Wesley Norris was a black Virginian. In 1857, Norris and his family, who had been enslaved by George Washington Parke Custis on Arlington Plantation, came under the control of Robert E. Lee, the son-in-law of Custis and the executor of his estate. Custis's will provided that the 200 people he had enslaved should be freed once his white granddaughters had been paid and his estates cleared of debts, to be completed within no more than 5 years from his death. Many of the slaves, including Norris, had been given to understand by Custis that they would be freed immediately; meanwhile, Lee misrepresented the terms of the will to say that the slaves would be freed after a fixed term of 5 more years' enslavement.
Many of Custis's former slaves felt that they were being deceived and that Lee intended to cheat them of their freedom. In June 1859, Wesley Norris, together with his sister Mary Norris, and a cousin of theirs, escaped from Arlington Plantation and headed north towards Pennsylvania. They were captured by slave-hunters in Maryland, near the border with Pennsylvania; after their capture, the Norrises imprisoned, and forced back to Arlington, where Lee had them taken into a barn, tied to a post, and whipped by the county constable, and then had their backs washed with brine to rub salt into the wounds. A pair of anonymous letters were printed in the New York Tribune (one signed "A Citizen" and one signed "A") giving garbled third-hand accounts of the events, claiming that Lee had personally whipped Mary Norris.
After the whipping, Wesley Norris and his cousin were sent to jail for a week and then forced to work on a series of railroad jobs in Virginia and then Alabama. In January 1863, they were sent back up to Richmond, where Norris escaped and made his way through the Union lines, where he was given his freedom. After the end of the Civil War, he got a job working in the construction of Arlington National Cemetery. In April 1866, he gave an interview to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, in which he gave the first first-hand description of his treatment by Lee.
- Wesley Norris, "Robert E. Lee: His Brutality to His Slaves", interviewed in National Anti-Slavery Standard XXVI.49 (April 14, 1866). 4.
- Norris's testimony is reprinted in John W. Blassingame (ed.): Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, and Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (ISBN 0-8071-0273-3). 467-468.
- Letter from "A Citizen", New York Daily Tribune, June 24, 1859. 6.
- A., "Some Facts That Should Come To Light," New York Daily Tribune, June 24, 1859. 6.
- "Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery", from Rad Geek People's Daily 2005-01-03.
- Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee, with commentary by Charles Johnson, 24 February 2006
- Bruce Levine (2013), The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. Random House. 11.