Robert E. Lee and Union Black POWs

Several weeks ago Kevin Levin posted some comments about a book by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen on the battle of the Crater.  One of those posts caught my interest, and not just because of the colorful title.  In the post in question Kevin quoted a passage from pages 281-82; I’ve focused on the issue at hand:

[Lee talking to William Mahone]

“And General…”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
“Yes, sir.”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his soldier. “I want the full honor of war observed.  Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight.  We are Christian soldiers, sir.  Do you understand me?  Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle.  If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir?”
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.”

Fiction.  Absolute fiction.  We know exactly how Robert E. Lee felt about the status of black U.S. POWs.  Why?  Well, because several months later Lee and Ulysses S. Grant exchanged letters on the treatment of captured United States soldiers of African-American descent.

USCT regiments participated in an attack on Forts Gilmer and Harrison southeast of Richmond in late September 1864.  One black brigade attacked Fort Gregg, near Fort Gilmer.   Several soldiers were captured by Confederates.  Soon after the battle, at the beginning of October, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners to Grant.  The Union commander agreed to the exchange, provided it be limited to soldiers captured during the battles in late September.  He was very specific as to why: noting that some of the Union POWs in Confederate hands were black, he said: “I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as White soldiers.”

Lee tried to finesse the issue.  Although he was willing “to include all captured soldiers of the U. S. of whatever nation [or] Colour” under my control,” he added that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not Considered Subjects of exchange & were not included in my proposition.”  That was enough for Grant: as his government was “bound to secure to all persons received into her Armies the rights due to soldiers,” he declined any exchange that would not include all Union soldiers.

Several weeks later, Grant learned that Confederate forces were employing black U.S. POWs to build fortifications in areas that were within range of Union fire … in short, using those men as human shields.  Grant immediately approved Benjamin F. Butler’s proposal to employ Confederate POWs in the same fashion, then confronted Lee with that information.

Lee backed down.  He removed the black U.S. POWs from front line labor.  He claimed that their use was simply a result of an administrative snafu; however, he added that Confederate law provided for the reenslavement of former slaves now in U.S. military service.  They should be returned to their masters “like other recaptured private property.”  Meanwhile, he planned to put more U.S. POWs in harm’s way by placing them in a pen at Dutch Gap, which was under Union artillery fire, should Grant not relent with his plans for retaliation.

Grant would have none of this.  To him, it was the color of the uniform, not the color of the person in it, that was important.  It was, he told Lee, “my duty to protect all persons received into the Army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality.”   As Lee had removed the black U.S. POWs from harm’s way, he would do the same with the Confederate POWs under Butler’s control.  However, should Lee or his subordinates misuse black U.S. POWs again, Grant promised to retaliate.

Perhaps Gingrich and Forstchen should have done their homework.

That said, we see here Lee defending Confederate policy, where status and race were of critical importance in the treatment of U.S. POWs; here’s a clear case where Confederates were not above using POWs as human shields, something worth remembering.  It was Ulysses S. Grant who defended the rights of United States prisoners of war, regardless of their race.

You can find the full correspondence here on pages 258, 263, and 323-26; it’s discussed in Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, pp. 65-67, and Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 381-82, 384.

History’s more interesting than fiction.

66 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee and Union Black POWs

  1. Donald R. Shaffer December 14, 2011 / 1:03 pm

    A great post, but since Gingrich is used to making up the “truth” as he goes along, it is hardly surprising. The man might have a Ph.D. in History, but despite his scholarly pretensions, he gave up that life a long time ago.

  2. Mark December 14, 2011 / 1:55 pm

    The list of Ph.D. who believe this is very long, unfortunately. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it is that a Ph.D. in and of itself doesn’t mean squat. That’s why even professors believe there’s an education bubble and the most universities have not been serving their students well for decades, whatever brights spots remain in certain areas and with certain profs.

    Read the Charles B. Dew’s introduction to “Apostles of Disunion” if you think professors that even have Confederate Romantic views need to be disingenuous. Dew was shocked to learn he’d been sold a bill of goods, and said the research to the book was very painful. This is an excellent and informative post, but as a platform for banal political comments not so much.

  3. Mark December 14, 2011 / 2:01 pm

    This is a great post. That’s what I love about Grant. Lee admirers should learn that though it may be sometimes unfair to hold those from the past to standards of today, when choosing heroes it is a very bad idea to choose as a hero those who were in the wrong and fought those who were right. It makes no sense, except as regional pride and some types of ideology. I can admire Lee for his generalship and certain other qualities, but as a man? No. Most people don’t even know that though he longed to have his sons married, he forbid his four daughters from marrying. And they never did. If that doesn’t creep a person out then nothing will. That’s my Lee. Lee the selfish creep.

    • Rob Baker December 14, 2011 / 5:18 pm

      can you site the Lee didn’t allow his daughters to marry reference. Because I know his daughters all died of some disease except for Mildred who wrote herself she refused to be married. The rest had suitors which included J.E.B. Stuart.

      • Mark December 15, 2011 / 8:21 am

        Rob, the reference I’m sure of is here:

        I don’t have time right now to search for it, but I found the whole article online somewhere as a PDF. Or maybe it was through my university’s library service that I did that. Also, it’s been quite some time since I read it, but Connely’s “The Marble Man” *may* have touched on this a bit. I could be wrong about that though.

        • Rob Baker December 15, 2011 / 3:09 pm

          Thanks. I appreciate the link. Always fun to learn something new.

          • Mark December 15, 2011 / 11:27 pm

            You’re welcome. My problem with Lee is I just see him as unusually selfish. The daughter thing is astonishing. And didn’t his generals have to convince him that Grant wouldn’t humiliate him before he surrendered? I don’t know exactly how that went, or what he’d have done if they hadn’t been able to assure him, but that is a question that most men would never ask. Most would suck it up and take however the victor might treat them for the sake of their troops. It is impossible to imagine Grant asking this if he had to do it.

        • Mark June 18, 2012 / 8:59 am

          Here’s a link to the Fellman article “Struggling with Robert E. Lee” that isn’t behind a paywall.

          From what the article says it doesn’t say he “forbid” his daughters from marrying, but that he pushed their suitors away. Of course, none of them did marry.

  4. Corey Meyer December 14, 2011 / 5:51 pm

    It would appear that writing a book or two has its advantages! Great insightful post…thanks.

    • Robert Baker December 16, 2011 / 5:29 am

      I’ve never heard of the Grant interpretation, most of the writings indicate favorable terms before he would surrender. Longstreet I believe told him that if terms were not favorable that they should fight it out. Don’t quote me on that though it has been a long time since I read/saw that statement. It might be Lost Causer BS.

      Also, I could not access the source you provided without paying. I am going to save it and try from a library later.

      • Rob Baker December 16, 2011 / 12:59 pm

        oops, sorry. That was supposed to be under Mark above.

  5. Carl Schenker December 14, 2011 / 7:00 pm

    A very nice post on an interesting subject.
    Of course, on the march to the sea, Sherman famously used POWs to clear mines from the road on at least one occasion. I assume this would be against modern protocols, but it doesn’t seem inherently objectionable to me, provided they had the same eqpmt and chance to survive that Union troops or pioneers would have had to do the same job.

  6. Arleigh Birchler December 14, 2011 / 11:56 pm

    I have not (and I doubt that I ever would) read Gingrich’s book. I just read Brooks blog. Brooks wrote an excellent autobiography of Ulysses Grant. Perhaps he will write one on Robert E Lee (maybe he already has). I doubt that what Lee would say to one of his generals in person would sound a lot like what he would write in a formal communication with Grant. In those messages he had to follow Confederate Law. General Mahone went on after the War to be a leader in the Fusion movement, which was a political group made up of both black and white Virginian’s. By the time that the trenchs were well established around Petersburg, Lee knew they were going to lose. It seems to me that self-preservation alone would lead him to try to make sure that all POWs were treated as well as they could be.

  7. Chuck December 15, 2011 / 6:48 am

    I think Dew wasn’t being completely honest when he said his research pained him. If he was pained at all, it was because his research confirmed what he knew deep down.

  8. Arleigh Birchler December 15, 2011 / 9:07 am

    I really hate it when I post a message to a group like this, and then go back and find my spelling errors and other dumb mistakes. Sorry.

  9. HankC December 15, 2011 / 9:31 am

    it’s a bit of a leap to call POWs working on fortifications under fire ‘human shields’.

    naturally, the US saw them as POWs and the CS saw them as runaway slaves to be used as any other slave.

    the CS soldiers and other enslaved laborers under fire were not considered human shields…

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 15, 2011 / 3:34 pm

      It seems that Grant and Lee understood them as such. Moreover, it’s not clear how the pre-enlistment status of the black Union POWs was determined. However, both generals raised questions about the deployment of POWs and both thought the actions of their counterparts warranted retaliation.

    • Charles Lovejoy December 15, 2011 / 6:32 pm

      Arleigh , I wound never read Newt Gingrich’s book. I have known Newt Gingrich since 1974 when he first ran for congress in my district. I know Newt Gingrich well . When I see Newt on TV, I change the channel. If I see an article about Newt Gingrich I do not read it. If I receive a piece of mail with his name on it I toss it. 🙂

  10. John Foskett December 15, 2011 / 10:21 am

    Give Newt and Bill their due. They may have read the works of Chief Lee Beatifier Douglas Southall Freeman and decided that this dialogue fits historical fact. I’ve always wondered about the reliability of a historian who freely admitted to venerating the statue of Lee on his daily commute to work. But that’s another topic for another time. This script clearly fits the popular view of Lee which still persists despite the work of Connelly, Nolan, and Pryor.

    • Andy Hall December 15, 2011 / 4:31 pm

      But it’s Freeman who quotes, in full, Lee’s somewhat reluctant defense of the institution of slavery, not just the brief quote about chattel bondage being a “moral & political evil” that is sometimes used to portray Lee as being opposed to slavery. To the contrary, the extended quote in Freeman’s own work makes clear that Lee saw slavery as part of God’s great plan, as “necessary” and beneficial to those enslaved, and turned most of his ire for unrest on those meddlesome abolitionists who “Create angry feelings in the Master.”

      Gingrich is a PhD in history, but his dissertation, 40 years ago, was on educational policy in the Congo under Belgian colonial rule. Forstchen, who undoubtedly does the heavy lifting in writing these novels, is a working academic whose specialty is the Civil War period. There’s no excuse for getting that stuff wrong.

      • Charles Lovejoy December 15, 2011 / 7:31 pm

        “educational policy in the Congo under Belgian colonial rule.”
        You means Newt’s dissertation or his political philosophy ? Sorry I couldn’t help myself on that one 🙂

      • Margaret Blough December 15, 2011 / 10:02 pm

        Andy-What’s often mischaracterized as Lee’s opposition to slavery, as I’m sure you know, is simply an example of the older defense of slavery as a “necessary evil” which God was responsible & would end when He chose to after His purposes were achieved (the implication, very strongly being, that that time would come LONG after the speaker and his family had departed this life). It was largely superseded by the much more aggressive and blatantly unapologetic “Slavery as a positive good.” by John Calhoun and his followers.circa 1820. Lee didn’t try to break his father-in-law’s will as many Southern executors did when faced with a will provision emancipating slaves but I know of no evidence that he ever freed any slave of his own volition.

        • John Foskett December 16, 2011 / 7:49 am

          Margaret: Pryor did great service in giving us Reading the Man. Simply put, from Lee’s own mouth we know that the lash was an accepted part of his view of slavery. While Nolan’s book reads more like a legal brief for the prosecution, he too blows large holes in the “necessary evil” spin. As for Andy’s point about Freeman, and this is just my personal opinion, there is something askew in a historian/biographer who worships his subject. ,

          • Andy Hall December 16, 2011 / 9:47 am

            “. . . there is something askew in a historian/biographer who worships his subject.”

            Agreed, and Freeman clearly bends over backwards to defend Lee. He dismisses the Wesley Norris case — for which he cites only two anonymous newspaper accounts — as “libel” and insists it couldn’t have happened because. . . because. . . well, just because Lee wouldn’t have done such a thing. Alrighty, then.

