David E. Johnson, Douglas Southall Freeman, Pelican Publishing: 2002, 280 pp., \$25.45 (hardcover), \$9.99 (Kindle)
Defeated political figures often hope that history will redeem their cause. The Confederacy’s motto, Deo vindici, means “God will vindicate.” For a while, it seemed, He did.
The conquered South honored men such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Perhaps the man who did the most to enshrine their memory was Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia journalist, military historian, and political commentator who achieved professional success. His Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of George Washington and Robert E. Lee were huge successes, but his best known book is Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command.
This was a favorite of his friend of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also admired General Lee. Freeman knew and was friends with Winston Churchill. His historical work was only part of a heavy work schedule that included editing The Richmond News Leader and making twice-daily radio broadcasts.
It’s fitting that Freeman should be all but forgotten today; he wrote for a state and a country that no longer exist. Freeman was a Confederate veteran’s son. He was a patriotic Virginian and patriotic American; he saw no contradiction.
Freeman nearly went into the ministry, but instead became a writer, building his reputation by working with primary sources, such as the letters between Lee and Jefferson Davis. He remained a firm Christian throughout his life — a respectable, devout, mainline Protestant of the kind that once defined this country and has now all but vanished. He married Inez Virginia Goddin and the couple had two daughters and a son.
It’s hard to think of two journalists more different in literary style and cultural views than Freeman and H. L. Mencken. However, both were successful partially because of their attachments to place and routine. For Mencken, it was Baltimore; for Freeman, it was Richmond, where he would salute the General Lee statue before work each morning.
Freeman planned out his days in a relentless quest for self-improvement. Well into his professional life, this was Freeman’s schedule — which began at 2:30 a.m:
Freeman was an ardent Southerner. When speaking to a Confederate memorial organization about his work on historical papers, he said:
They say it was a lost cause: Perhaps it was; but it still lives in the hearts of the Southern people. Its career of arms ended these forty years ago, we only live for its justification. And this is not to be done in any other way than through the careful collection and statement of calm historical fact.
Freeman’s biography of Robert E. Lee was not hero-worship. While he admired Lee, his intent was to check the “extravagances of rhetorical apostrophe on all that pertained to the Confederacy,” saying that purple prose was “actually lowering our Southern leaders.” He wanted to write “in plain terms,” not ignoring the general’s mistakes.
In his study of Washington, Freeman found a man of powerful emotions behind the marble edifice. He said the young Washington was defined by ambition. However, he also showed that Washington deliberately built his character through sheer will, subordinating his emotions to his judgment.
Among the admirers of Freeman’s biography of Lee was Carl Sandberg, who wrote an influential biography of Abraham Lincoln. The two eventually met. Sandberg told Freeman about a Kentucky man who had lost two sons in the War Between the States, one fighting for the Union, the other for the Confederacy. On the stone of their double grave, the father wrote, “God knows which was right.” Freeman’s response to the tale, which deeply moved Sandberg, was, “Both sides were right.”
Freeman did not believe the Civil War was about slavery. “Slavery played a small part in the attitude and decision of 1861,” he wrote about Southern leaders. If he had to reduce the Civil War’s cause to a single word, he protested he could not do it. However, if pressed, he said it would be “politicians.”
“The War Between the States had its origin between old ideals and new,” he said. “It was fundamentally a struggle between the rural society of the old colonies and the urban society in New England, which had the full support of the white new states of the Middle West. New England wanted a protective tariff. The South did not.”
Freeman said that the slavery issue had been “exaggerated” by politicians, concealing the deeper struggle about two different ways of life. Freeman said that “two different peoples” who shared “common blood” and both owned slaves had developed different values and traditions. It was a battle between peoples, not policies.
Author David Johnson writes that Freeman “did not equate the Confederate cause to racist beliefs.” “I think there is no nobler tradition in the world than that of the Confederacy,” Freeman wrote. Today, the Confederate flag is used for many purposes, including to show white pride or rebelliousness. Freeman wouldn’t approve: “It is not pleasant to see the symbol of a country’s war, intimate to the hearts of us all, used lightly as a mere ornament or symbol of defiance. To many of us the flag represents much that we hold sacred in the ideals of self-government.”
Freeman is best known for his biographies, but he was also a journalist. He called journalism “writing in the sand,” but it reflected his beliefs. Conservatives may be disappointed.
Freeman supported Woodrow Wilson, partially from Southern loyalty to the Democratic party. Unlike Mencken, Freeman cheered American entry into The Great War, writing that German attacks on American ships risked making the Second Reich “the enemy not only of the allies, but of the entire world.” He thanked God when the Allies won. His support for Wilson, who dramatically expanded the power of the federal government, is at odds with his support for “self-government.”
