Douglas Southall Freeman’s R. E. Lee: A Biography: A Compelling Review by Professor Charles W. Ramsdell

Douglas Southall Freeman's R. E. Lee: A Biography:
A Compelling Review by Professor Charles W. Ramsdell

Publisher's Note:
Charles W. Ramsdell, known during his lifetime as the Dean of Southern Historians, wrote the following review in 1935 at the peak of his career. It was two years later that Ramsdell wrote his famous treatise, "Lincoln and Fort Sumter," which indicts Abraham Lincoln for scheming and starting the War Between the States in Charleston Harbor.

Ramsdell's book reviews are works of art. As a brilliant scholar and authority on American history, he knew what to look for and was hard on writers when he did not find it. That was certainly not the case with Douglas Southall Freeman. Ramsdell writes, early on, that Freeman, with his four volume R. E. Lee: A Biography, has given us "the definitive life of Robert E. Lee."

This review is a pleasure to read and is like a mini-history of Robert E. Lee and the war.

Professor Charles W. Ramsdell, Dean of Southern Historians, University of Texas.
Professor Charles W. Ramsdell, Dean of Southern Historians, University of Texas.

Douglas Southall Freeman, himself, was a towering personality, a great American historian, biographer, newspaper editor, radio commentator and author. He was a Virginian born in Lynchburg, with a legendary work ethic. His dad, Walker Burford Freeman, had served with Gen. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Douglas Southall Freeman, c. 1916, approx. age 30, as the new editor of the Richmond News Leader.
Douglas Southall Freeman, c. 1916, approx. age 30, as the new editor of the Richmond News Leader.

His writing accomplishments include 1) Lee's Dispatches; 2) R. E. Lee: A Biography; 3) Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command; and 4) Biography of George Washington. He won a Pulitzer Prize for R. E. Lee: A Biography in 1935 (4 vols.), and another, posthumous, in 1958, for George Washington: A Biography (6 vols.).

An older Douglas Southall Freeman, still hard at work.
An older Douglas Southall Freeman, still hard at work.

Douglas Southall Freeman's Pulitzer Prizes were back in the day when Pulitzers meant something.

Today, Pulitzer Prizes are a joke. The New York Times's resident racist (one of them), Nikole Hannah-Jones, won one for the fraudulent 1619 Project, which is invented history, designed, as she said, to get reparations for blacks.

The New York Times and Washington Post won another Pulitzer Prize for reporting as true, something that turned out to be a complete fraud -- the Russia Hoax -- as determined by Robert Mueller and his three year investigation.

Here is Ramsdell's review as it appeared, verbatim, in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (May, 1935), 230-236. Some of the paragraphs have been broken up to make it easier for online reading but no words have been left out or changed.

R. E. Lee: A Biography.
By Douglas Southall Freeman.
4 volumes. (New York and London:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934, 1935.
Pp. xiv, 647; xiii, 621: xiii, 559: ix, 594. $15.00.)

AS NEARLY AS ANY WORK MAY, these four volumes constitute the definitive life of Robert E. Lee; for, while even the indefatigable researches of Dr. Freeman over nearly twenty years cannot possibly have brought to light every scrap of evidence, it is improbable that any thing yet to be discovered will materially change the story he has told or seriously impair the judgments he has formed on Lee's character, actions, and career.

Robert E. Lee, oil on canvas, by Edward Calledon Bruce, 1865.
Robert E. Lee, oil on canvas, by Edward Calledon Bruce, 1865.

Although the original plan was for only one volume, as the material in his hands accumulated Dr. Freeman wisely chose to give himself full scope. The result is a full, clear narrative that moves with dignity, without hurry or prolixity, and frequently with eloquence.

Of the more than 2300 pages, about 450 are given to Lee's life prior to his resignation from the United States army in April, 1861 (of which 100 cover his participation in the War with Mexico), a little more than 1500 to his services to Virginia and the Confederacy, and about 300 to the presidency of Washington College.

More important even than the discovery of new material--or at any rate more interesting to this reviewer--is the careful analysis and weighing of the sources, especially when they are conflicting, the explanation of the elements which went to the formation of Lee's character and habits, the description of his steady growth in professional competence, and the exposition of the methods by which he solved his military problems.

How much of his high qualities of mind and character was derived from the ancestral Lees and Carters, how much came of the severe lessons inculcated in childhood or from an enlightened self-discipline no one can say with confidence. Certainly his forebears were men and women of character, but the reader gets the impression that innate honesty, simplicity of soul joined to the courtesy and kindliness of a true gentleman, and the precise workings of a high order of intelligence are the best explanations of both his military successes and the hold he acquired over the affections of all southerners and, eventually, of discerning northerners.

When at the age of thirty-nine Lee got his first experience of warfare in Mexico he had seen seventeen long years of service in the Bureau of Engineers and had reached no higher rank than a captaincy. His experiences in Mexico were to reveal his abilities and to teach him many things.

Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U.S. Army.
Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U.S. Army.
Lee around age 43, when he was a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers, c. 1850.
Lee around age 43, when he was a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers, c. 1850.

Freeman suggests that Lee was inspired by General Scott's example to audacity, that he learned from him the value of a trained staff in the development of strategical plans, the importance of careful reconnaissance, of field fortifications, of the great possibilities of flank movements, the relations of communications to strategy, and that

Lee concluded, from Scott's example, that the function of the commanding general is to plan the general operation, to acquaint his corps commanders with that plan, and to see that their troops are brought to the scene of action at the proper time; but that it is not the function of the commanding general to fight the battle in detail. . . . Whether he was right in this conclusion is one of the moot questions of his career.

He had no opportunity to study the use of cavalry and had to learn that in 1862.

Nor did he, in an army of only 10,000 men, have a chance to observe large scale operations or transportation by railroad. Between 1848 and 1861 he was able to advance his military training only during the three years while he was superintendent at West Point by the study of Napoleon.

It is well known that Lee was opposed to secession and that his resignation from the army in April, 1861, was based only upon what he felt was due to his state and his people. His high reputation was known to the authorities of Virginia and caused him to be made commander of the military and naval forces of the state.

The value of his services in mobilizing the Virginia volunteers and in selecting points of defense has been obscured by the fame of his later campaigns so that not the least of Freeman's distinctive contributions is his account of Lee's work as a military organizer and administrator in the early summer of 1861.

When the Confederate government took over control of the Virginia volunteers, Lee, who had been raised to the rank of general in the Confederate army by Jefferson Davis, remained in Richmond until one week after the battle of Manassas. Then he went into the mountains of western Virginia to begin his first independent campaign.

Here again Dr. Freeman has given us a clear account of what has hitherto been much confused.

Lee faced immense difficulties. He was sent out to coordinate, not to command, the scattered forces, although he did later take over command.

But the principal officers gave him infinite trouble with their mutual jealousies and bickerings. It rained incessantly; the roads were quagmires of "unfathomable mud"; food and forage were inadequate; the men were weakened by measles and other sickness.

When on two occasions he worked out plans of attack against the Federals, he was frustrated partly by the rains but more by the incompetence and quarrels of his officers as well as by his own unwillingness to be peremptory with them.

Lee returned to Richmond late in October without recovering western Virginia, the public confidence in him virtually gone. It is to the credit of Jefferson Davis that he understood Lee's difficulties and stood by him. Lee, for his part, had learned much in the mountains.

In exactly one week after his return he was sent to command the South Carolina-Georgia coast where the Union navy was threatening. His work there, largely that of an engineer, was so nearly perfect that the Confederates were able to hold the defenses he laid out until Sherman's army took them in the rear in 1865.

Publisher's Note: Lee's defenses along the 100 mile stretch between Savannah and Charleston, allowed the Charleston and Savannah Railroad to operate successfully until the very end of the war, as Ramsdell said. Because Confederates were always short of troops and outnumbered, it was imperative that Savannah be able to reinforce Charleston and vice versa. For example, just before the Battle of Secessionville in June, 1862, Yankees tried to break the railroad before their attack on Tower Battery on James Island but were unsuccessful and ammunition and reinforcements from Savannah were sent to Charleston. When Gen. Lee was setting up those defenses, his headquarters was Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, about midway between Savannah and Charleston, from November, 1861, to March, 1862. For those folks familiar with the West Ashley Greenway in Charleston, that was the route of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. It operated as a working railroad line under a different name until around 1980, when plans for the Greenway were made. I remember waiting on Folly Road Extension at South Windermere Shopping Center on that dang train to go by when in high school in the late '60s. But, knowing today, that the Greenway was the route of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, and along that route came Confederate reinforcements from Savannah in defense of Charleston during the war, makes the West Ashley Greenway incredibly special in my mind, almost sacred. There is a nice historical marker with the Charleston and Savannah Railroad's history about a mile up the Greenway from South Windermere, toward Savannah.

