / 7:22 am

    The 2nd Mass was CR Lowell Jr.’s regiment, as well as being the regiment that included the California 500, so I expect that it’s membership would be pretty well documented; does the article/letter include an author, or even initials?

  4. Tony Gunter June 14, 2011 / 8:07 am

    … “her mother, long since dead” … that would make her Custis’ child, not Lee’s, if the account holds true at all.

    • Ray O'Hara June 14, 2011 / 9:56 am

      Her mother would have been a slave. so how do you deduce it was Custis?

      • Tony Gunter June 14, 2011 / 1:42 pm

        The elder Custis, not Custis-Lee. The age of this housekeeper’s daughter is never stated, but one can surmise that she is neither very young (her mother is “long-since dead”), nor overly old (young enough to attract the attention of a young cavalryman). So she is mid-20’s to mid-30’s possibly?

        So if this was 1863, the woman was born between 1828 and 1838, which would mean she was conceived between 1827 and 1837. Lee and Custis were married in 1831 while Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe. Lee was transferred to Washington in 1834 and lived at Arlington part-time, but then was gone for most of 1835, 1836, and 1837.

        So one would need to correlate the birthdates of the slave census of 1840 with the periods that Lee was living at Arlington and see if any dates match.

        It just seems more likely to me that if “master” was her father, she was referring to the elder Custis … which might explain Custis’ emancipation of the slaves in his will.

      • Andy Hall June 14, 2011 / 5:35 pm

        If true, it would likely have been George W. P. Custis (1781-1857). Rumors of liaisons with slave women had swirled around many of the men of that family, but it seems to have been a sort of open secret when it came to him. Over his lifetime he freed a handful of female slaves and their mulatto children; even the Congressional Record acknowledged this and snickeringly suggested that Custis was showing something like a “paternal instinct” in the process (emphasis original).

        Pryor has noted that in her work, she never encountered any evidence that Robert E. Lee himself was believed to have engaged in this particular sort of activity.

        • DonM October 16, 2016 / 10:10 am

          I think the evidence is in the Lee slave ledger books, which are held and withheld by the Lee family. It was permitted by the family to one historian (now dead) who wrote “Reading the Man” but she was deep in the pocket of the family, and tried to sugar coat what was certainly a very dirty business.

          • Andy Hall October 16, 2016 / 5:51 pm

            I rather doubt that. Someone who “was deep in the pocket of the family” would not have published extensive corroborative evidence of the Wesley Norris story, that Freemen had hand-waived away years before. No sugar coating there.

          • Brooks D. Simpson October 17, 2016 / 2:10 pm

            Do you have any evidence to support this allegation?

  5. Lyle Smith June 14, 2011 / 8:14 am

    Find out if Robert E. Lee was the master of Arlington House when the woman was conceived or if he was there at the time.

  6. Chuck Brown June 14, 2011 / 8:21 am

    I didn’t proofread. “…if there was A HINT that the story was….”

  7. Chuck Brown June 14, 2011 / 9:06 am

    I think the author of the blog would need to be investigated also. That said, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that it’s true. Lee was certainly attracted to women and his flirtatious communications with them are, at the very least, interesting. For all we know, he may have strayed form his marital vows. If Lee was a typical slaveowner, as he seems more and more to have been, sexual liaisons with his female property would not have been unusual. Still, we need a lot more evidence than a newspaper article that a blogger found.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 14, 2011 / 9:50 am

      Oddly enough, the blog author’s identity is not clear from his blog, but it is clear from a post circulated on precisely the same question on H CivWar. However, you can click “About” at the top of the blog to learn more.

      Folks need to recall that Lee was not at Arlington as nearly as much as one might suppose. That said, biographers have made much of him as a man of suppressed passions who was frustrated with a wife who declared herself an invalid. What’s not going to work as an explanation is that Lee wasn’t the type of guy who would do such a thing, because that’s been used as a defense for other folks, and it hasn’t worked out well.

      The unit in question was in the area at the time.

      • Charles Lovejoy June 14, 2011 / 10:24 am

        “Lee wasn’t the type of guy who would do such a thing,” is never a good defense . Lee wouldn’t be the first, last or only “guy ” who would not do such a thing that did do such a thing 🙂 Lets face it these historical figures were all humans, not immortals. They were all subject to the short comings we all face. .

  8. Chuck Brown June 14, 2011 / 9:10 am

    Sorry if I’m monopolizing this space, but wouldn’t Mrs. Lee or her children, perhaps a friend, have said something to someone, thus starting rumors. I mean, if the overseer’s cook was that white it’s not like he could be hidden from the family in a field somewhere. Surely, members of Lee’s family, at least his male children, would have seen the cook and become suspicious.

    • DonM September 9, 2016 / 4:37 am

      Lee’s children were more than suspicious. They complained to him in letters how embarrassing it was to have people who appeared to be close family, as their servants.

  9. Charles Lovejoy June 14, 2011 / 9:23 am

    I think it is realistically possible., I’m just curious why we hadn’t heard more about this before. The main flag I see is the candidness of the comment. In 1863 social etiquette was much different than in 2011, especially in an old south family even among slaves. A lot of issues like this would never be talked about in mixed company or a non-family member. If Robert E Lee got a house keeper pregnant, he wouldn’t be the first and only 🙂 The old south is full of interesting and strange stories of relationships like this. Robert Stafford of Cumberland Island was a planter and slave owner and had a marriage type relationship with a slave . Robert Stafford and Zabette his slave and mistress also had Children. In Anne Rice’s books like the “Mayfair Witches” talks about interracial distinctions of several of the characters. In my opinion it is defiantly worth looking into.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 14, 2011 / 9:52 am

      And yet one could reply that it’s not the mixed race of the woman that’s in question. Someone could argue that often slaves bragged about being the child of the master as a way to gain status.

      • Charles Lovejoy June 14, 2011 / 10:25 am

        I agree

      • Stephen D. Clark August 20, 2017 / 4:55 pm

        Good evening, lo these many years later.

        1) Which dictionary defines “boast” as “lie?”

        2) Does there exist information reliable enough to make a formal assessment about the percentage of slave masters who didn’t have sexual relations with those whom they held in bondage and over whom they had despotic power?

        Given the revelations in “Diary of a Confederate Lady,” if Robert E. Lee didn’t have sexual relations with slave women then it would probably make him an outlier as a propertied southern gentleman.

        Arguments to exculpate Robert E. Lee are less well founded than ones blaming him unless those arguments can present more substantial evidence. Lacking that, then a set of assumptions blaming him is more credible in their historical context than exculpatory ones.

  10. Mike Furlan June 15, 2011 / 3:39 pm

    Years ago I was briefly in contact with someone who believed that she was a decendant of a black child of Robert E. Lee, in this case a boy. She was a member of a sizable group that held family reunions.

    • DonM October 16, 2016 / 10:15 am

      R.E. Lee’s will mentioned one slave, Nancy Ruffin, IIRC, and her 4 male children that were to be freed. One might expect some paternal interest on the part of R.E. Lee.

  11. Mrs. Chesnut June 17, 2011 / 7:03 pm

    The reporter in question doesn’t sound terribly impartial or particularly eager to dig to the bottom of matters. My guess would be that if this item is true in any sense, “master” most likely refers to Lee’s father-in-law.

  12. James Harpe June 20, 2011 / 9:38 am

    Robert E. Lee fathered a black child named Mack Lee born in Texas…Mack lived and died in Eufala, Al. The Rev. Al Sharpton is this family tree.

    • Mike Furlan July 22, 2011 / 8:45 am

      Yes that is the story that I heard. I had forgotten that the relationship occurred in Texas.

    • Stephen Douglass Clark August 4, 2011 / 8:40 pm

      What would make Mack Lee’s birth as the son of Lee more pertinent would have been whether or not he was a slave. It would not “humanize” Lee to use or sell his own son as a slave. It would be monstrous.

      Any links or references to more info?

      • Michael Furlan August 14, 2011 / 10:28 am

        One thing that would humanize Lee is if the SCV would admit his black ancestors to their membership.

        They don’t require DNA tests to confirm ancestry.

        Do they restrict membership only to those decendants born in wedlock?

      • N December 26, 2015 / 11:43 pm

        This is one of my family members. Mack Lee Marshall.

    • N December 26, 2015 / 11:47 pm

      I’ve been looking for information about this story for quite some time, hence, the many years following this post. Mack Lee is one of my descendants. I have a picture of him. Any information you could supply would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  13. James Harpe July 22, 2011 / 6:12 am

    Mack Lee, mother was Nancy Ruffin a concubine of Robert E. Lee. She had four children by him. Nancy and her children are the only slaves Lee owned and freed. I am a decendant of Robert E. Lee and Nancy Ruffin.

    • Stephen Douglass Clark August 5, 2011 / 4:01 am

      Mr. Harpe, did Mack Lee ever spend a day in slavery himself? At what age was he freed?

      • jimharpe August 14, 2015 / 12:30 pm

        Mr. Clark I do not know the age but he was a slave. He and his wife Emma had 17 children and lived in Eufala , Al.

        • N December 27, 2015 / 12:10 am

          Hi, Mr. Harpe. I don’t know if you saw my other inquiry, as I see this is a more current response of yours. From my understanding, Mack Lee lived in TX for his entire life. He gave each of his children the middle name, “Lee,” so they would remember why it was in their name. I am one of his descendants as well. I have a picture of Mack Lee, who looks like his father. Even some of our relatives (imo) have certain distinct and strong features that have been passed down. He, to my understanding, is the only, if not, then most recent white person in my family, of whom, are extremely light. I didn’t know he was a slave, but I don’t know. May have been, like you said, especially given the date and place of MLM’s birth. I have been looking for information on Mack Lee for a couple of years, and this is the only place I’ve found anything other than the genealogy sites. Thank you for putting this up, it’s a breath of fresh air to see these things brought to light.

    • agapeio July 11, 2015 / 7:51 am

      This is very interesting, as my black parents used to say years ago that my mother was a descendant of Robert E Lee. My father was from Amherst VA (Peters) my mother from Wash DC
      (West)

  14. Tony Gunter July 22, 2011 / 4:50 pm

    That’s an interesting claim. Has it ever been confirmed by DNA testing? Why doesn’t Sharpton’s wiki have anything about this?

    • Michael Furlan July 23, 2011 / 5:44 pm

      Confirmed by DNA? That is just the scholarly version of “Where is the Birth Certificate?” It is a standard only required of black folks. And even when answered has yet to convince anyone.

      Most African Americans have the genetic equivalent of one white great grandparent.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genealogical_DNA_test#United_States_-_African_ancestry

      Since Jefferson, Lee and any other named white Southerner could not possibly be involved, is this yet another thing to blame on the Yankees?

      • tonygunter July 24, 2011 / 2:43 pm

        Are you claiming that no evidence is needed to advance an assertion that completely turns an historical perspective on its collective ear? “Where is the birth certificate” is goofy on many levels … “who was the father of Nancy Ruffin’s children” is a valid question.

        The fact that Lee sold all of his slaves *except* for her, and travelled with her to Texas and back certainly lends credence to the claim.

        • Michael Furlan July 24, 2011 / 7:49 pm

          Maybe it would be more accurate to say turns an historical myth on its ear.
          We live in a society that “disappeared” Strom Thurmond’s daughter. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strom_Thurmond
          (While at the same time brutally dealing with any black man who might even look at their own daughters. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till)
          And where black folks are still presumed to be liars. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Wilson_(U.S._politician)
          (Nor worthy of an honorary degrees at ASU )
          Where a Black man born in the US is assumed to be a foreigner and a White man born in Panama is assumed to be a citizen.
          The historical fact is that for most of our history, a white man, particularly a wealthy powerful white man could do what he wanted with a black woman and everybody would cooperate to cover it up.
          As I said before, most African Americans have the genetic equivalent of one white great grandparent.
          Martha Washington owned her half-sister, that half-sister then had a child with Martha’s son. Jefferson had children with his wife’s half-sister. And it we seem to agree Lee married it a family that also owned some of their father’s children too. So if a black family tells me that they are descendants of Robert E. Lee, I’m not surprised. I accept it as willingly as I would if you introduced me to a man that you call your father. The burden of proof should be on those who would doubt it. This really is a “dog bites man” story.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 24, 2011 / 8:22 pm

            Actually, last time I checked John Hope Franklin and Pearl Bailey were African Americans who got honorary degrees at ASU.

            I understood the reasoning given in the Obama case … because other political figures had tried to seek honorary degrees in exchange for favors or as rewards for them, and the present administration thus made a rule about no officeholders getting honorary degrees. I think it was misapplied in the case of the president of the United States. But your claim that Obama didn’t get a degree because he was black is contradicted by the evidence.

