Washington and Lee University

Lee the Farmer
Joseph C. Robert

Note: The following is taken from the November 1937 issue of The Journal of Southern History (volume 3), pp. 422–40.

Lee the Farmer

Robert E. Lee's peculiar sensitiveness to the beauties of nature, his marked affection for domestic animals, his love of the quiet, simple life, and his joy in everyday creative tasks combined to turn his thoughts all during his career, and especially during the trying times of the early 1860's, to the day when he could retire to a farm. He was searching for a suitable farm when, after Appomattox, Washington College invited him to become its president.

That Lee's enthusiasm for the agrarian life continued unabated during his last years is remarkable in the light of the trials to which he was subjected when he actually farmed. For over two years, from November, 1857, to February, 1860, he administered the estate left by his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, giving virtually all of his time to the direction of agricultural operations at Arlington and to the general supervision of the two Pamunkey River farms, White House and Romancoke. While farming at Arlington, Lee's baffling responsibilities threw him into one of his infrequent fits of depression, the most marked decline in spirits which he ever experienced while with his family. That Lee was not permanently soured by his first real experience as a crop master, but eternally hoped for another trial, is testimony of the character that refused to be warped by hardship.

The two and a quarter years of farming had significance other than as a mere bridge between episodes in the life of the man. In administering the Custis estate, Lee entered the dominant vocation of the the society soon to proclaim him its most heroic defender. This assumption of the farmer's role inevitably made him more appreciative of the problems which beset the Southern planter. Like others he experienced his share of bad weather, poor crops, financial worries, unsatisfactory overseers, and unruly slaves. Though by the Custis will the three farms were eventually to go to Lee's children and the slaves were to be freed, Lee's anxiety to build up the estates and to gather abundant crops could have been no greater had the property been his in fee simple.

In his will, drawn March 26, 1855, Custis bequeathed all of his possessions, slaves excepted, to Robert E. Lee's family.1 Lee's wife, Mary Ann Randolph Custis Lee, received a life interest in the Arlington estate; Lee himself, a lot in Washington, D.C. The three Lee sons were given the three farms: the youngest, Robert Edward Lee, Jr., was willed Romancoke; the middle son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, White House; and the eldest son, George washington Custis Lee, was to assume proprietorship of Arlington upon the death of his mother. The four Lee daughters, Mary, Ann, Agnes, and Mildred, were each awarded $10,000. The slaves apparently were to be freed in five years. Of the designated executors, Robert E. Lee, Robert Lee Randolph, Bishop William Meade, and George Washington Peter, only Lee qualified and upon him devolved the burden of administering an extensive and deteriorating estate under the terms of a poorly drawn will. The instrument was susceptible to contradictory interpretation on at least three scores: (1) the optional or compulsory nature of a clause indicating that George Washington Custis Lee was to change his name to that of his grandfather; (2) the method of raising the money for the four $10,000 legacies; and (3) the determining factor in computing the maximum time the slaves were to remain in bondage.2 Obviously the document called for legal clarification and Lee almost immediately petitioned for a court order interpreting the various provisions.

The real estate listed lay in eight Virginia counties and the District of Columbia: “[1] my Arlington House estate, in the county of Alexandria and State of Virginia, containing eleven hundred acres, more or less, and my mill on Four Mile Run, in the county of Alexandria, and the lands of mine adjacent to said mill, in the counties of Alexandria and [2] Fairfax, in the State of Virginia”; “[3] my estate called the White House, in the county of New Kent and State of Virginia, containing four thousand acres, more or less”; “[4] my estate in the county of King William and State of Virginia, called Romancock, containing four thousand acres, more or less”;3 “[5] My estate of Smith's Island, at the capes of Virginia, and in the county of Northampton”; “[6] Any and all lands that I may possess in the counties of Stafford, [7] Richmond, [8] and Westmoreland”; and “[9] my lot in square No. 21, Washington city.”

The fact that Custis cited these properties in no wise guaranteed that the items accurately summarized his holdings. There was uncertainty as to the boundaries of the major pieces of property;4 Lee thought real estate other than that indicated in the will might be in Custis's name on the courthouse records;5 and there is reason to believe that Custis owned only part of the land which he grouped in the clause, “Any and all lands that I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland.” As a matter of fact, no Custis property can be found in the Stafford and Richmond County Land Tax Books though the other Virginia real estate mentioned in the will may be identified in the various county tax volumes. TWice in referring to minor acres in Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland counties Custis in his will employed the expression, lands which “I may possess.” He did not use that less positive terminology when indicating other real estate. It is possible that the “may” was more than a mere conventional expression and indicated actual doubt in his own mind as to ownership, for certainly in two of the three counties he was not paying in his own name taxes on real estate.6 For taxes of January 1, 1857, the Custis land in Virginia was listed with the acreage and valuation as given in the accompanying table. During the period 1858–1861 Lee kept these listings virtually unchanged.7


Number Value
County Description of Property Acres Including Buildings
(1)Alexandria(a) Arlington Proper1,100$33,000.00
(b) Custis Mill Division5006,000.00
(2)FairfaxAdjacent to Custis Mill179¼2,688.75
(3)New KentWhite House3,50852,620.00
(4)King William(a) Romancoke Proper2,80033,600.00
(b) Marsh Land1,200600.00
(5)NorthamptonSmiths Island4,0442,022.00
(8)WestmorelandStradford          22         110.00

The estate was burdened with debts “upwards of $10,000” for which Custis had made no provision,8 and, of course, with the $40,000 in legacies for the four granddaughters. The legacies apparently were to be paid by selling all the Virginia property except tht in Alexandria, Fairfax, New Kent, and King William, and by working the White House and Romancoke farms.9 Lee seemed to think that Arlington, including the few Fairfax acres, was as unencumbered by the debts as by the legacies.10 Relieving Arlington of these obligations would result in a liability of about $50,000 on real estate valued at approximately $90,000. From a commercial point of view the projected emancipation of the Custis labor still further embarrassed the administrator.

At Custis's death his slaves of all ages numbered 196 and were divided among the three farms, 63 at Arlington, 90 at White House, and 43 at Romancoke.11 Of the total number, 130 were over twelve years of age and therefore taxable. The accompanying table, prepared from the County Property Tax Books, revealed that the total number of slaves over twelve was remarkably constant in the five years. Possibly some were transferred from one farm to another as labor needs dictated.12

CUSTIS ESTATE, 1857–1861

YearAlexandria CountyNew Kent CountyKing William CountyTotal
(Arlington)(White House)(Romancoke)

The manumission paragraph in the Custis will was drawn as follows:

And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies being clear of debt, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.

There was real doubt in Lee's mind whether the five-year limit or the completion of the payment of the legacies was intended by Custis as the time determinant. In writing to Mrs. Anna M. Fitzhugh on November 22, 1857, only a few days after he arrived at Arlington from Texas, Lee outlined the content of the Custis will, remarking as to the servants, “On payment of his debts and legacies, his slaves are to be emancipated in such a manner as his Executors may determine.“13 Lee wrote to his son Custis February 15, 1858, “I can now see little prospect of fulfillingthe provisions of your Grd father's will within the space of five years, within which he expected it to be accomplished & his people liberated.”14 A month later Lee mailed to Custis a copy of the testament and asked, “After reading the will I wish you would give me your opinion as to its provisions, especially that clause respecting his slaves.”15 It is a monument to Lee's moral meticulousness that, despite the critical nature of the times and his absorbing army tasks, he executed the deed of manumission on December 29, 1862, only a few weeks after the expiration of the five years.16

Even though the type of slavery with which he was connected was distinctly patriarchal, Lee objected to the institution, willingly classifying it as “a moral & political evil in any Country.” In his opinion slavery exercised a particularly pernicious influence on the whites; the blacks were better off in America than in Africa. Accustomed to principles of authority and obedience in his army life, Lee did not view their bondage with sentimentality. Giving a full accounting for his own responsibilities, he naturally expected a somewhat similar measure from others. He felt that slavery was a discipline which, when Providence so decreed, would be followed by better things for the Negro. Certainly, thought Lee, general emancipation could not be hastened by violent agitation.17

