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R. E. Lee Analysis

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

By heritage, education, profession, and talent Douglas Southall Freeman was ideally fitted to write the definitive biography of Robert Edward Lee. The son of a Confederate veteran, a Doctor of Philosophy in history from Johns Hopkins University, editor of the Richmond News Leader, whose “chief avocation” was “the study of military history” and whose prose style was fascinating, he accepted in 1915 a publisher’s invitation to tell the life story of the South’s best beloved hero. It seems that Douglas Freeman’s ambition to compose such a book was born in 1903, when as a youth of seventeen he attended a reunion of Confederate veterans in Petersburg, Virginia, in the company of his father, who lived to see his son’s work published. At first the biographer expected to write only a single volume, but a wealth of compelling material, much of it scarcely tapped, expanded his number to four; as a title for his monumental production, Dr. Freeman chose the general’s autograph: R. E. LEE. Following this work, Freeman returned to the life of General Lee himself for a one-volume biography entitled LEE OF VIRGINIA, and intended for a young adult audience or for readers who found the four-volume work too formidable. The author then laid aside the manuscript —which was published posthumously — to begin work on his exhaustive biography of George Washington, which had reached six volumes at the time of his sudden death in 1953.

Volume I of R. E. LEE, containing thirty-six chapters, covers a period of fifty-five years, from Lee’s birth on January 19, 1807, to the beginning of the War between the States in 1861 and the early months of 1862. It takes its reader with never flagging interest through the West Point years, marriage, gradual rise in the United States Army, the Mexican War, the capture of John Brown, “The Answer He Was Born to Make,” and the early, unsuccessful operations in western Virginia. Concerning Lee’s momentous decision, which has entailed much dispute by many persons, the author states: “The spirit of Virginia had been alive in his heart every hour of his life. . . . He was a United States officer who loved the army and had pride in the Union, but something very deep in his heart kept him mindful that he had been a Virginian before he had been a soldier.”

Volume II, composed of thirty-five chapters, recounting the Seven Days’ Battles east of Richmond against McClellan, Second Manassas against Pope, the Sharpsburg Campaign in Maryland with McClellan again the adversary, and the Battle of Fredericksburg against Burnside, all in 1862, concludes with the victory over Hooker at Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson in May, 1863. In his Foreword to R. E. LEE, Freeman explains his belief that “...military biography, like military history in general, may fail to be instructive because, paradoxically, it is too informative.” To avoid the problem of burdening his narrative with too many facts, therefore, the author adopts a technique related to the novelist’s use of the limited point of view: events are presented to the reader only in the sequence and manner in which they were experienced by Lee himself. The result, apparent in Volume II, is a masterful narration, tense, powerful, and alive, and above all remarkable for its verisimilitude.

Volume III, twenty-nine chapters in length, proceeds from the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign through that fateful conflict with the full power of Dr. Freeman’s critical study. Then comes the “hammer and rapier” matching of Grant against Lee in 1864, with such battles as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor, the historian’s expositions being precise but never tiresome. Grant crosses the James, and the long, encircling blue lines outside Petersburg are held in check by Lee’s thin gray battalions for nearly ten months, with the unique Battle of the Crater furnishing a new, strange story for the history of war. The reader...

(The entire section is 1,099 words.)