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Briscoe Center Acquires Three Robert E. Lee Letters

Lithograph of Robert E. LeeLithograph of Robert E. Lee, di_02468.

The Briscoe Center has acquired three letters written by Robert E. Lee in 1858 and 1860. The 1858 letters are written from Virginia while the 1860 letter was written as Lee was stationed with the U.S. Army in San Antonio. The two 1858 letters concern his controversial handling of several slaves whom he had recently inherited.

"These letters are important to scholars of Lee and slavery because they tie the two together so clearly," said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. "These documents add to the historical evidence that Lee was active in the affairs of the slaves and farms that he had inherited from his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis."

In 1857, Lee's father-in-law died, leaving him nearly 200 slaves and several farm operations in varying stages of decline. According to Custis' will, the slaves were to be emancipated within five years of his death. Lee was a famed military general but a reluctant farmer with private misgivings about slavery. He nevertheless decided to delay emancipation of the slaves in order to use income from their labor to settle accounts and raise legacy funds for his children.

The 1858 letters deal with Lee's decision to send several slaves to Richmond, Virginia. The letters are addressed to one of his agents William Winston, whom Lee instructs to receive three male slaves traveling to Richmond under armed guard from one of Lee's farms. Winston is also instructed to receive three female slaves, ages 35, 22 and 17. Winston is expected to hire them out "to the best advantage." According to Lee, the women are "accustomed to house work," but he also added that he "cannot recommend them for their honesty."

According to another letter from Lee to Winston (part of the Gilder Lehrman Collection, located at the New York Historical Society ) Winston is instructed to rent the labor of the three male slaves in question to "good and responsible men." Lee stipulated that the period of rental should not to extend past Dec. 31, 1862—the deadline for emancipation according to Custis' will.

"Preliminary research suggests that Lee sent these slaves to Richmond because he considered them either rebellious or dishonest," said Carleton. "It may be that Lee was sending a message to his other slaves, many of whom believed Lee was delaying their legal freedom for economic gain: Endure another five years of slavery or suffer the consequences in the harsher climate of Richmond, one of the South's most notorious centers of slavery."

The 1860 letter is written from San Antonio, where the future Confederate general was stationed as a U.S. Army officer. Between 1856 and 1860, Lee spent most of his time in command of cavalry units along the Texas Frontier. "Letters addressed to 'San Antonio, Texas' will always reach me," wrote Lee again to William Winston, with whom he was again discussing the deployment of several slaves from one of his farms to another. Winston and Lee appear to enjoy a cordial, trusting relationship—at one point, Lee implores Winston to offer advice to his son Fitzhugh on business matters.

"The letters are full of details that speak to how slavery operated on the eve of the Civil War in border states such as Virginia," said Brenda Gunn, director of the Research and Collections division of the Briscoe Center. "For example, the letters mention how slaves were transported by mail boat and rail line, and how they were held in jails before being 'hired out.' Because Lee's letters establish multiple contingency plans with Winston, the reader can garner much information related to how slaves could be sold or hired by slaveholders. The center has considerable documentation regarding the Natchez and New Orleans slave trading markets, so these details regarding Richmond are significant for our collections."