            But even Freeman’s long exceprt of Lee’s letter makes clear that Lee’s views on slavery as an institution were entirely typical of his time, place, and station. A stats guy would say that, on the issue of slavery, Lee was well within one standard deviation from the mean.

          • John Foskett December 17, 2011 / 9:28 am

            Andy: That’s a valid point. And I will confess that I’ve always had some doubt in my mind about Freeman’s own views about slavery. Not, of course, that he didn’t think that it was “wrong” in the abstract but that he was able to rationalize it in the 19th century South.

        • Khepera December 16, 2011 / 9:20 am

          Lee kept the slaves, working them and hiring them out for as long as he was legally able to though. The will placed an upper limit of five years after Custis’s death for their manumission. It was at the 5-year mark that Lee freed them. Some, like Pryor, say he needed the money. Some say he was greedy. Who knows?

          • Andy Hall December 16, 2011 / 11:08 am

            IIRC, he didn’t formally take this step until just after Christmas 1862, some weeks after the term specified in G. W. P. Custis’ will had expired, and just before the Emancipation Proclamation was officially to take effect. For those enslaved persons who’d been at Arlington, practical emancipation had come long before, when the U.S. Army occupied the site. Emory Thomas’ biography of Lee suggests (again, IIRC) that Lee’s actions in this case were more a function of ensuring he’d been punctilious in fulfilling his duties as executor, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, than they were something that had actual, practical effect.

            As with Margaret above, I’m not familiar with any enslaved persons Lee freed of his own accord, or any public word or deed made against the institution as a whole.

          • Helga Ross December 16, 2011 / 4:10 pm

            “IIRC, he didn’t formally take this step until just after Christmas 1862”

            Lee’s Wartime Letters

            Letter (#331) from Camp near Fredericksburg to G. W. C. Lee, Richmond, Va Nov. 28, 1862.

            My Dear son,

            …I hope you will be able to arrange for the people whom I wish to liberate 31 December. See if Mr. Eacho can not propose & prepare the papers. The expenses can be paid from the hire. Give him the names of those hired in Richmond. Perry, Billy & such of those as are at the White House as wish it or who can support themselves, must be included. Indeed I should like to include the whole list at Arlington, White House &c., if it can be done so as to finish the business. It is possible that during the winter though hardly before Xmas I might get to Richmond to attend to it, or the papers could be brought to me….

            Lee Letter (#334) from Camp near Fredericksburg to his Wife, December 7, 1862.

            …We had quite a snow day before yesterday & last night was very cold. It is thawing a little this morning though the water was freezing as I washed. I fear it will bring much discomfort to those of our men who are bare-footed and barely clad. i can take but little pleasure in my comforts for thinking of them…I want a good servant badly but i do not think it is worth while to commence with Fleming at this late date. He would have to learn a good deal before he would be useful & on the 31st of December I wish to liberate all of them. Those in Richmond & those at the White House. I have asked Custis to have the papers prepared for my signature, as I cannot attend to it myself…Perry is very willing & I believe he does as well as he can. You know he is slow & inefficient & moves much like his father Lawrence, whom he resembles very much. He is also fond of his blankets in the morning. The time I most require him out. He is not very strong either. I hope he will do well when he leaves me & get in the service of some good person who will take care of him….

            Letter (#351) To his wife Dec 21 1862

            …As regards the servants. Those that are hired out can soon be settled. They can be furnished with their free papers & hire themselves out. Those on the farms I will issue free papers to as soon as I can see they can get a support. As long as they remain on the farms they must continue as they are. Any who wish to leave can do so. The men could no doubt find homes, but what are women & children to do? As regards Mr. Collins he must remain & take care of the people till I can dispose of them some way. I desire to do what is right & best for the people. The estate is only indebted to me now. The legacies & debts are paid & I wish to close the whole affair, but whether I can do so during the war I cannot say, nor do I know that I shall live to the end of it. I cannot give the date of your father’s will. The papers are not with me. Perhaps Custis can get at them. The will was probated before the county court of Alexandria. Custis has also the bonds of the men who hired Reuben, &c. When he returns see him about it. He will return with the President who will be back before New Year’s day. I shall not issue any free passes to the people while they are on the farms. As long as they remain there they must work as usual. I will be willing to devote the net proceeds of their labour for the year to their future establishment. Those at Arlington & Alexandria I cannot now reach. They are already free & when I can get to them I will give them their papers… I expect to die a pauper, & I see no way of preventing it. So that I can get enough for you & the girls I am content.

