Friday, February 08, 2019

Robert E. Lee's cook(s)

William Mack Lee
Atlanta Constitution October 7, 1919
(probably not R. E. Lee's cook)

   In the world of Confederate history, the story of Robert E. Lee's cooks is fairly well known. William Mack Lee claimed in a short biographical sketch to have been the "body servant" and cook for Lee from 1861 to 1865. The small booklet contains the story of Nellie, the laying hen that Lee kept around headquarters  to provide a daily egg for the General's consumption. Charged with cooking a meal for not only Lee, but Jackson, A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill, Hampton, Longstreet, Pickett and others, and not having anything sufficient for the meal, William fixed Nellie. It was the only time that Lee, according to William, scolded his cook. (You can read the account here.) Of course, if you have read the account, then you have also realized it has a lot of problems. Many believe that Mack Lee's account is a fabrication.  

    Robert E. Lee's first cook appears to be a man by the name of Meredith. Meredith was undoubtedly an enslaved man working at the White House plantation in June 1861, when he first appears in a letter from the General to Mary Lee. Lee had Meredith with him at Sewell's Mountain, and then Meredith followed to the east coast in December. On February 8, Lee, writing from Savannah, tells Mary that he has left Meredith at the headquarters at Coosawhatchie. But the reason is unknown. (Dowdey and Manarin, The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, 112, hereafter cited Wartime Papers.) The last time Meredith appears in Lee's letters is on February 23, 1862, when Lee writes that Meredith is well. (Wartime Papers,  118) 

   It is unclear just how long Meredith continues to cook for General Lee. However, Lee apparently has a new cook by February 1863. On that day, he writes Mary that "I have George as cook now." But something has changed: Lee is no longer a slave owner. He also writes, "I give him & Perry each 8.20 per month." (Perry has been with Lee as a body servant since the beginning of the war.) (Wartime Papers, 402) According to the terms of the will of his father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis, all the slaves at various properties owned by Custis, like Arlington and White House, were to be freed within five years. On January 2, 1863, Lee recorded the deed of manumission in Richmond, freeing not only the Custis slaves, but also the family of Nancy Ruffin, whom Lee had inherited from his mother in 1835, as well. Since Lee was now a non-slave owner, he did what so many others likewise did: he hired someone to take care of his cooking.

   Lee apparently never mentions George again in the surviving letters. A month later, Lee writes that Bryan [Lynch] has arrived. (Wartime Papers, 412) Bryan seems to fill the role of Lee's "steward" for the rest of the war. It is Bryan that divides a box sent to Lee and Colonel Corley in December 1863. (Wartime Papers, 632) In December 1864, Lee writes to Mary that Bryan is distressed over a missing "saddle of mutton." (Wartime Papers, 879)
Lee's Camp Chest
Museum of the Confederacy

   In A. L. Long's Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (1886), Bryan appears again. Long recalls that several of Lee's staff saw a demijohn being carried into Lee's tent. "The general well knew that several of his staff enjoyed a glass of wine, or even something stronger," Long wrote. At noon, Lee emerged and asked if they would like "a glass of something?" Bryan, "the steward of the mess," was sent by Lee "to carry the demijohn to the mess-tent and arrange the cups of the gentlemen." It was only after the liquid was poured that the staff discovered it was buttermilk. (240)

   It appears that it was Long who first broke the story of Lee's laying hen. Bryan was the one who had charge of the hen, a hen that accompanied Lee on the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaign. And according to Long, it was Bryan who killed and cooked the hen in the winter of 1864 "when the General had a distinguished visitor" for dinner. (242) 

   No one, including Lee or his staff, ever seems to have mentioned William Mack Lee. Was William Mack Lee lying, or stretching the truth? Possibly. He certainly used the accounts of cooking for Lee to his benefit and for the benefit of others, raising money for building Black churches. After 1900, Mack Lee was a frequent guest on the Veterans reunion circuit, telling of his adventures as General Lee's cook.

    It would be great if we had more information on each of these men, Meredith, George, and Bryan, and even William Mack Lee, and their lives and on the roles they played around the stewpot and mess table.

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