Douglas Southall Freeman

Douglas Southall Freeman, who was born in Virginia and was the son of a Confederate soldier, worshiped Robert E. Lee. Freeman lived most of his life in Richmond, where he worked at the city’s News-Leader newspaper. On his drives to work, he liked to salute Lee’s statue on Monument Avenue.

Freeman was a creature of his time. He lived and worked in a segregated, Jim Crow South; and his works on the Confederate army rarely discuss the importance of slavery in the southern military. Thankfully, we can now pull Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army off the shelf if we want to read more about the racial dynamics of the Army of Northern Virginia and to get more of a “bottom-up” view of the Rebel war effort. Yet, Freeman’s work still holds up well. A few years ago, I read volume three of Lee’s Lieutenants, which is beautifully written and well-argued. It epitomizes great, sweeping narrative military history. Freeman did for the AONV what Bruce Catton did for the Army of the Potomac; only Freeman did it first. Freeman was also active in battlefield preservation. When I visited Gaines’ Mill battlefield last year, I saw a monument that D. S. Freeman had helped put there. He also worked hard to preserve the Petersburg battlefield.

Freeman’s unrelenting personal schedule is well documented. He liked to rise before dawn, make breakfast and then head to the newspaper office. Around mid-day, he’d drive home for a nap and lunch. After work, he’d spend four or five hours doing research and writing. His house was also equipped with a radio studio room, where he recorded news broadcasts. Freeman did all this in addition to being married and raising several children. Of course, having a few servants didn’t hurt. Even though he died at the relatively young age of 67, Freeman completed three multi-volume works on Virginia history. His personal correspondence was also voluminous. At one point in college, Freeman was so wrecked from denying himself sleep that he had to walk with a cane. His father helpfully pointed out that his son needed to get eight hours of sleep a night.

I think Dr. Freeman wished he could have attained military glory himself. Unfortunately for him, he was too old for World War I and was much too old for WWII. However, he wrote to his son at one point during WWII about the possibility of serving with the forces in Europe, perhaps as an adviser. Freeman wanted to be close to the action. He never made it to Europe, but he left his stamp on the war effort all the same. It was Freeman who came up with the term “liberation” of France, rather than invasion. And Freeman was very influential in Eisenhower getting the presidential nomination in 1952.

Douglas Southall Freeman  set a high standar for Civil War scholarship. If his multi-volume histories are not the kind of writing most Civil War scholars strive to emulate anymore, good narrative studies are still very popular among Civil War buffs. Academics don’t write like Freeman today, but they don’t usually grip the reader the same way either.

As are all historians, Freeman was a flawed man. It is the fate of all scholars to have their worked eclipsed by the next generation of historians. Yet, Dr. Freeman rightly deserved the accolades and awards he earned in his lifetime, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Not bad for a boy from Lynchburg.

About amerikanrambler

Amerikan Rambler is a Virginia-based blog and podcast hosted by Colin Woodward. Colin is a historian, author, and amateur musician, who works in the archives full-time. Author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he is now writing a book on the historical, family, and musical roots of Johnny Cash.
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