          • Brooks D. Simpson December 16, 2011 / 4:27 pm

            I think it’s also fair to remember that whatever Lee’s activities to April 1861, afterwards he was somewhat busy with other things, notably in December 1862.

          • Arleigh Birchler December 16, 2011 / 4:54 pm

            Brooks, that is what I suggested when this issue came up in a discussion group with my cousin Marc a few years back. I take it that the letters as posted by Helga are authentic. They fit with my uninformed thoughts of what Lee might have been like. So far as I know during his entire adult life he was in the military on active duty. I don’t know how much interaction he may have had with “slaves” or the work of a plantation.

          • Bob Huddleston December 16, 2011 / 9:45 pm

            Lee spend a great deal of his time after graduation from the USMA as what was in effect a civilian engineer on various construction projects in the slave states (according to Cullum): 1829-41 and again from 1848-52. From 1855-57 and again in 1860 he was on frontier duty in Texas and would have been around – and supervising slaves. In addition he was on leave at Arlington House from 1857-59 and December 1860 to his resignation in 1861. In other words, of the 32 years he was an army officer, 16 were send in direct contact with slave labor, 3 or so as the manager of a large plantation. 3 – the only time he was actually a line officer– were in Texas.

          • Arleigh Birchler December 16, 2011 / 11:22 pm

            Thanks, Bob. I knew most of that, although I probably would not have been able to recall it all without your prompting.

          • Charles Lovejoy December 16, 2011 / 2:52 pm

            Khepera, The financial issue might have been more of a factor than some may think. Reading between the lines as I often do, I have thought that myself. I think it’s reasonable to believe that the Lee Family financial situation and the Lee family social status were two different things. I have always thought Robert E Lee let people see of him only what he wanted them to see. Lee not being considered a politician, in my opinion Robert E Lee was a shrewd politician. I don’t think we will ever know or understand the real Robert E Lee, only the image he wanted.

          • Arleigh Birchler December 16, 2011 / 5:03 pm

            Charles, I have generally understood that Light-horse Harry Lee failed in his financial dealings, and died very poor. i have thought that Robert E Lee did not grow up in a wealthy family. I usually think of a General as being very much of a politician. Of course during the War a lot of politicians with no military experience were made Generals, but that is not what I mean. A General must be able to deal with many, many people, not in the Army, but in the higher levels of society. Political skill is crucial.

          • Charles Lovejoy December 17, 2011 / 7:34 pm

            Arleigh, I have always thought White Horse Harry Lee’s story is strange and bazaar in itself. The kind of story that is better than any fiction anybody could make up. Talk about a great epic 🙂 I have visited the site of his original burial at Dungeness, on Cumberland Island, Georgia many times. That is the site of General Nathanael Greene’s plantation.

  11. Arleigh Birchler December 15, 2011 / 4:13 pm

    I have been looking around for a good book on Lee. Can anyone tell me how Thomas Connelly’s “The Marble Man” is? In part I would like something that deals more with Lee himself than how he is remembered, but I am not sure it is possible to separate the two. Is there another book which would be better?

    • Margaret Blough December 15, 2011 / 10:10 pm

      “Marble Man” is an excellent book and truly essential reading in understanding how the Lost Cause rewrote and distorted much of antebellum, CW & Reconstruction history. However, as you suspect, it’s more about how the mythic Lee was created after his death than it is a biographical treatment of Lee. Thomas Connelly was William Garrett Piston’s dissertation adviser and suggested that he look into the vicious, intentionally lying hatchet job the Lost Causers did on James Longstreet’s history. Out of Piston’s successful Ph.D which included this in a biographical treatment of Longstreet came his classic work “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” which I highly recommend.

