Douglas Southall Freeman was born May 16, 1886 in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Bettie Allen Hamner and Walker Burford Freeman, an insurance agent who had served four years in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. From childhood, Freeman exhibited an interest in Southern history. In Lynchburg, his family lived at 416 Main Street, near the home of Confederate general Jubal Early. The family moved to the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in 1892 at the height of the monument commemoration movement that memorialized Virginia's Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
In 1904, Freeman was awarded an AB degree from Richmond College, where he had been a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. In 1908, at the age of 22, he earned a PhD in history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Unable to secure a position in academia, Freeman joined the staff of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1909 and, in 1915, at the age of 29, he became editor of The Richmond News Leader—a position he held for 34 years.
In 1911, Freeman came into possession of a cache of long-lost wartime communications between Robert E. Lee and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Freeman spent four years working on the documents, and in 1915, he published Lee's Dispatches. The book was received enthusiastically by Civil War historians, and it became an important primary source for Civil War scholars.
Written between June 2, 1862 and April 1, 1865, Lee's letters to Davis revealed the general's strategy with clearer perspective, shed new light on some of Lee's decisions, and underscored his close and always co-operative relationship with Davis. In his Introduction, Freeman summarized seven major revelations contained in the letters. For example, the letters reveal that the Confederate high command in 1862 considered but rejected a bold proposal to strengthen Stonewall Jackson's army in the Shenandoah Valley and embark on a vigorous offensive campaign against the North, even at the expense of defending Richmond.
R. E. Lee: A Biography
Following the immediate critical success of Lee's Dispatches, Freeman was approached by New York publisher Charles Scribner's Sons and invited to write a biography of Robert E. Lee. Freeman accepted but chose to retain his position at The Richmond News Leader and work longer days to work on the biography.
Freeman's research of Lee was exhaustive. He evaluated and cataloged every item about Lee, and he reviewed records at West Point and the War Department and material in private collections. In narrating the general's Civil War years, he used what came to be known as the "fog of war" technique, providing readers only the limited information that Lee himself had at a given moment. That helped convey the confusion of war that Lee experienced as well as the processes by which Lee grappled with problems and made decisions.
R. E. Lee: A Biography was published in four volumes in 1934 and 1935. In its book review, The New York Times declared it "Lee complete for all time." Historian Dumas Malone wrote, "Great as my personal expectations were, the realization far surpassed them." In 1935, Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his four-volume biography.
Freeman's R. E. Lee: A Biography established the Virginia School of Civil War scholarship, an approach to writing Civil War history that concentrated on the Eastern Theater of the war, focused the narrative on generals over the common soldier, centered the analysis on military campaigns over social and political events, and treated his Confederate subjects with sympathy. This approach to writing Civil War history would lead some critics to label Freeman a "Lost Cause" historian, an allusion to the literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional white society of the South to the defeat of the Confederate States of America.
Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command
Following the critical success of R. E. Lee: A Biography, Freeman expanded his study of the Confederacy with the critically acclaimed three-volume Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command, published in 1942, 1943, and 1944. It presents a unique combination of military strategy, biography, and Civil War history, and it shows how armies actually work. Published during World War II, it had a great influence on American military leaders and strategists. A few months after the conclusion of the war, Freeman was asked to join an official tour of American forces in Europe and Japan. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command established Freeman as the preeminent military historian in the country, and led to close friendships with United States generals George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Biography of George Washington
After completing his exhaustive studies of Lee, his generals, and the Confederate war effort, Freeman started work on a biography of George Washington. Applying the same approach of exhaustive research and writing narrative based on objective fact, Freeman completed the first two volumes, titled Young Washington, in 1948. The following year, he retired from journalism in order to complete his monumental work on Washington.
George Washington Volume 3: Planter and Patriot and George Washington Volume 4: Leader of the Revolution were published in 1951. The following year, he published George Washington Volume 5: Victory with the help of France (1952). Freeman completed work on George Washington Volume 6: Patriot and President just before he died; it was published after his death in 1954. The concluding book, George Washington Volume 7: First in Peace, was written by Freeman's associates, John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, based on Freeman's original research and was published in 1957.