However, Freeman opposed much of the New Deal. He called Social Security the replacement of “security by thrift” with “security by taxation.” In a speech delivered before an openly hostile Fiorello LaGuardia, Freeman said that political liberalism “does not [or should not] mean to be liberal with other people’s money.” He argued that Virginia was “ready now to do battle on the floors of Congress for states’ rights just as on the battlefields in times past.” The Democrat Party was an unwieldy coalition, uniting Northern party bosses, Southern segregationists, and urban workers.
Freeman called himself a liberal, even on race. By the standards of his time, he was. He opposed the Ku Klux Klan, calling it an “organization that stinks to high heaven.” In 1917, he championed the cause of a black teenager whom a judge had sentenced to death for murder. Freeman argued that Aubrey Barrett hadn’t received legal counsel. He attacked the judge in print so ferociously that he was cited for contempt of court. The citation was dropped and Barrett was spared the death penalty. Freeman said that “neither the details of the murder” nor “the guilt or innocence” mattered to him “in the slightest.” The case was about an American citizen getting his legal rights. Today, this is a quaint idea.
Freeman had paternalistic views of blacks. He supported better conditions for them, called “the Virginia Negro” the “blueblood of his race,” and praised the way blacks had “advanced splendidly in many ways.” However, he had no illusions about equality.
Sounding much like Booker T. Washington, Freeman wrote that blacks and whites can work together on economic matters but “biologically and therefore socially we are different; we are not going to amalgamate.” He said blacks who sought a white wife were seeking “the unattainable,” and instead urged blacks to “stay apart, build your own society, improve it, strengthen your family life, combat innate promiscuity, and build up race pride.” “We do not believe it fair to pretend to equality we have no intention of recognizing,” he wrote. “Separation is better than deception.”
Freeman said he saw no reason why women shouldn’t have the right to vote but that it would be disaster if black women voted and white women didn’t. He wrote that “on the control of the election by suffrage majorities in all districts, white government in the South depends.” “No chances can be taken!” he warned.
Today, the federal government requires not just equality for blacks, but pervasive racial preferences, and the black family collapsed and became heavily dependent on welfare. Freeman’s beloved Richmond is now, in many ways, another failed black city. Many whites fled Richmond after desegregation. As it does everywhere, the federal government has chosen deception about “equality,” but still gets separation.
After initial misgivings, Freeman backed American entry into World War II. Like most Southerners, he championed the federal government’s cause against enemies overseas. He even defended Stalin’s alliance with Hitler because the Russians had to prepare “for the inevitable conflict, the decisive conflict, of the war.”
Freeman urged his friend Eisenhower to run for president and celebrated his victory. It was a different time, in which a spokesman for the Confederacy cheered a Republican victory — and a Yankee president admired Lee.
Freeman died in 1953 at age 67, no doubt partly because of his punishing schedule and lack of sleep. Thus, he missed the so-called “Civil Rights Movement” as well as the sight of his friend integrating schools at bayonet point. We don’t know if he would have supported Virginia’s “massive resistance” to desegregation or whether he would have backed George Wallace.
Now, Douglas Southall Freeman’s Virginia has turned on him and the men he wrote about. Students and faculty at the University of Richmond, where Freeman was a trustee, demanded in 2021 that the school remove his name from a building. The school duly changed the name of “Freeman Hall” to “Mitchell-Freeman Hall,” adding a black journalist, John Mitchell Jr., who accused Freeman of racism. It is now “Residence Hall #3.” The university said the change was necessary because Freeman’s work “advances the discredited ‘Lost Cause’ view of the Confederacy.”
George Will, who insists on calling himself a conservative, wrote in 2021 that America is “wiser and better” than it was when President Franklin Roosevelt called Lee “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” Mr. Will called Lee a traitor, praised a biography that belittles Lee, and called for his name to be taken down from “public buildings and places.”
In the ways that matter, the campus radicals of the University of Richmond are just like the self-styled conservative George Will. They are also right. Lee and Freeman were traitors to what America is today. Modern America is an explicit repudiation of the country built by the Founders and the compact between the states defended by the Confederacy. There is no way to reconcile George Washington, let alone Robert E. Lee, with the country of Ibram Kendi and George Floyd. To defend the America of the Founders is to betray “Our Democracy.”
For his time, Freeman was progressive. To today’s progressives, he’s just another racist. This should be a lesson for white liberals who think — because of their politics — they can’t be called “racists.” Freeman supported historical figures and forces that ultimately unmade everything he treasured. He was a great historian but had poor political judgment. He was naïve. Like so many hard-working, Christian, white men, he assumed others shared his sense of fair play. They don’t. Whites are the exception.
Douglas Southall Freeman was a historian in an era when Americans appreciated what their ancestors built. They wanted to improve it. Today, we live with millions who hate what our ancestors built. They want to consume it. There’s no place for Freeman or his heroes, but there is an honored place for him among white advocates who want a different future.
Freeman should be in any homeschool curriculum and on any serious reading program. We must look to the past to learn of what we are capable. Today, Freeman is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, alongside many of the men he chronicled. In his own way, he fought his war. We must fight ours.