In this chapter, William Wright buys time for four runaway men to make their way to another stop on the Underground Railroad by engaging their pursuers in a debate about slavery. The attitudes expressed by the Virginia men are, of course, offensive to our ears today but were common in the antebellum South. The last names of the men are Custis, which is a nod to this reality. Robert E. Lee’s wife was Mary Anna Randolph Custis, and the Custis family was one of the most notable families in Virginia in the Revolutionary and antebellum eras. Mary Custis was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis who was the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washinton . . . better known as Martha Washington.
These men are fictional Custises, though their arguments are rooted in Virginia attitudes common to the era. Here is Robert E. Lee’s view on slavery, captured in a letter to his wife:
The views of the Pres: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war. In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?
This particular incident is loosely based on an actual incident in which William Wright took in some runaways, then delayed their pursuers by engaging them in a debate about the nature of slavery. The real incident had a less happy and more complicated ending. It is given below from William Still’s work on the Underground Railroad. (Note that Washington County, Maryland, is a rural area counting a number of small towns, including tiny Sharpsburg . . . site of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.)