Lee's experience as a slave master began years before he undertook the management of the Custis Negroes. Listed in the Alexandria County Property Tax Book for 1847 are four slaves over sixteen years of age belonging to “Col. Lee.”18 Apparently these four were embraced in the manumission clause in Lee's will, dated August 31, 1846: “Nancy & her children at the White House in New Kent all of whom I wish liberated, so soon as it can be done to their advantage & that of others.”19 Nothing further in the tax lists has been discovered referring to these slaves.20 In Lee's correspondence Dr. Douglas S. Freeman finds them mentioned not at all.21 Neither their acquisition nor disposition has been positively traced. Judge Robert W. Winston in his Robert E. Lee: A Biography22 suggests that they were acquired from the Carter estate, which Lee's mother held in life tenure. If Dr. John Leyburn's 1885 account of his 1869 interview with Lee is to be accepted literally, Lee freed most of his Negroes before the war and sent to Liberia those who desired to go.23 After 1847 the members of Nancy's family still in servitude may have been considered for the purposes of taxation as part of the Custis slaveholdings, perhaps at the White House. This theory, however, does not square with Lee's usually very exact arrangement of financial matters.24

Lee had always displayed a lively interest in agricultural affairs, remarking that eventually he wanted the quietness of rural life.25 Now, in 1857, as administrator of his father-in-law's estate it seemed as if he might indulge this fondness, but, realist that he was, Lee entered upon his duties blinded by no false hopes and undoubtedly anticipating the major trials he was to undergo.26 One of the inherent difficulties connected with the supervision of the Custis property was the scattered character of the major farming units, Arlington, White House, and Romancoke. The last two farms, on opposite sides of the Pamunkey River and less than a score of miles apart, were approximately a hundred miles from Arlington. White House employed more slaves and yielded more valuable crops than did either Arlington or Romancoke.27 The two Pamunkey farms had been closely connected in administration; the overseer at Romancoke was considered subordinate to the manager at White House.28 Finding the Pamunkey farms gravely neglected, in part due to the shortcomings of a former manager, Lee immediately undertook soil improvement and the construction and repair of essential buildings.29 Although he freely gave the necessary time and thought to affairs on the Pamunkey, his major interest and affection was centered on Arlington farm, adorned by the heavy-pillared mansion house. There had he wooed and wed, there his children had been born, there he and his family now lived. Lee's genuine love for the hill colored such expressions as that used in admonishing his son Custis to save his money “that you may have the means to build up old Arlington & make it all we would wish to see it.”30

Mr. Custis had obviously intended that Arlington, sheltering the Washington relics, should be known as a handsome family seat, but his essentially dilatory nature gradually checked his ambition for farm improvement. In his younger days he had earned a reputation as an advanced agriculturalist, principally through his stock-breeding. Though at one time he advertised for sale a breed of sheep, the Arlington Improved, in his declining years he kept at Arlington not a single lamb.31 The run-down condition of the whole establishment at his death was a testimonial to the good-natured carelessness and improvidence of its master. When Lee arrived from Texas his sad report was, “Everything is in ruins & will have to be rebuilt.” Both mansion house and stable leaked. The overseer's dwelling was so dilapidated that, in Lee's words, “it deters respectable men with families from engaging.” The mill needed about $800 worth of repairs and the miller claimed nearly $1000 in back wages.32

Lee immediately entered upon the late autumn farm work. His trials for the first few weeks were mainly in “endeavoring to urge unwilling hands to work & make some preparation for the winter.”33 Soon his more careful husbandry bore fruit in improved buildings, livestock, and fields.34 Realizing that close personal supervision of the mill would be essential for its profitable operation, and knowing that such would be impossible along with his other duties, Lee repaired and rented the property.35 The consciousness of the run-down condition of the farms and the uncertain duration of his stay prodded him into a rapid tempo.36 He refused, however, to sacrifice caution for speed, and as time went on, grew even less tolerant of those seeking to reap unwarranted profit from transactions with the estate. Witness his advice to Custis when this son was later troubled in the management of the mill on Four Mile Run: “You must be aware of one thing, that those you deal with will consider their advantage & not yours. So while being fair & just you must not neglect your interests.”37

Lee estimated that the carrying out of his own modest ideas of improvement at Arlington would require the expenditure of about $10,000, a sum which was not at hand and which he was decidedly averse to borrowing.38 He wrote to Curtis Lee on February 15, 1858:

As to myself & my future plans, I shall defer my determination until the Fall, as it will not be necessary to determine till then. In the meantime you must think over the matter & decide what you would prefer doing. If you wished to resign & take this place, & Roony to get married & settle down at the White Hose, there would be no necessity for my leaving the army. In a pecuniary point of view I would not advise your resignation, & therefore it must depend upon you feelings & predilections. It would require about $10,000 to put this place in order. To make that of the land with hired labour would require labour economy & devotion to the object. It might however be done by selling part of the land. If you could pick up in California some bags of gold, or marry some nice young woman with enough for both, you might then resign if you felt disposed, & live the life of a country gentleman. Without that you would progress slowly. I am thinking aloud for your benefit, as I wish you to view the subject in all its bearings.39

Lee's reference to the possibility of his own resignation indicates the seriousness with which he wrestled with the problem of administering the Custis estate.The suggestion of a land sale from the Arlington properties indicates that Lee was a practical man willing to discard the remnants of the Virginia fetish which demanded that inherited acres, especially on the basic estate, be maintained intact. The recognition that hired labor would have to be used before the estate could be completely ordered shows that Lee considered the five years before emancipation too brief a period for a complete refurbishing of Arlington, and certainly announces his belief that, once the slave had been purchased or inherited, slave labor would be less expensive than free. The hint at matrimony illustrates the family aptness for contracting advantageous marital alliances.

By January 1, 1858, Arlington comprised the following taxable property, according to returns filed under the name of “Lee Col' Admr G W P Custis”: one free male slave over sixteen years of age; thirty-five slaves over sixteen (the same number over twelve); six horses, mules, asses, valued at $300; thirty-two cattle, sheep, hogs, valued at $300; a pleasure carriage, valued at $350; a watch, valued at $30; a clock, valued at $30; a piano or harp, valued at $100; gold and silver plate, and jewelry, valued at $700; and household and kitchen furniture, valued at $300. The total valuation of property, other than slaves, amounted to $2110.40

The thirty-five taxable Negroes, representing that portion of the sixty-three at Arlington who had attained the age of twelve, were more than Lee could profitably use in farming operations; therefore he planned to introduce the practice of “hiring out” to which Mr. Custis apparently had never subscribed. The hiring of country slaves to nonslaveholding townsmen or to mining and railroad companies was widesperad in the late ante-bellum period. To the slaveowner it yielded profit from surplus Negroes, yet avoided the auction block; to the employer it furnished labor under the slave system, yet required no large outlay of capital; to the slave it sometimes allowed a welcome change from country to town life with its more lively associations. Slaves from laxly-run farms naturally objected to a transition from semi-indolence to comparative activity. Lee felt that as a conscientious administratorand careful husbandman he must make wise use of the land and, while subject to him, the labor. Accordingly he chose eleven of the Arlington blacks and made arrangements for their hire during the year 1858. Of these eleven, three returned to Arlington the first day, complaining that their new tasks were too difficult. Lee remarked in a letter to Custis that among the three was “Reuben, a great rogue & rascal whom I must get rid of some way.”41

Becoming convinced of the wisdom and economy of this disposition of the servants, Lee sent larger numbers from Arlington and perhaps some from other farms. However, as he remarked in connection with the 1860 hiring of Arlington Negroes in Richmond and South-side Virginia, the expense of conveyance, clothing, and other items “reduces their profit to the Estate very much.”42 At least one advantage of the system was that it temporarily rid the estate of the complainers and troublemakers. When encourging Custis to hire out as many as possible for the year 1861, Lee suggested, “I should think that Harry, Amanda & Sarah, might at all events be put to service, to their benefit & mine, & much to your Mothers relief. Consult her about it.”43 By the middle of 1859 the old men and boys were doing all the labor at Arlington; Lee, strong for economy, had hired out all the prime field hands.44

A lax master had suddenly been replaced by one less yielding. In 1859 two servants, George Wesly and Mary Norris, broke for Pennsylvania, the promised land so tantalizingly near. The slaves were captured in Maryland en route to Pennsylvania and returned to Lee, who hired them out, with others, in South Virginia where the border would appear less tempting. The New York Tribune published anonymous letters to the effect that Lee was keeping the Arlington slaves in violation of the Custis will, that he was guilty of general mistreatment, and that he had inflicted brutal punishment on the returned runaways. According to the Tribune's informants Lee, in taking vengeance on the woman, stripped and lashed her with his own hands.45 It is needless to remark that while Lee on occasion was a firm disciplinarian he was never brutal. To his son Custis he wrote: “The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather's slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.”46

The livestock listed with the taxable property for 1858 and subsequent years roughly tallies with the report for 1860 given in the table below, “Five Virginia Agricultural Schedules, Census of 1850 and 1860.” Almost immediately after assuming control of Arlington, Lee gave special care to the draught animals. He spent, before the first spring, $381 “in strengthening the teams.”47 In addition to continuing the use of farm horses and oxen there is reason to think that he introduced at Arlington the use of that tough hybrid, the mule. Certainly Mr. Custis listed no mules for the Census of 1850; by 1860 there were two pairs on the farm.48 Before the first ploughing season Lee bought about $200 worth of farming implements.49 This purchase accounts in part for the fact that the value of such equipment at Arlington increased from $50 to $400 in the 1850–1860 period. Not even by 1860, however, had Lee seen a sample of the new “cast iron steel ploughs” so helpful in turning viscid soil.50

As Lee obtained funds from his own income and from the sale of farm products he continued to reconstruct and repair the Arlington buildings. At the end of a year's stewardship he had completed the mill and the overseer's house, covered the mansion house and stable, and laid the masonry for the barn, the superstructure of which was to be erected during the winter of 1858–1859.51 These improvements effected, Lee felt that he should increase the building valuations in the tax returns for the Arlington estate. For valuations as of January 1, 1858, he had retained in the Alexandria County Tax Books the earlier declarations of Mr. Custis: $8000 for the buildings at Arlington proper and $1000 for the mill. For January 1, 1859, he made a declaration of $9100 for Arlington mansion house and dependent buildings and $2000 for the mill, thus reflecting an increase of $2100 in the total value of all the Arlington buildings in one year.52 This construction and repair was, of course, carried on in addition to the usual farm operations. Lee consistently attempted soil improvement through the use of both lime and guano. Before his first planting season at Arlington he spent about $500 on these fertilizers.53 In February, 1858, Lee remarked that the land at White House had been made more fertile through the use of marl and lime but that the soil of Romancoke had been “sadly neglected.” Accordingly, for the latter farm he ordered from Baltimore a cargo of shell lime.54

The Arlington acres lay in a section which, according to Dr. Lewis C. Gray, was at that time “one of the most important general farming regions in the South.”55 Arlington was a farm, not a plantation. Diversification was typical; the characteristic Southern staples, cotton, rice, and tobacco, were unprofitable in the North Virginia counties. A summary of the crops gathered by Lee at Arlington in the 1859 harvest season may be obtained from the original manuscript returns for the Census of 1860. As the report includes the twelve months ending June 1, 1860, it is, as far as the major produce is concerned, a compilation of the fruits of Lee's last calendar year at Arlington. Since parts of the ante-bellum census reports prove inaccurate when measured by current standards, the value of this informationis perhaps more descriptive than statistical. The 1860 reports for Arlington, White House, and Romancoke, with similar ones for Arlington and White House prepared in 1850, are given in the accompanying table, “Five Virginia Agricultural Schedules, Census of 1850 and 1860.”56 Obviously, the 1860 Arlington schedule includes only Arlington proper while that for 1850 embraces the mill section on Four Mile Run. The 500-acre mill tract, though less fertile than the rest, must have made appreciable contributions to the 1850 totals.57 However, it seems safe to conclude from comparing the schedules that by 1860 new land had been opened at Arlington. Less attention was given to cattle grazing—due perhaps to the separate administrationof the mill property with its adjacent grass land—and more emphasis put on wheat and garden truck, the latter to be sold in nearby Washington.58 Though some of the changes may have been initiated by Mr. Custis, it is clear that Lee brought about the major developments.


Alexandria CountyNew Kent CountyKing Wm. County
(Arlington)(White House)(Romancoke)
(1)Name of Owner, Agent, or manager of the FarmG. W. P. CustisR. E. LeeGeo: W P CustisW. H. F. LeeWm H T Lee [sic]
Acres of Land
(4)Cash value of Farm$50,000$35,000$40,000$70,000$35,000
(5)Value of Farming Implements and Machinery$50$400$720$1,600$300
Live Stock, June 1
(7)Asses and Mules4252510
(8)Milch Cows15820208
(9)Working Oxen22252612
(10)Other Cattle209461216
(13)Value of Live Stock$1,200$1,000$5,885$3,453$1,200
Produce During the Year Ending June 1
(14)Wheat, bushels of1254,0004,000
(15)Rye, bushels of200150200
(16)Indian COrn, bushels of9007507,5006,0002,500
(17)Oats, bushels of150150
(18)Rice, lbs. of
(19)Tobacco, lbs. of
(20)Ginned Cotton, bales of 400 lbs. each
(21)Wool, lbs. of10200200
(22)Peas and Beans, bushels of2030100
(23)Irish Potatoes, bushels of50401020
(24)Sweet Potatoes, bushels of2020
(25)Barley, bushels of
(26)Buckwheat, bush. of
(27)Value of Orchard Products, in doll's20
(28)Wine, gallons of
(29)Value of Produce of Market Gardens$200
(30)Butter, lbs. of10052700200
(31)Cheese, lbs. of
(32)Hay, tons of303108
(35)Hops, lbs. of4
(45)Value of Home-made Manufactures$25$60
(46)Value of Animals Slaughtered$100$50$170$460$250

In summary, the principal innovations at Arlington in slightly more than two years, November, 1857, to February, 1860, the period in which Lee was immediately responsible for the conduct of affairs, were as follows: (1) As Arlington was “labor poor,” Lee reduced the surplus by hiring out some of the slaves for annual wages. (2) He repaired and rebuilt structures on both the home place and mill property; the latter, rented to a professional miller, was administered separately from Arlington. (3) He purchased many new tools and implements for improved agricultural practice. (4) Apparently, he opened new land for cultivation and certainly made great efforts to fertilize the old. (5) His agricultural program seemingly meant a reduction in livestock with a corresponding decline in meat and dairy products, and a new emphasis on the cultivation of wheat and market vegetables.

Lee effected these changes while nursing his ailing wife, giving indirect supervision to the two Pamunkey River estates, and performing sundry duties assigned him by his Washington office. The most notable of these military commisions was, of course, the capturing of John Brown at Harpers Ferry.59 Each embarrassing application for an extension of leave from his Texas regiment left Lee sorely troubled. As the months dragged on he felt a certain restlessness and was subject to long periods of depression.60 Though he disliked the prospect of renewed separation from his family, a burden was removed from his conscience when he was able to surrender the supervision of Arlington to Custis Lee and the management of the Pamunkey farms to his second son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, known to all as “Rooney.” Custis Lee, who had generously tried to give his inheritance to his father,61 was transferred from his army post to Washington. Thus he was able to live with the family at Arlington, on which he had eventual claim. Rooney Lee resigned from the army, married and moved to White House, taking charge of that farm, willed to him by Mr. Custis, and also of Romancoke, bequeathed to Robert E. Lee, Jr., still of school age. His duties conscientiously and capably discharged, Lee left for Texas on February 10, 1860.62

The years 1858 and 1859, a time of sharply increasing tension between the sections, were for Lee the climax to his schooling as a Virginian, a schooling which made inevitable his decision of 1861. Surrounded by Virginia friends and kinsmen, he partook of their characteristic point of view. Embarrassed by the difficulties inherent in the slave system, he felt the sting of the antislavery press and saw at Harpers Ferry the fruits of fanatical abolitionism. Sowing and reaping as did thousands of other Virginians, Lee discovered that his sympathy for the Southern agriculturist was bolstered by kindred experience. In the time of crisis for Virginia he found that he could not lift his hand against her. In the words of his most brilliant biographer, “Having ploughed her fields, he had a new sense of oneness with her.”63

Three years after he planted his first crops at Arlington, Robert E. Lee resigned its acres to the Federal armies and turned his face toward Richmond.