      • Arleigh Birchler December 15, 2011 / 10:46 pm

        I read Longstreet’s book “Manassas to Appomattox”, and enjoyed it. His friendship with Grant was quite remarkable. If I recall correctly, Julia Dent was Longstreet’s cousin. Jubal Early carries little creedance anymore. I have camped at Pitzer’s Woods several times for living history events.

    • John Foskett December 16, 2011 / 7:50 am

      I strongly recommend Elizabeth Pryor’s Reading the Man. One can learn a great deal from Lee’s own writings.

      • Arleigh Birchler December 16, 2011 / 12:55 pm

        Thanks, John. That sounds like it might be a worthwhile book to read. I doubt that I would read more than one about Lee.

    • Michael Lynch December 16, 2011 / 4:39 pm

      For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the biography by Emory Thomas; I found it both balanced and highly readable.


  12. Margaret Blough December 16, 2011 / 1:18 am

    Arleigh-Julia Dent was Longstreet’s cousin. I’ve never been clear the exact degree of relation. Through his mother, Longstreet was related to the massive Dent and the Marshall (yes, Chief Justice John Marshall) clans.

  13. James F. Epperson December 17, 2011 / 6:39 am

    I agree w/ Kevin: The insertion of this conversation into the narrative is entirely tied up with Newt’s political ambitions. It flies in the face of the established historical record.

  14. Helga Ross December 18, 2011 / 9:25 am

    Hi Brooks,

    I find it impossible to read Arleigh Birchler’s reply of December 16, 2011 @ 11:22 pm; and I have no doubt that if I tried to respond directly to Bob Huddleston’s, of December 16 @ 9:45pm., mine might would be equally unreadable; they get skinnier as they go.

    So this reply is for both:

    Arleigh, please repeat yourself without replying to that reply of yours. And yes, Lee’s letters are bonefide. The Wartime Papers of Robert E Lee by Dowdey, copyright 1961, is a valuable resource and the best way I know of to know the man and what was on his mind.

    Bob Huddleston, please note, if your assumptions were true, then those would be ‘slave’ projects under the auspices of the U S military and the US gov’t (Congress) which paid for them. Meigs would be a party to it, too. I think not, nor do I find it to be so.

    Quote from Reading the Man ~Elizabeth B. Pryor (pp. 115-16)
    Lee hired eighty men to labor on the river, engaged a steamboat, two skiffs, and some large transportation boats, acquired a machine to drive pilings, and found lodging and provisions for the workers. It was a frustrating project, plagued by blistering heat, balky mules, and equally balky workmen…The editors of the Missouri Republican cheered them on, noting that since “the commencement of the work it has been prosecuted with great activity, and with unexpected dispatch, when the character of the locality, the scarcity of laborers and other difficulties are considered.18 Another champion of the endeavor, St. Louis mayor John Darby, recalled many years later how “indefatigably” Lee had toiled. “He went in person with the hands every morning about sunrise, and worked day by day in the hot broiling sun…
    Much of Lee’s writing during this period consists of painstaking accounts of monies expended, the condition of the equipment, and the desire to hire “waders” who would be able to stand in the river all day, or the need for pressed spikes, tar, rice and “manilla rope.”21.

    The entire chapter, Pioneers, goes to some length to explain the US military’s critical role in such public works projects.

    And, neither is there a word of mention by her of Lee’s time in Texas involving “slaves”; he was, however, mentioned in connection with being in charge of camels. (a pet project of Jeff Davis’)

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 18, 2011 / 10:29 am

      No problem, Helga. My contributors test the limits of the blogging software when it comes to comments.

      • Helga Ross December 18, 2011 / 10:35 am

        🙂 They/We sure do!

  15. Arleigh Birchler December 18, 2011 / 11:38 am

    Sorry, Helga. This is what it said:

    “Thanks, Bob. I knew most of that, although I probably would not have been able to recall it all without your prompting.”

  16. Bob Huddleston December 18, 2011 / 6:51 pm

    Helga wrote: “if your assumptions were true, then those would be ‘slave’ projects under the auspices of the U S military and the US gov’t (Congress) which paid for them. Meigs would be a party to it, too. I think not, nor do I find it to be so.” Of course the US used slave labor in government projects — including Meigs. And I would be surprised if *any* government projects in slave states did not use slave labor.
    BTW, antebellum West Point taught minimal military arts and sciences. It was primarily the finest engineering school in the Country which is why the top graduates went into the Corps of Engineers or the Topo Engineers. And one thing it taught very well was organizing and utilizing groups of laborers.

  17. Helga Ross December 19, 2011 / 6:52 am

    “Of course the US used slave labor in government projects — including Meigs. And I would be surprised if *any* government projects in slave states did not use slave labor.”

    You’d best supply the proof of what you assert, Bob, as pertains to Lee in particular–and Meigs by your own association; otherwise, it’s a baseless assumption. I supplied the proof that you are incorrect.

  18. Arleigh Birchler December 19, 2011 / 2:34 pm

    It had never occurred to me before that the US military used slave labor in slave states prior to the War Between the States. If I am reading the posts above correctly, there is some disagreement about that among the folks in this discussion. Is there some way to resolve the question? (if indeed I understand and there is a question)

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 19, 2011 / 2:52 pm

      I assume the way to resolve the question is through research and documentation.

      In the case of the US Capitol rebuilding, my understanding is that through 1862 (when slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia) that slave labor was employed. Such would be the case with one Philip Reid.

      • Arleigh Birchler December 19, 2011 / 3:46 pm

        Thanks, Brooks and Carl. I do not have the resources or training to do the necessary research. A quick search of the Internet did not yeild any clues. I would imagine that US Army regulations from that period might shed some light on the issue. I am a bit surprised that this is not something that has been settled already. Since the question never even occurred to me before, I guess I should not be that surprised.

        • Margaret D. Blough December 19, 2011 / 5:26 pm

          Arleigh-In any slave state, especially the further south one went, I’d be astonished if slave labor WASN’T used for heavy manual labor in constructing forts, etc., for the US Government. This is simply because there were very decided societal demarcations, especially in slave states, on what was white men’s work and what was [racial slur]’s work. I remember reading that this posed a problem for Confederate armies when soldiers objected to doing manual labor for that reason. Obtaining slave labor wouldn’t have been a big problem since leasing slaves was a very common practice. I doubt Southern born officers would think twice about using slave labor and, as to the officers coming from free states, that would be on a case by case basis.

        • Arleigh Birchler December 19, 2011 / 6:35 pm

          Thanks, Carl. While the White House may have been different than the typical US Army Corps of Engineers work, I would think that between it and the lighthouse in Florida this is a fairly good indication that slave labor was used by the US Army in slave states. I can not imagine that the building of coastal defenses would be any different.

          • HankC December 20, 2011 / 9:29 am

            virtually every public civil engineering project in the south employed enslaved laborers.

            This includes levees and dams, railroad cuts and fills, canals, roads and virtually anything requiring the moving of large amounts of dirt.

            This why honoring enslaved laborers for building confederate entrenchments by southern heritage proponents is so interesting – it’s something they’d been doing for decades and centuries…

          • Arleigh Birchler December 20, 2011 / 1:21 pm

            To what extent do we honor slaves for the construction of the railroad cuts or levees? For that matter, to what extent do we honor the folks who built the system of railroads across the nation after emancipation? “Hey Brother, can you spare a dime?”

  19. Carl Schenker December 19, 2011 / 2:52 pm

    Arleigh —
    Have never looked into the matter. But I believe it is well established that enslaved persons participated in the building of the US Capitol (in the District of Columbia, of course).

  20. Bob Huddleston December 19, 2011 / 9:06 pm


    Why *wouldn’t* the government use slave labor in slave states? As Brooks pointed out it would take some searching in the records of the Corps of Engineers to find the definite answer but others provided Internet links where it has been shown that slave state manual labor on Federal projects was used.
    Given the sensitivity of the slave states to any accusations that slave labor was somehow wrong I would be very surprised if contracts for government contracts had any prohibition on using slaves. Given also that hard manual labor was a monopoly of slaves I would like to see proof that slaves were *not* used, As for Pryor, she is talking about how Lee dealt with the problems of construction and not with who the laborers were.

