ALS signed “R. E. Lee,” eight pages, 5 x 8, July 2, 1859. Written from Arlington, Lee pens a letter to his son concerning family and home matters, and makes reference to a New York Tribune story about his poor treatment of slaves. In part: “Your letter of the 5th Ulto to your Mother, My dearest son, has arrived and given us the pleasing intelligence of your good health & well being. I am so glad that your rheumatic attack has left you. Be very careful not to bring it back and do every successful thing to endurate and strengthen your constitution & system…Your Mother, Fitzhugh & Charlotte went down to Cedar Grove last Tuesday to spend ten days or a fortnight, so they will not be back before the last of the next or the first of the following week. Your poor Mother has been suffering very much this spring. I am in hopes that the change of air & sense may benefit her. She has not made up her mind where to go this summer, or what to do to try & relieve her from the rheumatism that still so perseveringly adheres to her. At one time she seemed to desire to go to St. Catharines Well in Canada, where waters are said to have worked some wonderful cures. But I have procured some of the water in Washington, brought from the spring in Bbls; which she has been drinking, so far without any apparent effect. The water is not very palatable either, being remarkably saline…It was this desire…of your Grand Father’s Estate, your mother’s condition & the hope I at one time entertain of seeing you my dearest son, that indured me to forego my purpose of returning to Texas this summer, & to remain till the Fall—God knows whether I have done right, or whether my stay will accomplish anything. I am very doubtful on the subject…this feeling deprives me of half the pleasure I should derive from being here under other circumstances. I now see little prospect of one of my hopes being fulfilled, that of seeing you.
On my last visit to Col. DeRuper, it was not decided, but seemed to me extremely doubtful that you would be ordered to West Point. The Sup. has returned, but is busy in making certain charges under the four year rule, & though some 13 officers under that rule will leave West Point, they purpose to supply them with other four year men & you have not been that time in California. These changes will also draw heavily on the light affair for deploying transportation & they are property & materially…to encroach upon it, still in time something may be done & in the meantime we must all be content. You must not have your mind exalted by Rooney’s account of the improvements at this place they are very meager & only serve to ameliorate matters…I have not the means to do what I should like & what I do do, has to be limited by considerations of economy & practicality. I have been able to do nothing to the grounds around the house, except to clean up on the hill & have been obliged to limit myself to what is most essential & promises something for man & beast to eat and to furnish shelter & production. You will find things therefore I fear rough & unsightly as much as I desire to polish up your Mothers habitation & to fanfare for you an acceptable home. We are in the midst of our little harvest. The rye is secured & we are getting in the hay. The oats & corn look favorably & as far as I can judge, unless something unforeseen occurs, we shall make fair crops of everything. We shall not make as good a crop of wheat at the White House as I had hoped. But I think an average mo. It is harvested at this time. The corn looks well & I hope between the two we shall do tolerably. I do not know that you have been told that George, Wesley & Mary…absconded some month since, were captured in Md; making their way to Penn & brought back…I had to send down before them, Obediah, Edw’d, Henry & Austin Bingham…The force here is very small have to hire nearly all the labour. We have nothing but the old men & boys—The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your G’nd Fathers slaves (he has left me an unpleasant legacy), but I shall not reply.” In fine condition, with some light wrinkling, and an unobtrusively repaired corner tear.
Upon the death of George Washington Parke Custis in October of 1857, his Arlington estate fell under the control of his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee. While Custis had hoped that his slaves would be freed right away (but allowed a five-year window, if necessary), Lee determined that the estate's finances were not secure enough to succeed without slave labor. In 1859, three of the Arlington slaves—Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and their cousin George—fled for the North, but were captured a few miles from the Pennsylvania border and forced to return to Arlington. On June 24, 1859, the abolitionist New York Tribune printed two anonymous letters critical of Lee's treatment of these runaway slaves, claiming that he whipped them; in discussing the matter, this very letter is quoted in Douglas Southall Freeman's Pulitzer Prize-winning R. E. Lee: A Biography. While the legitimacy of the whipping claim has been disputed, the event left an indelible black mark on his legacy. A lengthy and detailed letter with a reference to a particularly damaging episode in Lee’s life.
Terms and abbreviations used in our descriptions.