Slave Billy Lee-Hero in the Shadows

 

Billy Lee (AKA Will, William) is a very interesting early American whose contributions to our country were due to his unique relationship to George Washington.  Meaningful discussion about Billy is often impossible due to so many extreme positive and negative opinions because Billy was a slave.  For this reason, he has been largely ignored by both white and black historians who tend to dismiss him as nothing more than an enslaved servant.  This opinion shames them all.

G. Washington and Billy Lee - Billy Lee- Hero in the Shadows
G. Washington and Billy Lee

Some portraits of Washington and his family include the image of an African man in the background, often wearing a turban. This image is believed to be Billy Lee.  I hope to bring Billy out of the shadows to recognize his unique, although mostly indirect, contributions to the founding of our nation.   

We know little about Billy Lee’s early years, but we do know that Washington purchased teenager Billy, and his younger brother, Frank, in 1768 from the estate of deceased Colonel John Lee, a fellow Virginian.  Both were to be “house servants” rather than field workers.  A premium price was usually paid for house servants because most had received some education, were normally literate, and had some essential talent.  For these reasons, they were usually given responsibilities and privileges that most slaves could only dream about. 

Frank Lee became a butler in the Mount Vernon household, but Billy apparently impressed Washington and became his manservant/valet/companion.  He was also made the Huntsman of Washington’s fox hunts—one of Washington’s favorite activities.  As Huntsman, he was responsible for handling the hounds, and keeping the hunt organized.  Washington was known to be very demanding of all those involved in his hunts. 

Billy was particularly well-known for his remarkable and fearless horsemanship, which was best described by George Washington Parke Custis (Washington’s step-grandson):   “Will, the huntsman, better known in Revolutionary lore as Billy, rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling…this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style at which modern huntsman would stand aghast.” 

As Washington’s manservant/valet/companion, Billy undoubtedly spent more time with Washington than any other person. He accompanied Washington nearly everywhere, including to the Virginia House of Burgesses, on his surveying excursions into the western wilderness of the Ohio Valley, and to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1774. 

Billy Lee Saddling Horse - Billy Lee - Hero in the Shadows
Billy Lee Saddling Horse

As Washington became active in the early moves towards independence, Billy accompanied him in his travels to Philadelphia and New York.  Washington was appointed Commander of Colonial Forces In 1775, and for the entire eight years of the Revolutionary War, Billy was by his side, even in the thick of battle, and was known to place himself between Washington and danger. 

Billy also organized Washington’s personal affairs, including his voluminous papers. Billy was well known in the army since he was more like a military aide than a servant. (blr)

Although Virginia law did not recognize slave marriages, Billy was apparently married prior to the war.  Washington’s cousin, Lund Washington, who was managing Mount Vernon during the war, wrote the general on 30 December 1775: “if it will give Will any pleasure he may be told that his wife and child are both very well.”  This was the first and last known mention of his family and it is believed that his wife either died shortly after Lund’s letter or escaped to a Free State.  There are no records of his child.

We know Billy married Margaret Thomas, a free African from Philadelphia during the war.  Margaret had been a servant in Washington’s headquarters.  It is not known if she had been a slave and escaped or whether she was free-born. 

After the war, Billy asked Washington to bring Margaret to Mount Vernon.  Apparently she was not liked by Washington who reportedly grumbled that he “never wished to see her more,” but went on to say that he could not refuse Billy  “(if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long and followed my fortunes with fidelity.”  There is no record of Margaret being at Mount Vernon.  She was reported to be in poor health and in fact may have died before she could  move.  Or she just did not want to live in a slave state.  

It is appropriate to note that Billy and Washington spent much of their time before and during the war in “Free States” where Billy was legally a free man.  He could have just abandoned Washington and stayed in “free” territory.  There is, however, no record that he ever tried to take advantage of this situation.  Washington was a great records keeper so I believe he would have written a lot about such an incident if it had ever occurred. 

After the War for Independence, Washington resigned his commission in 1783.  After his resignation Billy accompanied him back to Mount Vernon where they resumed their normal lives. During a 1785 surveying expedition, Billy severely injured a knee, and three years later in Alexandria, Virginia he fell and injured the other knee, which rendered him seriously disabled. 

When Washington was elected President in 1789, Billy was determined to accompany him to New York for the inauguration, and to be part of the presidential household.  Unfortunately, his condition worsened, and he could only make it to Philadelphia where he had to be left for medical care.  Washington’s agent in Philadelphia, Clement Biddle, was to monitor Billy’s progress.  He often corresponded about Billy’s condition since Washington was genuinely concerned about his old companion. 

Billy was treated by several physicians who eventually outfitted him with a steel brace, which allowed him to travel.  Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, wrote the following to Biddle: “if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful Servt. This is enough for the Presidt to gratify him in every reasonable wish.”  Billy eventually joined the presidential household in New York, but his disabilities made it impossible for him to perform his duties. 

Billy’s brother Frank’s nephew had to assist Billy in New York, and shortly had to take over all his duties.  Billy did not improve and returned to Mount Vernon in 1790.  When Washington retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, Billy was still unable to perform any of his former duties and spent the remainder of his life as a shoemaker at Mount Vernon—a job he could physically perform.  Because of his close association with Washington during the Revolutionary War, Billy was a minor celebrity, and visitors to Mount Vernon, especially Revolutionary War veterans, often stopped to reminisce about the war with him. 

Billy Lee in Later Life-Portrait by Peale - Billy Lee - Hero in the Shadows
Billy Lee in Later Life-Portrait by Peale

When George Washington died in 1799, he freed Billy in his will citing “this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” The will provided a pension for Billy and stipulated that he had the option of remaining at Mount Vernon.  He did choose to live at Mount Vernon until his death in 1810.  He is believed to be buried in the plantation’s slave cemetery. 

Billy was the only slave freed in Washington’s will.  Another 123 were to be freed when Martha Washington died. (There were another 153 slaves at Mount Vernon, but Washington could not free them since they were legally the property of Martha’s first husband’s estate.) 

Obviously, if Billy had been white rather than an African slave, he would have been celebrated for his association with the “Father of our country” during those momentous times.  Also, the question is often posed about Billy’s true motivation for his apparent devotion to Washington.  Did it stem from genuine affection or a desire to maintain his position of privilege within the slave community?  The opinions on that question cover the entire spectrum of possibilities.

My opinion is that the relationship was based on genuine affection.  Billy did not have to place himself in danger to protect Washington, and he apparently never tried to escape when they were in free states.  Many slaves did escape when such an opportunity presented itself.  Also, based on Washington’s will and correspondence when Billy was receiving medical care in Philadelphia, Washington believed there was genuine affection and friendship between them.   

Washington’s views on slavery changed significantly during the war as he saw free Africans from the northern states serving gallantly in his army.  He made the commitment to neither buy nor sell slaves again, and to avoid separating slave families.  I believe his long-term close relationship with Billy, who was brave and loyal, also contributed to this change in attitude.

There is much we will never know about Billy Lee but we know for sure that he was a patriot and contributed significantly to the founding of our country.  He should be recognized and celebrated by all as a true Revolutionary Hero. 

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