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William Mack Lee, b. 1835
History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee: Body Servant of General Robert E. Lee Through the Civil War: Cook from 1861 to 1865
[Norfolk, Va.: The Smith Printing Company], c1918.


William Mack Lee (1835-c.1930) was a body servant and cook for General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War and until the general's death in 1870. Lee was raised at the General's Arlington Heights estate and served "Marse Robert, as I called him" even after being legally emancipated in 1865 (p. 3). General Lee left him $360 in his will, which Lee used to educate himself. He was ordained "a Missionary Baptist preacher" in Washington, D.C., in 1881 and went on to found four separate congregations in southern Maryland and northern Virginia. In addition to his work as a minister, Lee also found time to "look after the bodily wants of my fellowman as well as his spiritual needs" (p. 6). In 1887, he organized the State Benevolent Association of Virginia, an organization dedicated to relieving the physical needs of the poor. He also promoted several other charitable institutions. In 1912, Lee built a stone and brick church for his fourth and final congregation in Churchland, Virginia. By 1918, he had collected $5,000 in donations for the building, which cost $5500. He published his recollections of General Lee in an effort to recoup the final $500, going door to door requesting donations.

Lee's History (1918) was published in Newport News, Virginia, by the Warwick Printing Co. The narrative alternates between first person accounts written or dictated by Lee and a third person narrative written by an unknown author—perhaps a reporter in "the office of the World-News" where Lee solicits donations for his church (p. 7). In his History, Lee praises his master for the humane treatment of his slaves, claiming that "There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment" (p. 4). But Lee's claims are exaggerated. He states that General Lee freed all his slaves "ten years before the war," but the only slaves General Lee ever freed were those belonging to his father-in-law, whose will stipulated that his slaves be emancipated (p. 4). Still, Lee portrays his master as a man with deep feelings.

After the war and his master's death, Lee attends school. Although "[a]t the close of the war I did not know A from B," he studies "hard at the letter" and is ordained a minister (pp. 4-5). As a minister, Lee is very successful. His first congregation grows "from 20 to 500 members during my pastorate," and his subsequent congregations experience similarly rapid growth (p. 5).

The swift expansion of Lee's congregations and his ability to raise more than $14,000 for the building of four different churches in the Reconstruction-era South speak to Lee's natural business acumen and drive. He writes his history primarily to raise money, but he also hopes that "it might cause some of the young negroes who have school advantages from childhood and early youth, to consider life more seriously and if men of my type had lived in their time, how far they would exceed them along lines of religious, educational and business activities" (p. 6).

Works Consulted: Niven, Steven J., "William Mack Lee," African American National Biography, Vol. 5, Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 204-06; "Media Images," Virginia Historical Society, 7 Nov. 2008.

Zachary Hutchins

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