He was called back to Richmond early in March, 1862, to serve as military adviser to President Davis but without real authority. It was an uncongenial task, but he set to work. He was chiefly responsible for the resort to conscription, but his plan was badly mangled in the legislation by Congress.

After Joseph E. Johnston had retired from the Manassas front to face McClellan on the Peninsula, Lee was able to suggest the plan for the brilliant campaign by which "Stonewall" Jackson frightened Washington and prevented the Federal forces in northern Virginia from going to the aid of McClellan--a far-reaching strategic plan which was nearly wrecked by Johnston whose ideas for the defense of Richmond never went beyond the concentration of all available Confederate forces in front of that city and who never quite grasped the daring conceptions of Lee.

But Lee's part in the movement was unknown both to the public and the army, and when Davis placed him in command of the army on June 1, after Johnston was wounded, he had never actually conducted a battle and his reputation was still clouded.

It is manifestly impossible, within the limits of this review, to trace Freeman's account of each of Lee's campaigns; but something should be said of his method of presenting them.

He has chosen to give the reader only such information as Lee himself was able to obtain from day to day and hour to hour for this is the only way by which the reader can see the situation as Lee saw it.

It has been no easy task, for it has required great care in disentangling the probable truth from conflicting testimony; but Freeman has done it with such skill that few will question his conclusions.

He discards the story that Lee was able, by studying the personalities of his opponents, to predict what each one would do. On the contrary, Lee always insisted that one must expect the enemy "to do what he ought to do."

General Robert E. Lee during the War Between the States.
General Robert E. Lee during the War Between the States.

Lee's method was to seek out every bit of information he could procure, weigh it, balance one thing against another, discard what was improbable, and then decide what was best to do with the means available. He saw his problem as a whole and was never confused by details.

It is really exhilarating to watch, through the medium of these pages, the precise working of Lee's mind even in "the fog of war.'' When he made errors he discovered that they were errors and avoided repeating them.

He devised new methods of meeting new conditions, as in his development of field fortifications not merely for the greater protection of his thinning ranks but also to hold a position with fewer men in order to gain freedom for maneuver with the others.

Always he was painfully hampered in transportation facilities, in the commissariat, in the scarcity of clothing and shoes for his men, by the longer range and heavier metal of the Federal artillery, by the supreme difficulty, after the death of Jackson, of finding higher officers with the tactical skill to carry out his plans and at the same time to make wise use of the discretion he wished to give them.

Step by step through the campaigns and reorganization and ever-increasing difficulties that Lee faced the author takes his readers. At the end of each major campaign he submits a clear, candid, critical review of Lee's operations.

On many difficult or disputed questions he throws new light, but only a few instances can be mentioned here.

He justifies Lee for going into Maryland after Second Manassas because he could not feed his army where it was and the alternative was to retire behind the Rappahannock and leave an important section to the enemy.

The decision to fight at Sharpsburg came only after he knew Jackson was at hand and he found the ground favorable for defense.

One of Lee's greatest difficulties in the Pennsylvania campaign was the fact that two of the three corps of his army were under new and untried commanders, Ewell and A. P. Hill.

His failure to get all his forces in front of Grant at the beginning of the Wilderness fight was because he had had to guard against a thrust down the railroad on his left. He was fully aware of the possibility that Grant might cross the James and strike at Petersburg before that movement was begun, but he could get no definite information, even from Beauregard, as to what corps of Grant's army had actually crossed until it was almost too late.

In a notable chapter in the last volume, Freeman sums up Lee's qualities as a commander in these words:

The accurate reasoning of a trained and precise mind is the prime explanation of all these achievements. Lee was pre-eminently a strategist, and a strategist because he was a sound military logician. . . . These five qualities, then, gave eminence to his strategy--his interpretation of military intelligence, his wise devotion to the offensive, his careful choice of position, the exactness of his logistics, and his well-considered daring. Midway between strategy and tactics stood four other qualities of generalship that no student of war can disdain. The first was his sharpened sense of the power of resistance and of attack of a given body of men; the second was his ability to effect adequate concentration at the point of attack even when his force was inferior; the third was his careful choice of commanders and of troops for specific duties; the fourth was his employment of field fortification.

Among the mistakes of Lee, Freeman cites his too elaborate strategy in the Seven Days, his overestimate of the endurance of his infantry and his underestimate of the time required for the reduction of Harper's Ferry in the Maryland campaign, his permitting Longstreet to stay so long in Suffolk in April 1863, his selection of Ewell to command the Second Corps after Jackson's death, his acquiescence in the occupation of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania and the withdrawal of the artillery from that point, his "excessive amiability" at times when he should have been stern. But these errors weigh lightly against his supremely positive qualities.

Lee's relations with Jefferson Davis and his hold upon his men and the southern people are not hard to understand. He had no real difficulty with the Confederate president, partly because he understood him and had acquired a mental ascendancy over him and partly because he had a genuine respect for the civil authority and for Davis personally and was always tactful and deferential. Davis, moreover, had implicit confidence in Lee and always sustained him.

His men knew that he looked after their welfare with assiduous care and that they could approach him without fear. Stories of his personal kindness to humble privates spread through the army and aroused affectionate reverence, while his successes against heavy odds developed the belief that he was invincible. To the people in general his successes and his character made him seem a leader raised up for them by divine favor.

Freeman refuses to make comparison between Lee and other great commanders of history on the ground that differences of conditions were so incommensurable that comparisons would be futile.

One cannot but wish, however, that he had discussed the statement of certain recent military writers that Lee never showed that he was fitted for supreme command over a wide area such as Grant exercised after March, 1864. While it may well be answered that Lee was never given such authority until it was too late to effect anything, a careful study of his correspondence between March 13 and June 1. 1862, while he was Davis' adviser--though with little real authority--should throw some light upon this question.

Dr. Freeman's delightful account of Lee's five years in the presidency of Washington College reveals the general as an educational leader.

General Robert E. Lee in May 1869, a year before his death.
General Robert E. Lee in May 1869, a year before his death.

Not only did the trustees under the stimulus of his zeal rehabilitate the school materially and financially, but the faculty, under his guidance and in keeping with his anxiety for the training of southern youth in practical affairs, greatly enlarged the curriculum, anticipating many of the developments of later days.

Meanwhile Lee, although greatly disturbed by the radical policy of reconstruction, kept studiously aloof from political or sectional controversies while doing all in his power to bring about eventual reconciliation between North  and South. His prestige in his own section was as great as ever and no doubt much of the growth of the college was incident to his immense popularity.

But his health had failed rapidly. A throat infection in March, 1863, followed by pericarditis had developed into what was probably angina pectoris. He died on October 12, 1870, in the midst of plans for the further development of the college.

In a final chapter, "The Pattern of a Life," Freeman tells simply but eloquently the manner of man that Lee was--his daily routine, his method of work, his simple and sincere religion, his kindliness and his humility. "Those who look at him through the glamour of his victories or seek deep meanings in his silence will labor in vain to make him appear complicated. His language, his acts, and his personal life were simple for the unescapable reason that he was a simple gentleman."

The four volumes contain numerous photographs and sketch maps. The reader who is not familiar with the geography of Virginia and other areas in which Lee operated will sometimes wish for a larger map.

As the first two volumes came from the press several months before the last two, each pair is provided with a separate index--in the second and fourth volumes.

There is also a "short title" bibliography, for which there seems little need, in the same volumes and a longer, most excellent critical bibliography filling twenty-seven pages at the end of volume IV.

The mechanical work is faultless, the binding is handsome, and the work as a whole is worthy of its subject.

Charles W. Ramsdell
University of Texas

Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson in Stone Mountain stamp issued 1970.
Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson in Stone Mountain stamp issued 1970.
Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Stratford Hall, Army Issue of 1936.
Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Stratford Hall, Army Issue of 1936.
Washington and Lee University 200th anniversary on November 23, 1948.
Washington and Lee University 200th anniversary on November 23, 1948.
Arlington House, the Lees' estate, 1857, the grounds are now Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington House, the Lees' estate, 1857, the grounds are now Arlington National Cemetery.

For Charles W. Ramsdell's nine best essays including "Lincoln and Fort Sumter," "The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion," and "Carl Sandburg's Lincoln," and 15 book reviews, along with a 30 page Introduction by me, please see Charles W. Ramsdell, Dean of Southern Historians, Volume One: His Best Work, compiled by Gene Kizer, Jr., over 450 pages, on

Posted in Uncategorized.

Please click "About Us" on the menu bar for a brief bio. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *