restricted access Douglas Southall Freeman, the Civil War, and the Idea of the South
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Douglas Southall Freeman, the Civil War, and the Idea of the South

Douglas Southall Freeman (1886-1953) stands like a colossus over Civil War historiography. Freeman was one of the modern South's most distinguished and honored historians. Since the publication of R. E. Lee (four volumes, 1934-35) and Lee's Lieutenants (three volumes, 1942-44), no author writing about the eastern theater of war fails to cite Freeman or neglects to include his works in the bibliography. His exemplary scholarship, rigorous attention to detail, and masterful prose are reasons Freeman's most famous works have never been out of print. His mastery of source materials, combined with his artistry of weaving details into a powerful narrative have made Freeman one of the most well known and respected Civil War historians. Even after decades of revisionism, Freeman's works still stand as essential reading.

Freeman was a trained historian, graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1908 with a PhD in history. But his most significant educational experience occurred in Richmond, Virginia, at the McGuire School between 1895 and 1901. John P. McGuire, the school's headmaster, had been a former instructor at the Confederate Naval School, and the faculty comprised mostly Confederate veterans. Freeman recalled that "the Confederate leaders of 1900 in Richmond, in Virginia and throughout the South were, with few exceptions, officers or private soldiers of conspicuously good record."1 The [End Page 66] McGuire School's curriculum emphasized a Christian-Confederate theme that stressed southern symbols, virtues, and history filled with heroic experiences and examples of courage, honor, and duty. Freeman learned Latin, Greek, and history, as well as French, math, and literature. The lives of George Washington, Patrick Henry, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas J. Jackson were taught as examples of fortitude, industry, temperance, honor, and common sense.2 Freeman recalled McGuire as one of the main influences in his life. It was here Freeman and his fellow students shaped a southern identity through history and memory.

Douglas Freeman's second greatest influence was his father, Walker Freeman, a Confederate veteran deeply involved in reunions and memorial events. Walker Freeman's most notable interest was in the history of the Confederacy and the care of its survivors.3 As the commander of the United Confederate Veterans Virginia Division (UCV), Walker Freeman represented the state at the unveiling of the Virginia monument at Gettysburg in June 1917. In 1925 he became the UCV's national commander in chief. His wife, Bettie Freeman, belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Confederate Memorial Literary Society. Walker Freeman remained active in the UCV, continuing to speak at reunions (delivering speeches often written by his son) until his death in 1935 at the age of ninety-two.4

Douglas idolized his father and often accompanied him to reunions and other gatherings of veterans. In July 1903, he watched as his father and a number of other Confederate veterans participated in a reenactment of the Battle of the Crater on the same field where Walker had fought forty-one years earlier. As Douglas Freeman watched the line of old soldiers labor across the field toward the still visible depression in the earth with a wavering rebel yell, he realized that time was growing short for these men, and soon there [End Page 67] would be no one left to tell their story of valor and sacrifice. At that moment, Douglas Freeman resolved to capture their beliefs, interests, and aspirations by writing the history of their wartime achievements.5

This background information is important in understanding Freeman's unique approach to history, with its accompanying strengths and flaws, and why to this day he remains such a significant influence on scholars. Freeman was imbued with a reverence for the southern cause and a deep respect for those who served in the Confederate army. Like most white southerners, he was drawn to the heroic stature of Robert E. Lee, the representative of the South and its people. He always marked Lee's birthday in his diary, and it was a time of special reflection. In later years, Freeman became famous for daily saluting the statue...