Testimony of Wesley Norris… and an investigation of the Custis/Lee-Burke story

Posted on December 7, 2008 by


I did not know this

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to “lay it on well,” an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

—Testimony of Wesley Norris (1866); reprinted in John W. Blassingame (ed.): Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, and Interviews, and Autobiographies Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (ISBN 0-8071-0273-3). 467-468.

NGeorge Washington Parke Custisor was I aware of the relationship between the Lee family and George Washington Parke Custis‘ former slaves, William and Rosabella Burke (who, along with four children, were freed by G.W.P. Custis and departed for a new life in Liberia in November 1853). Some of the letters between the Burke family and Mary Custis Lee can be found on pages 98, 100-101, and others. There is also information available through the Arlington House website, at this link.

However, there appears to be a bit of conflict in information between the Arlington House website and this site from the Library of Congress (notice the top item on the page “Robert E. Lee’s former slaves go to Liberia”). Did G.W.P. Custis free the Burke slaves or did Robert E. Lee? The book (click on the hyperlink on the LoC page) shows “Col. R. E. Lee” as the pivot man. Did Lee free the Burke slaves because of Custis’ wishes?

Well… according to another page on the Arlington House website, the details of the freeing the Arlington House slaves is specified (see “Freeing Arlington Slaves”), but not the freeing of the Burke family. Since the question of the Arlington House slaves has now dropped in our laps, let’s go ahead and see what is said about them on this page…

Inspired by his wife, Custis provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his will. Slaves were to be freed after financial obligations had been met. Custis set a deadline of five years from the time of his death for the slaves’ emancipation. The slaves (believed to have numbered near 200) believed they had been promised their freedom immediately upon Custis’ death. Robert E. Lee, who managed the estate after Custis’ death, hired out some of the slaves to raise money to settle his father-in-law’s debts. This caused resentment among the slaves.

O.K., since we’re in the middle of this second mystery, let’s wrap it up…

Despite the “resentment of slaves” (refer once again to Wesley Norris’ testimony above, and it falls into place here), considering G.W.P. Custis died on October 10, 1857, and that Custis’ Will stated that the slaves were to be freed once the legacies from his estate were paid, and absolutely no later than five years after his death [just as Wesley Norris mentioned in the testimony], it would seem that Lee respected the wishes of his father-in-law, and…

In 1862, freedom came to the enslaved people of Arlington when Lee executed a deed of manumission. Some of the slaves settled in Freedman’s Village, a community for former slaves established at Arlington in 1863. The village remained in operation through the end of the 19th century.

So, we can say with certainty that Lee freed the Arlington House slaves (or at least those who remained) in 1862, but the mystery of the freeing of the Burke family still remains on the table… or is this really a no-brainer that has been messed up by some folks over the course of time? Since Custis did not die until 1857, and the Burke family left for Liberia in 1853, it would seem that Custis, not Lee, may have been responsible for actually freeing the Burke family. So then, why it is Lee recorded in that book referenced on the LoC website and not Custis?

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