Tuesday, August 31, 2010

R.E. Lee: A Biography - Winner, Biography, 1935

R.E. Lee: A Biography
By: Douglas Southall Freeman
Charles Scibner's Sons, 1934

I will not deny that I was dreading this read, but I am happy to say that Freeman's biography of Robert E. Lee was one of the most enjoyable early-Pulitzer biographies that I have read.  I had to get the 4-volume set through interlibrary loan and, so, had only a very limited time with it.  I managed to get through 2 of the volumes before the due date and was truly sad that I had to turn it in before I could finish the other two.

R.E. Lee, FOUR VOLUME SETThe life of Robert E. Lee was fascinating to read about. I had always known that he was a great man and a great general that the North really could have benefited from having. I also knew that one of the most devastating things about the Civil War was that the people fighting against each other knew and loved people on the other side. As Lee made a career the in the United States army prior to the war, it was interesting to see the Northern and Southern men he fought beside before the country divided.

In the introduction to the biography, Freeman notes that he tried to write this biography of Lee focusing only on the things that Lee would have been aware of at the time.  Many books on the Civil War try to cover what was going on on both sides at the same time, and I am left endlessly confused (I ran into this problem with Battle Cry of Freedom, my next review).  By focusing on Lee's view of the war, I found it much easier to follow what was going on.  I like following one side at a time so that I can really get to know the characters involved.  Another thing that helped me follow the battles was the fact that almost all of the ones described in the first two volumes took place in Virginia, where I currently live. I have been many of the areas where Lee fought, and that helped me visualize what was going on.  I would be curious to see how the focus on Virginia would read to someone unfamiliar with the state.

As I read, I began to get the feeling that Freeman might be from the South.  It is well known that Lee is idolized by many in the Southern states, even today.  So, I was not surprise when, after reading the book, I looked and found that not only was Freeman a Virginian, but he was also the son of a Confederate soldier.  The Wikipedia entry on Freeman states, "Freeman's treatments of the American Civil War are often cited as examples of the Lost Cause movement, emphasizing the glory and nobility of the Southern generals and the futility of their fight against the power of the North. While Freeman certainly does emphasize the nobility of Lee's character, he does not say that Lee made no mistakes, nor does he say that the North only won because of superior numbers."  I must say that I agree with this.  The writing is enjoyable and very informative.  I also found that many things he stated fit with other books I have read on the Civil War from later years.  But his background does mean that we should remember that the lenses through which he looks might be a bit rose-colored. 

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