Facts in Five- Lee and Slavery

Robert E. Lee and slavery edition: misinformation, hyperbole, and unfounded revision are clouding the facts behind Lee’s slave owning

  • There is very little evidence Lee personally owned slaves- his mother, Ann Carter-Lee, may have willed him six slaves upon her death in 1829; the same year he graduated from West Point and entered military service.
  • Lee married into the wealthy Custis family in 1831.  His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, owned as many as 198 slaves by 1856.
  • Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, were both lifetime members of the American Colonization society.  Lee did not speak publicly against slavery, which was typical of US military officers.  Lee’s opinions on slavery were neither progressive nor vehement.
  • George Custis’s will called for the manumission of his slaves within five years of his death in 1857.  Lee was the executor of the estate and kept the people in bondage all five years.  They were not freed until 1863.
  • Lee’s failure to free his father-in-law’s slaves nearly caused a slave revolt at Arlington in 1858.  Lee did oversee the capture and punishment of the Norris family, after a failed escape attempt. The evidence does not support Lee personally whipping the captives.

Levin_C._Handy_-_General_Robert_E._Lee_in_May_1869

Smallpox Blankets and Guilt by Association

“You will Do well to try to inoculate the Indians, by means of Blankets, as well as to Try Every other Method, that can Serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. — I should be very glad [if] your Scheme for Hunting them down by Dogs could take Effect; but England is at too great a Distance to think that at present.”  Lord Jeffrey Amherst to Colonel Henry Bouquet- July 16, 1763. 

NPG 150,Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst,by Thomas Gainsborough

A small passage from an insignificant letter…from the Royal Governor of North America to a  British soldier under his command during Pontiac’s Rebellion(1763-1766)- its ramifications are infamous.  The astoundingly befuddled plans of two British officers(most North Americans had already been exposed) has been inexplicably  linked  to American Indian policy of the late 19th century.  There is not a scrap of evidence that any US officer advocated using biological warfare against any Indian nation; yet, popular sentiment holds it as an indisputable fact. Our government committed many wrongs in its dealings with American Indians- this is not one of them.

The myth of the United States committing genocide through biological warfare cannot stand up to peer review– see the link marked here.

Presidential sites on Virginia’s Northern Neck

The History Mom

Did you know that within a one-hour drive on Virginia’s Northern Neck, you can visit 3 different Presidential birthplaces?  Virginia is called the Mother of Presidents for a reason!  These mostly outdoor sites make great places to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, when families are looking for safe places to social distance.  From nature walks to beach fun, these sites are a good place to let your kids run and play while learning more about Presidents George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe!

Spread across two counties, the Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River in the north, Rappahannock River in the south, and the Chesapeake Bay to the east.  Home to some of the oldest estates in Virginia, several of the families of future Presidents all got their start here.  During the summer, I recommend making this tour in the morning, as it gets very hot after lunch.

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July 15, 1862: Battle of Apache Pass

Almost Chosen People

Events in the far West during the Civil War tend to barely have footnote status in most histories of that conflict.  So it is with the battle of Apache Pass.  On May 20, 1862, Union forces captured Tuscon in the Arizona territory from a small Confederate garrison.  Colonel James H. Carleton, in command of the Union troops, intended to march into New Mexico.  To prepare the way for the main force, he sent a column ahead under Captain Thomas L. Roberts of Company E,  1st California Infantry.  Roberts had under his command 116 infantry, twenty-two cavalry and two mountain howitzers that would come in very handy.

Traveling through Apache Pass on July 15, the Union column was attacked by about 500 Chiricahua Apache warriors under Mangas Colorado and Cochise.  The Apaches had picked a good location to fight.  They controlled the Apache Pass springs, and the Union troops were low on water and tired from their march.  The…

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Gideon Welles and the Naval Battle

Presidential History Blog

Gideon Welles was Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War.

March 9, 1862

It was a Sunday. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles rushed over to Lincoln’s office, where he found the President and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a frenzy over the terrible news of the previous day.

The USS frigate Merrimack was a beautiful ship.

The old US wooden frigate Merrimack (with a “k” then) had been sunk in Portsmouth, VA months earlier to prevent it from falling into Southern hands. The minuscule Confederate navy needed ships, believed the Merrimack’s hull to be worthy, raised it and refitted it with iron plate and 14 guns, and renamed it the Virginia. It was peculiar-looking, but deemed mighty. On March 8, it steamed into Hampton Roads (a vital Union-held naval area in the Chesapeake), and within hours rammed, sunk and burned the Congress, had driven the Cumberland aground…

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1619 Project is Commentary

Primary author of the 1619 project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, recently admitted what established scholars knew all along- the project is not history, but solely commentary.

This is why the Pulitzer prize awarded to the project was for commentary, not history. The New York Times was forced to amend the more egregious falsehoods presented by the authors as facts. The Editors still refused to relent on the validity of the essays. They instead utilized a social media campaign to discredit the scholars who criticized the project. A sad state academic circles are in when luminaries like Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, and James McPherson are labeled racists.

Secondary social studies educators around the country continue to be offered this project as curriculum. Efforts in the US Congress to prevent this are misguided. The 1619 project is far too politicized on its own grounds. The real choice for educators is between editorials based on dubious interpretations, or well established and peer reviewed historical scholarship.

Racial Politics Disguised as History

A panel of distinguished historians called for reasonable debate and corrections to be made to the controversial “1619 Projectproduced by the New York Times Magazine:

We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.

These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.

The Editor’s response was to defend the ideological intentions of the project’s founder:

“The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.

The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).

Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times.

In short, the “1619 Project” has presented a dubious interpretation of a complex and vital part of our history, and refuses to accept criticism as anything but racial politics.

Review: James Monroe: A Life by Tim McGrath (New York: Dutton, 2020)

Emerging Revolutionary War Era

Mcgrath Bio of MonroeTim McGrath has written two award-winning winning books about the early history of the United States Navy: Give Me a Fast Ship and John Barry. For his third book, he switched gears to tackle an oft-overlooked soldier, lawyer, politician, and president: James Monroe. In what will likely be the definitive Monroebiography, McGrath tackles the entirety of our fifth president’s life. Born in 1758, Monroe joined the American army in the Revolution’s early days until he was sidelined with a serious wound at Trenton.

As McGrath tells it, the story of Monroe’s early life was a constant search for a mentor and sponsor, which eventually landed him on William “Lord Stirling” Alexander’s staff. It was enough to bring him the attention and lukewarm friendship or support of many of the army’s leading lights and the country’s future leaders, but not enough to really launch his career. Eventually, he…

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Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio

M.A. Kleen

Established in 1869 as a nonprofit garden cemetery, Lake View Cemetery at 12316 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio contains a veritable who’s who from Cleveland’s once-storied past, including the remains of U.S. President James A. Garfield. Over 110,000 former residents are interred in its sprawling 285 acres.

Henry Chisholm (1822-1881)

This larger-then-life statue is dedicated to Scottish-American steel magnate Henry Chisholm (1822-1881). Chisholm emigrated to Montreal, Quebec at the age of 20. He steadily built a thriving construction business, then bought the Cleveland Rolling Mill with his brother in 1857. It became one of the largest steel companies in the U.S. His wife, Jean Allen, and he had five children. They are not buried beneath this monument (designed by sculptor Charles Henry Niehaus) but in the family mausoleum nearby.

John Milton Hay (1838-1905)

This intimidating monument was erected in memory of U.S. Secretary of State John Milton Hay (1838-1905). Hay was a lawyer and Abraham Lincoln’s…

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Electoral Protections

483px-James_Madison

The Electoral College was designed by…. Madison and Hamilton to help guarantee that Federal cooperation was protected in the election of the President.  Fearing that plurality would bring nationalized power to the executive branch, Madison argued that the mixed authority of Federalism was the best protector of republican virtue:

The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society. The eventual election, again, is to be made by that branch of the legislature which consists of the national representatives; but in this particular act they are to be thrown into the form of individual delegations, from so many distinct and coequal bodies politic.  From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many federal as national features.     Madison, Federalist 39

theodore-roosevelt-head-and-shoulders-portrait-facing-front-speaking-1-640

Americans enjoy the privilege of voting… yet millions choose not to vote, and many who do take it as seriously as their daily chores.  Uninformed voters squander this important freedom, while single issue voters often trivialize the gravity of elections.  The responsibility of voting was best described by Theodore Roosevelt:

“A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the  character of the user.”