  21. Helga Ross December 20, 2011 / 7:35 am

    Bob, if Lee was hiring slave labor, there wouldn’t be the issue of the scarcity of labor which plagued the project and he wouldn’t be lamenting over not being able to obtain “waders”. Also, you might have to revise your version of the man you are attempting to promote–namely, “16 of 32 years of direct contact with slave labor”–then, you put a spoke in your own effort to diminish the man–who, then must be quite the equalitarian slave driver and deserve twice the credit you’d alot him–“He went in person with the hands every morning about sunrise, and worked day by day in the hot broiling sun… indefatigably”
    Folks who find the US Army using slave labor for public works projects, need to directly connect them to Lee; (and Meigs), since that’s the charge that has been laid against him. (them)

    projecting who was Whatever projects you find to tie to the US military, it is

    • Helga Ross December 20, 2011 / 12:13 pm

      Further to this reply of mine to Bob H. –“He (Lee) went in person with the hands every morning about sunrise, and worked day by day in the hot broiling sun… indefatigably” here’s the rest of the revealing information in context which follows that which Pryor quoted from her source, Darby, Personal Recollections:

      Lieut. Robert E. Lee applied himself most devotedly to the work of improving the harbor for about two years, commencing in 1837. His time was occupied in the making of surveys, preparing drawings, and planning the manner of doing the work; the purchase of machinery; the prosecution of the work in the driving of piles and filling in with brush and stone, and in making rivetments. I saw him almost daily; he worked most indefatigably, in that quiet, unobtrusive manner and with the modesty characteristic of the man. He went in person with the hands every morning about sunrise, and worked day by day in the hot, broiling sun, — the heat being greatly increased by the reflection from the river. He shared the hard task and common fare and rations furnished to the common laborers, — eating at the same table, in the cabin of the steamboat used in the prosecution of the work, but never on any occasion becoming too familiar with the men. He maintained and preserved under all circumstances his dignity and gentlemanly bearing, winning and commanding the esteem, regard, and respect of every one under him. He also slept in the cabin of the steamboat, moored to the bank near their works. In the same place Lieut. Lee, with his assistant, Henry Kayser. Esq., worked at his drawings, plans, and estimates every night till eleven o’clock. Many times there was a difference of opinion between Lieut. Lee and Gen. Gratiot as to the best manner of prosecuting certain parts of the work, and in every instance Lieut. Lee yielded, as a matter of course, to the judgment of his superior at Washington. The work done by Lieut. Lee was on the Illinois shore, at the upper and lower end of Bloody Island.

      Personal recollections of many prominent people whom I have known: and of … By John Fletcher Darby

      From Douglas Southall Freeman. Volume 1 Pages 150-151 —

      The men blasted the rock away in great blocks weighing a ton or more and then removed it on their flatboats, but they had scarcely cleared away the point they had attacked — some 408 perches of stone — when cold weather came, on October 10. Lee once again reduced force and tried to carry on with the hardiest of the men, whose wages he more than doubled. The weather was too severe even for them. On the night of October 16 there was a quarter of an inch of ice, and the next day it snowed. The men simply could not endure the chilly water. Reluctantly Lee had to close the year’s activities, with only twenty working days to his credit. What had been done during that time had not improved navigation perceptibly but it had convinced Lee, more than ever, that a good channel through the rapids could be made.35

      • Carl Schenker December 20, 2011 / 2:23 pm

        FWIW, Helga’s most recent post seems to indicate that RE Lee’s work on the “waders” project took place on “the Illinois shore” in connection with efforts to improve the St Louis harbor. The use of enslaved laborers therefore may not have been an option with respect to that particular project. CRS

  22. Helga Ross December 20, 2011 / 7:43 am

    Oops. Should have proof-read– that should be egalitarian not equalitarian!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s