            You’re not helping your argument.

          • Michael Furlan July 26, 2011 / 5:24 pm

            Sorry Brooks, the “smiley” got stripped out when I pasted the text into the reply window.
            After honoring Bob Stump with a degree the current administration has not since awarded a degree to a sitting politician. The circus like politics of Arizona, with things like the “if you’re brown, get out of town” immigration law, and then the “Birther Bill” make this seem like a wise decision.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2011 / 7:28 pm

            I won’t defend the political climate in the state. There’s some squabble about whether Stump was selected before Crow took over (because Stump was awarded the degree during Crow’s first year … and Stump was retiring). The university is often at odds with the state.

          • jimharpe August 14, 2015 / 12:34 pm

            Thanks

        • Helga Ross April 16, 2013 / 10:05 am

          Tony, you state: “The fact that Lee…travelled with her to Texas and back certainly lends credence to the claim.”

          Where do you get that from? Please provide you sources for that ‘fact’.
          Thank you!

          Helga

          • Brooks D. Simpson April 22, 2013 / 5:09 pm

            Elsewhere, Ms. Ross, convinced that there are forces circulating to thwart the discovery of truth, claims:

            “I observe Brooks has changed the format somewhat. Used to be, that recent comments showed up in the sidebar, where they’d be noticed by everybody. Now, if an older item is addressed, who knows, except he who moderates the Blog?”

            Wrong again, Ms. Ross. The format hasn’t changed. The last fifteen comments still show up. On this blog, you can expect that from April 16 (when you posted) to April 22 (when you complained) that there would be more than fifteen comments to this blog. Indeed, there have been far more. So there’s been no change … but thanks for showing us once again how your mind works … especially as the person you seek is a member of your own group.

          • Helga Ross April 22, 2013 / 6:51 pm

            How my mind works? Brooks, I never saw my comment come up on the sidebar. It may have and I missed it. I came back to the site quite a few times & considered making another request directly to you and the others, not only Tony, but you’ve made me glad I didn’t.

          • Brooks D. Simpson April 22, 2013 / 7:29 pm

            Hmmm … so now you admit that it might just have been your error and not some change in format made by a blog owner. We’ll never know why you jumped to your initial conclusion, but, as usual, you now argue that quoting you is taking unfair advantage of you.

            And, in a way, it is … but we work with what is provided to us. Thanks for the drive-by post. 🙂

      • James F. Epperson July 24, 2011 / 4:22 pm

        Sorry, but I think it is reasonable to suggest using whatever DNA testing is available to confirm paternity. It is not a racial matter, it is a matter of historical evidence.

        • Michael Furlan July 24, 2011 / 8:07 pm

          Sure, go ahead. In the meantime these folks have just as much “historical evidence” that they of the descendants of Robert E. Lee as you do that you are the son of the man you call your father.
          Don’t doubt them just because they are black.
          It may turn out that they are wrong about Lee, and I judge it about as likely that you are wrong about your father. But in neither case would you be making unreasonable claims.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 24, 2011 / 8:15 pm

            I don’t see where people commenting here are calling into question the oral history of particular people because they are black.

          • James F. Epperson July 25, 2011 / 6:51 am

            I didn’t say I doubt them. I am insufficiently familiar with the story to have a strong opinion of any kind. I don’t think it is the least bit racist, in this kind of “historical paternity case,” to ask about using the scientific tools that are available.

          • Mike Furlan July 27, 2011 / 5:11 pm

            Paternal Discrepancy
            Thousands of White Americans claim to be Mayflower descendants, Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of Confederate Veterans etc. No white hereditary organization that I know of requires DNA testing.
            But consider, a review of the literature * found the median incidence of paternal discrepancy (paternity fraud) to be 3.7%. Accept that as a starting point, and work the math.
            The 19th generation Mayflower descendant would in actuality only have a coin flips chance of being “in the family.” It only takes one break in the chain, and you have rolled the funny dice that have a 3.7% probability of coming up “mailman” 19 times.
            An 8th generation SCV is only about 75% likely to actually have descended from old Beauregard.
            Maybe Robert E. Lee didn’t have sex with that woman. But I think the probability that he did too is comparable to a lot of other things that we consider historical facts.
            * http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1733152/pdf/v059p00749.pdf

          • James F. Epperson July 27, 2011 / 6:05 pm

            The organizations you speak of usually require some kind of documentary proof. That is lacking in this case, which is why some kind of test would be in order. There is also the question of audience. The Mayflower group, the UDC, the SCV, the DAR, all have their own standards that they choose to use. In this case the “audience” is basically everyone in the US history community. There is no standard (that I know of) which is accepted here, which is again why a DNA test is not a bad idea. It has nothing to do with race; it has everything to do with establishing the truth.

