With the death Mary Custis Lee’s father Washington Custis, the last of George Washington’s family, in October 1857, Robert E. Lee was named executor of his will. It left Lee with the care of three hundred black people to “be fed and clothed and sheltered and kept warm; the sick, aged and infirm looked after.”
In compliance with his father-in-law’s will, Lee freed the 300 black people under his care with manumission papers on December 29, 1862. In stark contrast, it is reported that over time, Harriet Tubman spirited 70 slaves away from their home plantations toward a North hostile toward black people.
Robert E. Lee, Emancipator
“Mr. Custis, my grandfather, had made [my father] executor of his will, wherein it was directed that all the slaves belonging to his estate should be set free after the expiration of so many years. The time had now arrived, and, notwithstanding the exacting duties of his position, the care of his suffering soldiers, and his anxiety about their future, immediate and distant, he proceeded according to the law of the land to carry out the provisions of the will, and had delivered every one of the servants, where it was possible, their manumission papers.
From his letters written at this time I give a few extracts bearing on this subject:
“. . . As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in this as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those in the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like, if I could, attend their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible. All that choose can leave the State before the War closes . . .
“I executed the deed of manumission sent me by Mr. Caskie, and returned to it to him. I perceived that [slaves] John Sawyer and James’s names had been omitted, and inserted them. If all the names of the people at Arlington and on the Pamunkey are not embraced in this deed I have executed, I should like a supplementary deed to be drawn up, containing all those omitted. They are entitled to their freedom and I wish to give it to them.
Those that have been carried away, I hope are free and happy; I cannot get their papers to them, and they do not require them. I will give them if they ever call for them. It will be useless to ask their restitution to manumit them . . .”
(Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee: by His Son Captain Robert E. Lee, Garden City Publishing, 1904, excerpts pp. 89-90)