Lee's Biographer Is a Story Himself; Richmond News Leader Editor's Books Extensively documented.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)

Article excerpt


In the 1940s, a hernia repair was no laughing matter. It involved weeks of boring bed rest at a time when television sets were a rarity. Recuperating from my own operation in 1946, I was more than happy to take up my father's suggestion that I read some Civil War history.

My reading matter for the next two weeks was Douglas Southall Freeman's "Lee's Lieutenants" - all three volumes - and these books generated an interest in the Civil War on my part that has yet to flag. I was impressed with the story, but I was equally impressed with the author's graceful prose. The story behind that graceful prose is now told in a fine biography, "Douglas Southall Freeman," by David E. Johnson.

Freeman was at one time the best-known military historian in America, and the Civil War was his chosen field. Freeman's father had served in Lee's army for virtually the entire war and bore wounds from the Seven Days' campaign. Early in life, young Freeman decided to write the story of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. After graduating from Richmond College in 1904, he did graduate work in history at Johns Hopkins University before joining the Richmond News Leader as an editorial writer in 1909.

Six years later, the publishing house of Charles Scribners' Sons came calling. Freeman had written some well-received works on the Civil War in Virginia; now, Scribners wanted a 75,000-word biography of Lee. Delighted at such an opportunity, Freeman agreed. The publisher soon learned, however, that its author had his own ideas with respect to length. Every item about Lee would have to be evaluated and cataloged. Records at West Point and the War Department would be reviewed, as would Lee material in private hands. One volume grew into a projected four, and Freeman outlived his first editor at Scribners.

When "R.E. Lee" appeared, it consisted of more than a million words on more than 2,000 printed pages. "I don't think there is a statement in these pages," Freeman wrote, "even to the mud on a man's breeches ... that I cannot document." The critical response was ecstatic. The New York Times called it "Lee complete for all time," while historian Dumas Malone wrote: "Great as my personal expectations were, the realization far surpassed them." In 1934, Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Freeman planned to follow "R.E. Lee" with an equally comprehensive biography of George Washington, but he soon returned to the Civil War. Believing that his Lee book had downplayed the roles of some of the general's associates, Freeman determined to write a book about commanders who had fought under Lee. Scribners again wanted a single volume, but Freeman convinced his new editor - the legendary Max Perkins - that more was required. "Lee's Lieutenants" appeared in three volumes during World War II, and the response, both public and critical, was all that an author could ask.

By this time, Freeman's work habits were legendary among journalists and historians alike. On a typical day, he would rise at 2:30 a.m. By 2:45, he was preparing breakfast, and shortly after 3 a. …