- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

In the 1940s, a hernia repair was no laughing matter. It involved weeks of boring bed rest at a time when television sets were a rarity. Recuperating from my own operation in 1946, I was more than happy to take up my father's suggestion that I read some Civil War history.
My reading matter for the next two weeks was Douglas Southall Freeman's "Lee's Lieutenants" all three volumes and these books generated an interest in the Civil War on my part that has yet to flag. I was impressed with the story, but I was equally impressed with the author's graceful prose. The story behind that graceful prose is now told in a fine biography, "Douglas Southall Freeman," by David E. Johnson.
Freeman was at one time the best-known military historian in America, and the Civil War was his chosen field. Freeman's father had served in Lee's army for virtually the entire war and bore wounds from the Seven Days' campaign. Early in life, young Freeman decided to write the story of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. After graduating from Richmond College in 1904, he did graduate work in history at Johns Hopkins University before joining the Richmond News Leader as an editorial writer in 1909.
Six years later, the publishing house of Charles Scribners' Sons came calling. Freeman had written some well-received works on the Civil War in Virginia; now, Scribners wanted a 75,000-word biography of Lee. Delighted at such an opportunity, Freeman agreed. The publisher soon learned, however, that its author had his own ideas with respect to length. Every item about Lee would have to be evaluated and cataloged. Records at West Point and the War Department would be reviewed, as would Lee material in private hands. One volume grew into a projected four, and Freeman outlived his first editor at Scribners.
When "R.E. Lee" appeared, it consisted of more than a million words on more than 2,000 printed pages. "I don't think there is a statement in these pages," Freeman wrote, "even to the mud on a man's breeches that I cannot document." The critical response was ecstatic. The New York Times called it "Lee complete for all time," while historian Dumas Malone wrote: "Great as my personal expectations were, the realization far surpassed them." In 1934, Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Freeman planned to follow "R.E. Lee" with an equally comprehensive biography of George Washington, but he soon returned to the Civil War. Believing that his Lee book had downplayed the roles of some of the general's associates, Freeman determined to write a book about commanders who had fought under Lee. Scribners again wanted a single volume, but Freeman convinced his new editor the legendary Max Perkins that more was required. "Lee's Lieutenants" appeared in three volumes during World War II, and the response, both public and critical, was all that an author could ask.
By this time, Freeman's work habits were legendary among journalists and historians alike. On a typical day, he would rise at 2:30 a.m. By 2:45, he was preparing breakfast, and shortly after 3 a.m., he was in his car and headed for the News Leader. As he passed the equestrian statue of Lee along the way, he never failed to salute his idol. At the office, he wrote and revised his editorials and then crossed the street to deliver the radio broadcast that he wrote for much of his career at the News Leader. The remainder of the morning was spent on newspaper business, but after lunch and the briefest of naps, he would devote himself to historical writing. Bedtime was 8:45 p.m.
When Freeman finally got around to writing about Washington, this work won him a second Pulitzer Prize, but through the years, revisionist historians began to take potshots at both Lee and Freeman.
Although Freeman had taken full account of Lee's failures, most notably at Gettysburg, his basic admiration for his subject invited ridicule. One critic wrote, sarcastically: "[Lee] was the son who never disobeyed his mother, the perfect student, and the man of flawless character. He was the noble Lee of 1861, who supposedly loved the Union more than others who espoused the Confederate cause. He was the tactical genius who was seldom if ever defeated by mistakes of his own making."
Heroes are hard to write about it is far easier to analyze flaws than it is to chronicle virtues and Freeman's technique did not always serve him well. He used a "fog of war" approach in which the focus was entirely on his subject Lee and the reader was provided only with the data available to Lee at any given moment. This makes for a lack of perspective, for the reader learns little of what the enemy was up to. The technique also requires extensive footnotes, and in Freeman's works, the footnotes often take up half the page.
Freeman acknowledged that he felt a "spiritual companionship" with his hero, Lee, but he had contempt for the psychobabble that permeates so much biography today. "I know where Lee was and what he did every minute of the Civil War," Freeman once remarked, "but I wouldn't dare presume [to say] what he was thinking."
In his politics, Freeman was the prototypical moderate Southerner of his day. He sought justice for blacks in the courts but was not on the cutting edge of reform. Nor was Freeman, the father of three, the perfect family man. He was estranged from his one son, who complained, "I don't think my father ever came to a [football] game. I don't think he ever came to a graduation. I don't remember going fishing with him."
Author David Johnson concludes that Freeman was "a modest, humble man" but that "some vanity, born of the reputation he so carefully crafted, crept into his personality."
As for Mr. Johnson, he, too, may be allowed a bit of vanity. It is not easy to recount the life of a writer, particularly a biographer. There are no battles, elections, or assassinations. Overcoming this handicap, he has given us a first-rate biography of a first-rate biographer.

John M. Taylor is the author of a number of books about the Civil War period, including "Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide