John Reeves is the author of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
In the days and weeks after the killing of George Floyd, Americans gathered all across the country to demand an end to police brutality. As the Black Lives Matter movement grew bigger and bigger in the United States, many protesters also called for an end to those monuments that symbolize white supremacy and violence against African Americans and American Indians. Such monuments have been subjected to intensive scrutiny in recent years, and have become increasingly unpopular.
In a matter of days, monuments began to fall. A statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, was toppled. At the Minnesota State Capitol grounds, a Christopher Columbus statue was torn down. In Bristol, England, a monument to Edward Colston — a notorious slave trader from the 17th century — was pulled down and thrown into the Bristol Harbor. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie writes that the George Floyd protests “are not just about police violence. They are about structural racism and the persistence of white supremacy…And part of this is necessarily a struggle over our symbols and our public space.”
The protesters were literally taking history into their own hands. And the most prominent of the historical figures that appeared to epitomize our racist past was Robert E. Lee.
A week after the Floyd murder, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced he’d be removing the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond and stated, “That statue has been there for a long time. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.” Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the Confederate general, wrote, “The statue is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people.” Several days later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she intended to have a Lee monument removed from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. We also learned that Defense Secretary Mark Esper was open to discussing the renaming of Fort Lee in Virginia, which had been named in honor of the Rebel commander in 1917. There were demands to remove Lee monuments in several other American cities as well.
Robert E. Lee, who fought to uphold slavery and was indicted for treason after the war, has become a provocative symbol of racism and injustice in this country. That’s why the protests against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd led so quickly and seamlessly to demands that monuments to Lee be taken down. Lee is also relevant to the Black Lives Matter protests in a more specific way. A little-known episode from Lee’s experience as a slave master also symbolizes the ongoing problem of police brutality toward African Americans.
In 1866, the New York Daily Tribune published a shocking account of Robert E. Lee’s treatment of three of his slaves in 1859. The testimony was provided by Wesley Norris, one of the three slaves who received a brutal whipping by Lee’s hired hands. Norris recalled that Lee “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…” When the overseer declined at first to deliver the punishment, a constable was called in by Lee to do the job. Norris also reported that Lee frequently told the constable to “lay it on well,” while the slaves were being whipped, and “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine.” Finally, Norris stated, “I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements.”
Lee never publicly denied Norris’ charges, though his leading biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman believed, “There is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had them or any other Negroes flogged. The usage at Arlington and elsewhere in Virginia among people of Lee’s station forbade such a thing.” A more recent biographer, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, argued that every detail of Norris’ account can be verified. My own research supports Pryor’s view.
Up until very recently, many Americans were either unaware of Wesley Norris’ charges against Lee or chose not to believe the Confederate general could behave in such a way. Much of the Lee myth throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries depended on the erroneous belief that Lee was opposed to slavery. Learning that the Rebel chieftain actually owned and managed slaves for over thirty years and likely treated them violently on occasion has helped destroy the Lee myth right before our eyes.
Coincidentally, while we’ve been learning the truth about Robert E. Lee, we’ve also been witnessing — via modern smartphone technology — the realities of police brutality. “These videos are definitely making people who may have been in denial about African-Americans’ current oppression unable to deny it anymore,” said Allissa Richardson, an author of a book about smartphones and police brutality.
Perhaps this partly explains the inextricable link between Black Lives Matter and the urgent demands to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee. Wesley Norris tried to tell us about Lee; smartphones are now showing us the realities of police violence against black Americans in real time. The Norris case reveals that many of us preferred to believe, during the decades after the Civil War, the hazy and imprecise denials of the enslaver (Robert E. Lee) instead of the clear, public, and highly detailed accusation of the enslaved (Wesley Norris).
In his second inaugural address in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln said, “if God wills that [the war] continue…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Lincoln acknowledged the crime of violence against slaves throughout our history. One hundred and fifty five years later, we must stop police violence against African American citizens. Only then can atonement follow.