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U.S. Grant a slave owner, and Lee an abolitionist?

Summary: Social Media has seen a lot of Civil War related discussion in the last few years. One argument, is that US General Grant was a Slavery owner, and Confederate General Lee was not. They both were to different extents, and here is the details.

Ulysses S Grant

Grant was born in Ohio to an abolitionist family. After graduating from West Point and joining the Army, his first assignment had him stationed in Missouri, where he met Julia Dent. She came from a slave owning Missouri family, and when her and Grant were married, Grant’s family refused to go to the wedding because of her families status as slave owners.

After leaving the army in 1854, Grant worked for his brother in law farming. The farm was not successful and Grant sold firewood, earning about $50 a month. In 1855 Grant and his family moved to land on Julia’s fathers property and built a house named Hardscrabble.  When the panic of 1857 destroyed his farm, they moved to Julia’s fathers house in 1858.

In 1858, Grant caught Malaria, and gained possession of a slave named William Jones. In March of 1859, Grant freed Jones. Here is the handwritten note from Grant, freeing him:

Grant Manumission of William Jones

Robert E. Lee

Lee was born in Virginia, into a prominent slave owning family. His father was a revolutionary veteran, Virginia Governor, and Virginia Representative. His mother was a member of one of Virginia’s first coming families. Like Grant he also went to West Point Academy. Also like Grant, Lee went into the military after West Point.

Lee’s father was a tobacco planter, who lost most of his wealth in the panic of 1796-1797 and when Lee was 2 years old (1809), he spent a year in debtors prison.  During the civil unrest in Baltimore in 1812, Lee was injured, and due to his injuries he sailed to the West Indies to recuperate. On his way back to Virginia in 1818, he died. Robert was 10 years old. Lee’s mother was from a very wealthy Virginia family, and Lee grew up at Stratford Hall with 30 or more slaves.

When his mother died she left her estate, including her slaves, to her children. His first mention of his slaves is in a 1835 letter to his brother, in which he mentions Nancy and her 3 children. Before heading off to the war in 1846, he wrote a will in which he also mentions Nancy and her 3 children.


In 1857 his Father in Law died, and Lee was left control of Arlington and it’s slaves.  As executor of the Custis estate, General Lee was, in fact, bound by principles of equity to carry out the wishes of the testator under circumstances in which he believed the testator’s wishes were in conflict. Custis apparently wished that the slaves be emancipated immediately, yet the only way payment of his legacies to General Lee’s daughters could be funded was through the cash received from the labor of the slaves. To resolve this conflict, General Lee applied to the circuit court of Arlington for an interpretation of the will provisions, and for an order specifying the point in time when the will’s provision regarding emancipation must be executed. Eventually, the Court ruled that Lee was legally empowered to hold the slaves in service to the estate until the legacies were satisfied, but that, notwithstanding this, the slaves had to be freed no later than five years from the date of Custis’s death, October 10, 1857. (The available evidence does not disclose whether the interest of the slaves were represented by independent counsel in the probate court proceeding, but the Court’s ruling seems fair under the circumstances.)

It appears that, over the ensuing five years, in addition to paying the legacies, the income derived from the labor of the slaves was used by General Lee to renovate dilapidated farm buildings and repair farm machinery that had fallen into disuse in the years before Custis’s death as well as tend to the farms. The healthy adult male and female slaves located at the tidewater farms were needed there to secure the animals, harvest the annual crops of rye, oats, wheat and corn and bring in the hay; while the slaves located at Arlington, who were not needed as garden boys, yard girls, gardeners, market men, coachmen, maids and the like, were available for hiring out to third parties for the value of their labor.

In December 1862, shortly after the battle of Fredericksburg, General Lee, as executor of the Custis estate, fulfilled the duty he owed the Custis family slaves by executing a deed of manumission which listed most of the slaves recorded on the estate inventory lists.

Also included in Lee’s act of manumission is Lee’s slaves, Nancy, and her children

Dated January 2, 1863

Sources:
https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Lee_Robert_E_and_Slavery
https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/learn/historyculture/slaveryatwh.htm

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