          • Bob Huddleston July 27, 2011 / 9:43 pm

            My mother was a DAR. IIRC, she had to provide proof that she was a legitimate descendant of a revolutionary soldier, sailor, etc. It is possible in those days that there was an additional requirement that one be white. My grandfather did the leg work back in the ’30s: our ancestor was a sunshine patriot who served for a couple of months from RI or CT. not much to brag about!

            The real question is: Was their a kink in the genealogy where, a 150 years or more ago, some woman slept away from home or someone was adopted and the family forgot about it? I guess the DAR didn’t care about that!

            Of course, the real reason for the DAR standards was to prevent the descendant of a slave was applying.

            BTW, Grandpa also found the evidence that mother could join the Colonial Dames — no johnny come lately 1770s immigrants *there* — you had to have an ancestor who held a position of “importance,” or some such word, in the Colonies before 1763. and there is also the Society of Mayflower Descendants:Grandpa’s father was a Fuller, descended from the ship’s carpente,. and the further back you go, the more likely there is a gap.

            The relevance of this? It is unimportant that my granddaughter’s highly diluted blood contains much DNA from Carpenter Fuller, even if there was no break. But if RE Lee slept outside the marriage bed, then all the stories of his moral rectitude become merely the all too sadly typical hypocrisy of a slave society.

            Oral history is much of what *any* family relies on. But in this day of inexpensive DNA testing, it would be interesting to see if there is any truth to the oral tradition.

            I remember when the Heming family’s DNA showed a Jefferson fore bearer, how the traditionalists made all sorts of excuses: obviously Tom did not do that sort of thing, so it must have been a relative staying at Monticello, not the President. That tickled me:Jefferson was providing slave wenches for family members who stopped by for a visit!

  15. Ray O'Hara July 23, 2011 / 6:12 pm

    It’s taken close to as century and a half but the old Confed-o-centric story of the ACW is being pushed aside. The myth of the Noble Rebel is crumbling and the Grant the Drunk imagery is being replaced by the Lee the Slaver imagery.

  16. Stephen Douglass Clark August 4, 2011 / 8:06 pm

    Assuming the article in the Currier and Gazette is an honest one, let’s examine the text of the report:

    “At the cook house for the overseer’s family I noticed an octoroon, nearly white, with fine features. She told me that her mother, long since dead was a quadroon and Gen. Lee’s housekeeper at Arlington, and to the question, ‘Was your father a colored man?’ she answered without hesitation ‘No,–master’s my father.” And this father and master now leads an army, the sole purpose of which is to establish a government founded on an institution which enslaves his own children, making his own flesh and blood saleable property!”

    “This father and master now leads an army” certainly proves the author was deliberately referring to Lee.

    “Master’s my father”: Custis was dead when Union troops occupied Arlington. “Master’s” a contraction of “Master is,” not “Master was.” If “Master” was dead, then he wouldn’t be “Master” anymore. Lee was the current master, and so to avoid confusion the slave would’ve had to have said “Master Custis” or “Old Master” or “Old Master Custis.”

    A friend of mine suggested that it was propaganda.

    Greenfield, Massachusetts, is hardly the venue for an effective propaganda story. Publishing the story in metropolises from Boston and farther south (like Hartford, New York, and Baltimore) would make a more convincing basis for dismissal as propaganda. It would also mean that the story would’ve been discovered before now and dismissed, if false. I would suggest that the story’s very obscurity hints at its sincerity if not its accuracy.

  17. Jacqueli Finley November 5, 2017 / 11:43 am

    I am interested in helping ALL Lee cousins in being recognized and know the obstacles that are placed in their way, ie., tampering with DNA facts/results, etc. by Lee family member not allowing the truth to be known, please contact me at info@leesofvirginia.org – thank you, Jacqueli Finley

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