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Freeman Digitally Remastered

Natalia Chaney, Maddy Dunbar, and Canyon Teague explore contemporary understandings of Douglas Southall Freeman and consider the relationship between building names and University values in Freeman Digitally Remastered.



Douglas Southall Freeman was an accomplished writer, historian, and newspaper editor. He lived from 1886 until 1953, and in these 67 years he accomplished many things. He is perhaps best remembered for his extensive biographical writings on Confederate General Robert E. Lee published in 1934 and 1935.  Many historians and scholars consider the four volumes of R. E. Lee essential parts of Civil War historiography and have granted Freeman a place as one of the most prominent military historians of the twentieth century.[1] Freeman’s writings on Lee explore his life and his career in the Confederate Army. The volumes on Lee and the Confederate army are steeped in Lost Cause ideology, focusing very little on the role of slavery causing the Civil War. Freeman’s writings are not only key works of Civil War history, but they also are key to understanding the ways in which white Southerners thought and wrote about the Civil War during the early-to-mid-twentieth century.

In his writings, Freeman presented Lee, as well as most other Southern Confederates, as patriots and heroes who fought valiantly for state’s rights and the rights of Southern whites to run their agricultural businesses as they saw fit. Freeman’s framing of the Civil War and of the Confederate army did little to recognize the role that slavery played in sparking the Civil War. As mentioned briefly earlier, Freeman’s writings helped contribute to what is known as Lost Cause ideology.[2] The Lost Cause framed the Civil War not only as a fight to maintain a Southern way of living but also as defense against Northern aggression. The Lost Cause simultaneously downplayed, and often completely erased, the role that slavery played in beginning the conflict. Historian Joan Waugh explains Lost Cause ideology as having a few key elements, “The war was caused not by slavery but by states’ rights; Southern armies were never defeated but instead were overwhelmed by numbers; the Southern soldier was brave and true, echoing the perfection of the patron saint of the Lost Cause, that courtly Virginia gentlemen of impeccable lineage General Robert E. Lee.”[3] These three ideas were present in Freeman’s works, and were central to the way he understood and wrote about the Civil War. Freeman’s volumes on Lee and his lieutenants also lie within a larger narrative of Southern righteousness that was widely believed in the South during the early-twentieth century.    

Freeman’s education played a key role in shaping his views on Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. Freeman attended the McGuire University School for Boys in Richmond, Virginia from 1895-1901. A former Confederate naval officer, John P. McGuire, ran this school in which most of its faculty were Confederate veterans.[4] The school’s curriculum emphasized Christian and Southern values and identity, while using figures like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as examples of, “fortitude, industry, temperance, honor, and common sense.”[5] After graduating from McGuire University, Freeman attended Richmond College, where he studied under Samuel C. Mitchell, a prominent Civil War historian, who also idolized Lee. While getting his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Freeman became involved in the curating and cataloguing of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society’s collection—which included a large series of letters between Davis and Lee. It was at this point in 1915 that Freeman published his first work on Lee, titled Lee’s Dispatches.[6]In November of 1915, Freeman began work on the first volume of his now famous book, R. E. Lee.[7] After finishing his PhD, Freeman moved back to Richmond to continue his studies on the Confederate Army.Freeman’s fascination with Lee became a lifelong obsession and idealization of the General. As a reaffirmation of Freeman’s loyalty to Lee, Freeman used to salute Lee’s statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue every morning on the way to work.[8]

At the University of Richmond, Freeman served as rector from 1934-1950 and a member of the Board of Trustees for 25 years.[9] He had close ties to and influence over the University of Richmond during the mid-twentieth century and his conservative ideology most likely influenced decisions made at the University during the 1930s and 40s. Freeman was also close to President George Modlin and had influence over the universities finances. In the mid-1960s, Richmond College named a new dormitory after Freeman—his name also appears on an endowed professorship in the department of History and the University Mace held at graduation. While Freeman’s name on several prominent items at the University, his legacy is largely unexplored. As the Race and Racism projects begins to uncover the University’s racial history, Freeman’s legacy must be interrogated.  

[1] Dickinson, Keith. "Douglas Southall Freeman, the Civil War, and the Idea of the South," Civil War History 60, no. 1 (Mar 2014): 66.

[2] Dalton, David. Review of Sustaining Southern Identity: Douglas Southall Freeman and Memory in the Modern South, by Keith D. Dickinson, Civil War History 59, no. 3 (Sept 2013): 401.

[3] Joan Waugh, ‘‘Ulysses S. Grant, Historian,’’ in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, eds. Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 15–16.

[4] Dickinson, Keith, "Douglas Southall Freeman, the Civil War, and the Idea of the South," Civil War History 60, no. 1 (March 2014): 66.

[5] Ibid, 67.

[6] Dalton, David, Review of Sustaining Southern Identity: Douglas Southall Freeman and Memory in the Modern South, by Keith D. Dickinson, Civil War History 59, no. 3 (Sept 2013): 401.

[7] Vandiver, Frank, E. Review of Douglas Southall Freeman, by David E. Johnson.  Journal of Southern History 69, no. 4 (Nov 2003): 963-64.

[8] Dalton, 401

[9] Johnstone, Richard, "Building on a Name: Freeman Hall Named for Former Messenger Editor,” The Collegian (Apr 13, 19780): 3.