[NOTE: I never intended to read Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee. After all, in grad school one of my professors dismissed Freeman’s effort out of hand, remarking that Freeman’s Lee would have been a much better book if the author hadn’t spent so much time genuflecting before the altar to the General in his home!
Then, a couple of years ago, a friend, downsizing in preparation for an out-of-town move, offered me the “Pulitzer Prize Edition” (1935) of Freeman’s R.E. Lee, which included lots of extra pictures in each volume, and I took him up on the offer. I’m glad I did, because, as had been the case with Gone With The Wind and Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, I enjoyed reading Freeman’s magnum opus and learned a lot.
According to historian Thomas L. Connelly, the Lee described by Freeman was “The Marble Man,” not a real figure but a prettified creation, shined up enough to fit the “Lost Cause” school of Civil War scholarship (late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries), which treated Lee and other Confederate generals “as men of principles unimpeachable, of valor indescribable.” (Encyclopedia Virginia)
This picture of Lee as the “Marble Man” was not confined to the 1930s. I have a vague recollection of hearing a talk by a historian at a local college several decades ago who was planning to write a “tell-all” biography debunking at least some of the claims made by Lee’s acolytes. Comments at that meeting were harsh, and, so far as I know, the historian abandoned his project.]
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Freeman was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1886, in the Shenandoah valley, just down the road from one of Lee’s lieutenants—and a major figure in the creation of the “Lost Cause” interpretation of Confederate history—General Jubal Early. Freeman’s father also had served under Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia. When the Freeman family moved to Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, in 1892, the white South was caught up in a public celebration of the “nobility” of the Confederate cause and the valor of the Confederate Army, erecting statues of its leaders, as well as generic marble portrayals of Confederate soldiers in town squares throughout the region, monuments to Southern white manhood that are still in the news in 2019.
In addition to the influence of genealogy and geography, surely some of Freeman’s pro-Confederate bias is attributable to his education. In Richmond, he attended a school run by a former Confederate naval officer and staffed mostly by Confederate veterans. The curriculum at the McGuire University School for Boys “emphasized Christian and Southern values and identity, while using figures like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as examples of, ‘fortitude, industry, temperance, honor, and common sense.’” (“Freeman Digitally Remastered”)
Freeman attended Richmond College (now the University of Richmond), studying under Samuel C. Mitchell, a prominent Civil War historian who also idolized Lee. While working on his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Freeman came across a cache of wartime correspondence between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Lee. In 1915, Freeman published Lee’s Dispatches, based on those documents, after which he began work on his now famous biography of Lee.
Unable to secure a college teaching post, Freeman opted for journalism upon the completion of his PhD, signing on first with the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1909, and, in 1914, moving to the Richmond News Leader, where, within a year, he became the editor. (“Encyclopedia Virginia”)
By 1915, Freeman had begun to balance two careers, newspaper editor and biographer of Robert E. Lee, which required a mind-numbing work schedule. He headed for the newspaper at three each morning; in addition to writing 60,000 editorial words each year, Freeman broadcast the news from a nearby radio studio twice a day; drove home for a short nap and lunch; then worked another five or six hours on the Lee project. (Wikipedia; “Freeman Digitally Remastered.”)
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Freeman’s famous (and famously biased) biography of Robert E. Lee certainly reads well, and there are few surprises. Freeman was “all Lee, all the time.” I was most interested in volumes 1 and 4, which dealt with the beginning and the end of Lee’s life, years I knew little about. For example, I was surprised to learn that Lee, a graduate of West Point, was an engineer by training and spent most of his early career in staff jobs in the U.S. Army.
In treating the war years, Freeman adopts a “fog of war” approach: at any given time, the reader knows only what Lee knows (as best Freeman can reconstruct it). This means that a lot of the exploits of the Army of Northern Virginia and its leaders occur “offstage,” with Lee learning the details through after-action reports from his generals.
Lee’s approach to leadership was to devise the strategy, explain to his generals what needed to be done, and then trust that they would accomplish his aims. Early in the war, with talented subordinates like “Stonewall” Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and his “Old Warhorse,” General James Longstreet, Lee’s enjoyed considerable success, but later, not so much. . . .
Freeman’s most interesting accounts of the war years, to me anyway, spanned the last eighteen months or so, from the Wilderness campaign through Appomattox. By that time, Jackson and Stuart were dead, Longstreet had developed a chronic case of “the slows,” and those chosen, by Lee, to replace his fallen commanders mostly proved unequal to the task. Consequently, Lee fought a series of bloody battles over unforgiving terrain, trying to keep his incredibly shrinking army between General Grant and Richmond, ultimately to no avail.
Freeman frequently explains Lee’s battlefield miscues by attributing them to his subordinate commanders, whom Lee, of course, had selected. Another favorite fall guy for Freeman is the Confederate Commissary Department, notoriously inept at supplying even the basics for troops in the field as the conflict lengthened.
If an army travels (and fights) on its stomach, can it achieve much if kept on starvation rations? Can the cavalry perform its crucial duties if there is a shortage of horses? Even if this approach to Lee’s lackluster achievements as the war wound down is persuasive, what do Freeman’s rationalizations tell us about Lee, a leader who subjected his men to tremendous hardships even though he realized that, given the logistical realities, the end must be near?
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Freeman’s approach to the postwar period works better, given Lee’s association during the last five years of his life with Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia (the future Washington & Lee University). He served as President of the school, and the details Freeman serves up about Lee’s activities in that role are fascinating.
The high regard for Lee held throughout the South, and in parts of the North, during the early years of Reconstruction comes through strongly in Freeman’s final volume. He seems to have unearthed every anecdote about how, when Lee encountered former soldiers in his command, they promptly vowed that they’d fight for him again.
Freeman’s treatment of Reconstruction comes straight out of the “Dunning School” of historiography, again no surprise given where and when Freeman was educated and where he researched and wrote the biography: the Reconstruction governments were oozing corruption, thanks to Radical Republicans, slimy Carpetbaggers, and ignorant Freedmen who kept their feet upon the neck of the Suffering South until they were driven out by the region’s “Better [White] People.”
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The key to Freeman’s interpretation of Lee during Reconstruction lies in the General’s relative “moderation,” no matter how harshly he was criticized by those who doubted his loyalty to the Union or his “nobility.” Lee urged those who had served with him, from general officers to enlisted men, to pick up their lives and get back to work, for the sake of their families, their states, and the South. Yet, even this “moderate” Lee was critical of the actions of the Republicans during “Radical Reconstruction,” when Washington prohibited former high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers (including Lee himself) from voting or running for office. And “Negro Rule”? Perish the thought, because, in Lee’s mind, the freedmen were too ignorant to hold office and wield power over the prostrate South. (And one is forced to ask, “I wonder why those freedmen were so unlearned?”)
Freeman’s final chapter is a summary of Lee’s character, which he traces through Lee’s ancestors and their “good blood” (or at least absence of “bad blood”). Freeman’s treatment of Lee emphasizes his sterling character and his greatness, while admitting (reluctantly) a few actual mistakes or misjudgments. One is tempted to say that, in Freeman’s eyes, Lee was not just a remarkable man, but also a veritable candidate for sainthood. Freeman stresses Lee’s undying admiration for George Washington, the Father of His Country, a relative on his mother’s side, and for his father, Light Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary hero whose end was not nearly as noble as his beginning.
Yet, none of this really explains why Lee chose to follow his “country” (Virginia, harking back to a late eighteenth-century usage of the word “country”), rather than accept command of the Union forces offered to him by General Winfield Scott during the secession crisis. (Perhaps we are to assume that, to Lee, Abraham Lincoln was a “modern” version of King George III, but, if so, I don’t buy it.)
Even less persuasive, because written in 1866 and later, while Lee was navigating the era of Reconstruction, are his letters explaining his views in 1861. (Vol. 4, 302-306) There, Lee even insisted that the Constitution of 1787 was ordained by God, and that it was this version of the nation’s founding principles, written and approved by the demi-god Founding Fathers, that he had always cherished, not the one in force in 1860-1861, which threatened “consolidated government.”
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According to Freeman, Lee did not leave much of a record about his feelings on slavery. He evidently owned, in his own name, one slave family, and in his 1846 will he directed that those slaves should be “liberated as soon as it can be done to their advantage and that of others.” (Vol. 1, 371n) But, even if Lee owned few slaves himself, his wife Mary inherited 63 slaves upon her father’s death. Robert took leave from the army and returned to the family’s Arlington plantation to try to bring some order to Mary Lee’s estate.
Dealing with those slaves proved especially troublesome. He finally hired out “a few of them by the year in order to supplement the income from the property.” (Vol. 1, 390) Some of the slaves were not happy with this, at least in part because, according to two letters in the New York Tribune, Lee’s father-in-law had provided for emancipating his slaves upon his death, a provision the Tribune claimed had been obfuscated by his heirs. (Vol. 1, 390-392)
Freeman labels the Tribune items “false stories,” especially because they accused Lee of having whipped some of the Arlington slaves who had escaped and been recaptured. In a letter to his son Custis on July 2, 1859, Lee dismissed those charges in two sentences, which of course Freeman accepts as gospel truth: “The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.” (Vol. 1, 392)
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Freeman writes well, in a clear, journalistic style. He is certainly biased, but his pro-Lee, pro-Confederate, pro-South slant is obvious from the first page, and, unless your tear ducts flood at the mention of Lee or the Confederacy, you can slog through the treacly parts. This edition of the Lee biography has numerous photographs to supplement those in the original edition, and the maps are numerous and extremely helpful. The series index at the end of Volume 4, is quite serviceable.
In short, Freeman’s Lee, “marble man” and all, sometimes does not seem real. Obviously, Robert E. Lee is not a man for our time; perhaps less obviously, neither is his biographer. In short, Freeman’s R.E. Lee remains the starting point for understanding a central figure in the history of the Civil War, but one that must be used with extreme care.
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Encyclopedia Virginia: Biographical article on Freeman by David Johnson, Deputy Attorney General of Virginia and author of Douglas Southall Freeman (2002). Accessed 2/12-13/19. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Freeman_Douglas_Southall_1886-1953
“Freeman Digitally Remastered,” Natalia Chaney, Maddy Dunbar, and Canyon Teague. Part of the “Race and Racism at the University of Richmond” series. (https://memory.richmond.edu/freeman) Accessed, 2/13/19.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: