Excerpts on “body-servant ‘Billy'” from “The True George Washington” [1898]

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

A single one of these slaves deserves further notice. His body-servant “Billy” was purchased by Washington in 1768 for sixty-eight pounds and fifteen shillings, and was his constant companion during the war, even riding after his master at reviews; and this servant was so associated with the General that it was alleged in the preface to the “forged letters” that they had been captured by the British from “Billy,” “an old servant of General Washington’s.” When Savage painted his well-known “family group,” this was the one slaved included in the picture. In 1784 Washington told his Philadelphia agent that “The mulatto fellow, William, who has been with me all the war, is attached (married he says) to one of his own color, a free woman, who during the war, was also of my family. She has been in an infirm condition for some time, and I had conceived that the connexion [sic] between them has ceased; but I am mistaken it seems; they are both applying to get her here, and tho’ I never wished to see her more, I cannot refuse his request (if it can complied with on reasonable terms) as he has served me faithfully for many years. After premising this much, I have to beg the favor of you to procure her a passage to Alexandria.”

When acting as a chain-bearer in 1785, while Washington was surveying a tract of land, William fell and broke his knee-pan, “which put a stop to my surveying; and with much difficulty I was able to get him to Abington, being obliged to get a sled to carry him on, as he could neither walk, stand or ride.” From this injury Lee never quite recovered, yet he started to accompany his master to New York in 189, only to give out on the road. He was left at Philadelphia, and Lear wrote to Washington’s agent that “The President will thank you to propose it to Will to return to Mount Vernon when he can be moved with safety – but 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 Servant, this is enough for the President to gratify him in every reasonable wish.”

By his will Washington gave Lee his “immediate freedom or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so – In either case however I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life which shall be independent or the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive; if he chuses the last alternative, but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first, and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”


Ford, Paul Leicester, The True George Washington, Philadelphia. J. B. Lippincott Company; 1898. p. 150 – 152.


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