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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 512

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This is the grave of Douglas Southall Freeman.

Born in 1886 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Freeman grew up to be one of a handful of people who popularized the romantic vision of the Confederacy as doomed but noble people fighting for their rights, erasing the issue of slavery from American history and valorizing those who committed treason to defend that vile institution. Freeman’s father had spent the entire war in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and by 1886, the project by aging Confederates such as Jubal Early to rewrite the history of the war was in its mature stage. These were the years that both the violent control of whites over southern black people was being finalized, with lynching and Jim Crow as its backbone, and the giant statues to commemorate the treason leaders were being erected. Freeman imbibed this whole atmosphere with great fervor.

Freeman loved history and got a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1908, only 22 years old. For some reason, he couldn’t get a job at a college and so went into writing. First, he worked as a journalist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and then in 1915, he became the editor of the Richmond News-Leader, which he held for most of the rest of the life. Mostly, he committed himself to writing hagiographies of his hero, Robert E. Lee. The guy worked hard, I can’t deny that. In 1911, he uncovered a lost cache of letters between Lee and Jefferson Davis that expanded knowledge about Confederate military strategy and demonstrated the working relationship between the two men. Freeman published them in 1915 and they had great sales, thanks to what was a national fetish of the Confederacy. With this success, Freeman decided to write his big biography of Lee. He published all four volumes of this behemoth, an eight-year project, in 1934 and 1935. He won the Pulitzer Prize for it. It was certainly well researched. It was an absolute romance, a book that does not hold up in any way, shape, or form today. Freeman simply worshiped the traitor Lee. But then so did lots of Americans–FDR was a huge fan and named Freeman’s contemporary scribbler of Confederate nostalgia Claude Bowers as ambassador of Spain largely because Roosevelt liked his writings–so Freeman was telling a story lots of people wanted to hear.

Here is the great historian Eric Foner on Freeman’s biography:

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

Put bluntly, for Civil War historians of the day like Freeman, all that mattered was the glorious actions of wonderful military leaders. And since they were wonderful men, obviously they were also kind slaveowners, bringing these people up from civilization. Sure, slavery was wrong in the abstract and maybe it’s good that it’s gone, but weren’t Africans better off with it?

The book was so successful that Freeman followed it up with similar work, publishing a series on Lee’s top generals between 1942 and 1944. These books were immediately influential with top generals. Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz and Marshall loved them, found their studies of military maneuvers–for someone like Freeman this was the real history, as opposed to the lives of actual humans–useful, and so they invited their favorite historian to tour Europe with them during the months after World War II. He got an official tour of Japan too. He became personal friends with these generals.

Freeman finally moved away from his Civil War romances after World War II, writing a mere 7-volume biography of George Washington. The first volume came out in 1948, the sixth was published after Freeman’s death, and the seventh written by Freeman’s associates based on his notes. It was only at the point of starting the Washington biography that Freeman finally quit the newspaper business. He wrote all his other books after hours.

Despite his romanticizing of the Confederacy, Freeman was generally seen as a moderate white on race relations in his many columns for his newspaper. This meant he still completely supported segregation, but disliked the ugliness of it, sort of a Never Trumper for that time. He opposed the Byrd machine in Virginia politics that pushed more extreme and violent versions of the same thing. On top of all of this, Freeman had two radio shows a day in Virginia for years and then weekly radio show for many more years broadcast out of New York. He was married and had three children, but I have to assume he was basically an absentee husband and father given that he was working 14-16 hours every day for years. He was a rector at the University of Richmond and had a tremendous amount of influence over that institution. There is an endowed chair in History at the University of Richmond that brings a famous scholar to the university for a year (last year, it was the excellent Native Americanist James Merrell) and has a dorm named for him. As at least parts of the university admit today, Freeman’s toxic legacy over the institution is largely unexamined.

On June 13, 1953, Freeman gave his usual radio broadcast, then had a heart attack and died. He was 67.

Douglas Southall Freeman is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions and I assume this is precisely the kind of post you wanted to see for your support. If you would like this series to visit more of the horrible people who romanticized the Confederacy, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. D.W. Griffith is in Crestwood, Kentucky and Margaret Mitchell is in Atlanta. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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