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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.


The History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee states that its author, William Mack Lee (1835-1932), was a body servant and cook for General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War and until the general's death in 1870. However, this claim, like many others in W. M. Lee's brief 1918 autobiography, has been disputed by recent scholarship. Much of Lee's History has not been confirmed by independent evidence, while several claims that Lee made about his life before and after enslavement are contradicted by historical documents.

According to W. M. Lee's story, he was raised at the General's Arlington Heights estate, where he served "Marse Robert, as I called him" even after being legally emancipated in 1865 (p. 3).

W.M. Lee's History portrays him as having been ordained "a Missionary Baptist preacher" in Washington, D.C., in 1881 and having gone on to found four separate congregations in southern Maryland and northern Virginia. The History also states that in 1887, W.M. Lee organized the State Benevolent Association of Virginia, an organization dedicated to relieving the physical needs of the poor. In 1912, W.M. Lee, according to the History, successfully raised the funds to build a stone and brick church for his fourth and final congregation in Churchland, Virginia.

W.M Lee published his History to help him raise money from white southerners to complete the financing for his Churchland, Virginia, pastorate. No doubt the minister's claims in his History of having been wounded by a Yankee bullet and having served Robert E. Lee himself during the Civil War got the attention of southern whites whom W.M. Lee solicited for funds.

W.M. 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 solicited donations for his church (p. 7). Lee hoped that his story "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

William L. Andrews

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