One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 10, Number 3
March 2002

In my last column I wrote about my initial venture into reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s two classic books on the Civil War: Lee’s Lieutenants and R. E. Lee. Both volumes have sat on my bookshelf for more years than I care to count without being read from cover to cover. They had sort of a biblical presence—I referred to them frequently for various chapters and verses, but whoever heard of sitting down and reading the Bible from start to finish? Something told me however, that if I was really serious about studying The War, now was the time to wade into the seven volumes of the two most widely acclaimed books on the war in Virginia. Although written some 50–60 years ago, Gary Gallagher points out the fact that “that Freeman’s multivolume works have never gone out of print suggests the degree to which they continue to influence readers.” Further attesting to the books’ popularity is the fact that both R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants also have appeared in one-volume abridgements.

A few modern revisionists such as Thomas L. Connelly and Alan T. Nolan have lumped Freeman and Jubal Early together and insisted that, as historians, they both exaggerated Lee’s prowess and wartime reputation, and overstated his contributions to the Confederate cause. These, and other critics suggest that Freeman shaped literature about Lee and the Confederacy in the pre-World II years much the way Early had done in the late nineteenth century. I’ll leave it to others to sort out the validity of these comparisons and criticisms. As for me, I agree with Gallagher when he says that the passage of time “has done little to diminish Freeman’s reputation. He remains the most widely known figure in the field of Confederate military history.”

Freeman graduated from Richmond College in 1904 at the age of eighteen. Four years later he received a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University. He told the story of how his history professor reacted to his first research paper: “Freeman, the research is excellent, indeed most exceptional. But you will never make a writer. Your purple prose is execrable.” Famous last words! Freeman resolved then to simplify his style.

Freeman was a prodigious worker, and abhorred laziness above all things. He said throughout his life that he regarded the wasting of time as a sin, and he lived his life accordingly. Among his dislikes were loud-talking women, whistling, and barking dogs. One of Freeman’s associates said, “his usual good humor vanished if someone stayed too long or had trouble breaking away. He regarded brevity as a desirable virtue.”

In spite of his workaholic nature and the seriousness of all his tasks, Freeman was not without an occasional bit of drollery. An entry in his diary made one week before his death in 1953 is an example: “By every test this has been a bad week. I miscalculated the time [on the Washington book], the Board meeting Thursday was long; to cap it all, a deaf old jackass came here today and took almost an hour to ask me when he should fly the Confederate flag on his confounded bank.”

In addition to his scholarly studies of the Civil War, Freeman edited the Richmond News Leader, had a daily radio broadcast, and a weekly Sunday morning spiritual/inspirational radio program called “Lessons in Living” that my parents used to listen to with great regularity. Highly respected for his studies of the Civil War, he gave numerous lectures at the Army and Naval War Colleges, and spoke extensively to many other military service schools across the country, especially during the early days of World War II. His favorite subjects were leadership and character, based upon his analysis of the Confederate leaders. He hoped that something might gained by “telling the story of the difficulties that had to be overcome in [the Civil War] before the command of the army became measurably qualified for the task assigned to it. . . . the Lee and Jackson of this war [WW II] will emerge.”

He was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes: one for R. E. Lee in 1935, and another in 1957 for his seven-volume biography of George Washington, the last volume of which was published four years after his death. Somehow, he also managed to teach a Sunday school class and to raise a family of three children. He is said to have limited himself to a maximum of six hours sleep a night. (His wife must have been very tolerant and understanding of his work habits!)

Freeman grew up in Lynchburg and spent his formative years there while General Early lived in the city. His father was also a Confederate veteran. As a result, then, of the Confederate setting and of his father’s firsthand accounts of the war, Freeman developed a keen interest in Confederate military history. I think it is significant that, unlike Jubal Early, this interest was not marred by bitterness. Like many other Confederate veterans, Freeman’s father regarded the surrender as the result of a fair fight, and considered the abolition of slavery a good thing. In his view, the war was over, the issue decided, and it was now the job of the South to rebuild itself.

As he watched the aged veterans die off, and the memory of the great conflict begin to fade, Freeman determined that the history of Virginia’s participation and the men involved would not be lost. At age seventeen in 1903, he viewed a mock reenactment of the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg. The sight of the old veterans at the spectacular event, he later explained, inspired him to attempt to “to preserve from immolating time some of the heroic figures of the Confederacy.” The publication of R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants years later enabled him to make good on his youthful resolution. He, in effect, accomplished what Lee, himself wanted to do before his death: “to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and to do justice to our brave soldiers.” When the final volume of Lieutenants was published in 1944, Freeman recorded the completion of this work with diary entry for Tuesday, May 30, 1944: “At 6:30 P.M. in the presence of dear friends, I finished Lee’s Lieutenants and concluded 29 years work to preserve the record of our fathers of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Some detractors in modern times have suggested that Freeman was too much of a champion and advocate of Lee and his army. He is criticized for his lack of objectivity, for exaggerating the deficiency of human and material resources of the South, and for not giving the Union armies fair credit for winning the war. One critic says that Freeman acts as an apologist for the Southern defeat. Perhaps, but Freeman also acknowledged that Lincoln and Grant deserve great credit for utilizing the North’s great resources and the strategy that they pursued. At the same time, Lee and his lieutenants do not escape Freeman’s criticism.

As far as I am concerned R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants are epic works on the Confederate armies in Virginia. The exhaustively researched and well-written volumes deserve to be read by all serious Civil War students.