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Gen. Robert E. Lee owned slaves

June 12, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate States Army in the Civil War, “opposed both secession and slavery.” He did not own slaves. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. According to historians, not only did Lee own slaves, but he also fought in court to keep working slaves from his father-in-law’s estate. Claims casting Lee as an anti-slavery figure are tied to a false narrative known as the Lost Cause, which says the Confederate experience in the Civil War was not about slavery, but state’s rights. 

THE FACTS:  As protests following the death of George Floyd lead to a reexamination of historical injustice, there’s been a campaign calling for monuments celebrating the Confederacy to be taken down. False posts emerged on Facebook claiming that Lee “opposed both slavery and secession.” The false post was shared tens of thousands of times.

Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against his neck for several minutes as he struggled to breathe.

John Reeves, a historian and author of the book, “The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon,” said the claim about Lee is false.

“Between owning a handful of slaves from his own family and then managing his father-in-law’s 200 slaves, Lee was very, very involved with slavery during his life up until the end of 1862,” he said.

Reeves explained that Lee worked the slaves for about five years in order to pay off legacies associated with his father-in-law’s estate. “He was utilizing the slave labor in order to pay the legacies,” Reeves explained.  

Lee wanted to work the slaves beyond the five-year limit stated in his father-in-law’s will. Lee fought in court to keep the slaves working because he didn’t know if he would be able to pay off his legacies. 

Wesley Norris was born a slave on the plantation that Lee managed after his father-in-law died. Norris testified during the court fight that Lee beat him when he tried to run away. “Every one of the facts in Wesley Norris’ account has been shown to be true,” Reeves noted. 

The Lost Cause ideology imagines Lee as a gifted military general who wasn’t fighting for slavery but was fighting for state’s rights. 

Defenders of Lee point to a portion of a letter he wrote to his wife where he refers to slavery as a “moral & political evil.” But it is taken out of context. In the rest of the letter, Lee underscores that the “subjugation” of the slaves needs to go on longer and only God can free them. 

“If you judge him by his actions, he separated families through sale, he beat slaves who ran away,” said Ariela Gross, professor of law and history at University of Southern California. Gross focuses on race and slavery in the United States. “He was completely engaged in the work of slave holding and supporting slavery.” 


This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: