Sustaining Southern Identity: Douglas Southall Freeman and Memory in the Modern South

By Keith D. Dickson
Louisiana State University Press, November 2011, $42.50
Reviewed by Len Riedel, Executive Director, BGES
January 16, 2012, Danville, VA

Sustaining Southern IdentityDr. Keith Dickson is a 1976 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. As an army officer his successful career culminated in his selection to be the Commandant of Cadets at his alma mater. Here he worked for one of the most intellectual of VMI alumni, Lieutenant General Josiah Bunting, Superintendent of the VMI. Bunting, who had been a Rhodes Scholar, selected Dickson because of his sterling career. Now Dickson (who does not mention Bunting in his acknowledgments) has placed himself on the same intellectual plane. It is a position which any subsequent work can only solidify. I did not know Dickson, who was an underclassman, while I was a cadet and so those of you who know I too am a VMI graduate should accept this disclaimer when evaluating my critique. Dickson currently serves on the faculty of the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, DC. Here he trains senior officers and civilians at the general officer level.

Dickson has bridged the gap from professional soldier to academic historian by following the torturous road demanded by professional historians in this contentious period. It seems that most intellectual centers that allow Civil War research in advanced degree programs demand some connection with the construct of “Memory” as a justification for the research. Regardless of the objectives of the mentors, it does not appear coincidental that the current series of Civil War related publications all seem to have some connection to “memory.” This book is part of the “Making the Modern South” series from LSU Press. This is an important distinction because it weighs upon the critique that follows.

Dickson writes in an intellectually dense fashion which is surely “brain salad” for intellectuals but at times is impenetrable to the otherwise serious student. Indeed the content and levels of argument are well above most people’s level of interest or attention span. That is a shame because the content and book turn out to be very rewarding if you can identify why you want to read it and receive the prose with that view. Indeed you can have an intellectually satisfying experience by reading this as a straight up biography of Douglas Southall Freeman.

Since the book is cast as a study of the composition of memory as a means of establishing contiguous Southern identity, I’ll address that element first. As an academic exercise the reader is immediately assaulted with the intellectually challenging arguments of the foundations of memory as a basis for understanding elements of unique cultural identity—specifically Southern identity. Academic rigor demands the elucidation of specific elements of individual memory as a component part of collective and or regional memory. This is important to Dickson’s argument because he is compelled or has elected to paint Freeman’s life into the framework of this intellectual discipline. Frankly, it nearly lost me before I ever got into the book. I read the introduction and preface three times before taking an aspirin and going to bed. But starting with Chapter 1, I began to reap the rewards of a traditional biography. The vast majority of the 215 pages which followed were intensely interesting and would appeal to any student of Civil War or Southern historiography.

The appendix concisely coagulates the point I want to make about the academic component of this dissertation. After all of this wonderful narrative of Freeman’s remarkable life we are reminded of the focus of the book in the form of a three page recap: “A Diagram of Collective Identity.” In that, we are reminded of the intellectual dimensions of “collective memory and its elements.” We discover it is a means for society to organize and understand its past. We are then given collective memory shapes and memory frameworks as a means of arriving at Memory-Truths. I am looking forward to getting together with my next group of “Civil War Field University” students as they argue Memory-Truths. I hope I have made my point. The academic theme obscures the true value of the book for vast readerships and steers it back to an intellectually focused group which by definition will reduce the impact of the book.

I think that the nomenclature of memory is unnecessarily obtuse as it seeks ways to explain things that are intuitively obvious to most serious students of the Civil War. In fairness to Dickson and those academics which believe the real value of this book is the sustaining argument of how Southern identity was shaped by Freeman, the book does provide excellent grist for serious intellectual discussion. Indeed, I found the strand of Southern white identity to be a clear and rational, albeit flawed, explanation of why segregation in the post war period was essential. The white southern identity first had to elevate the cause for which so many fought and died and then it served as a platform to justify the reconstruction of white southern society in the presence of the emancipated black society. As progressive a man as Freeman was he was a white man fully committed to validating the evolution of both the “post war South” and the New South.” He was fully committed to segregation and worked from a position of intellectual power as a newspaper editor for over 30 years to cast every aspect of southern identity in the context of the universal traits of integrity of character. On that pinnacle he placed Robert E. Lee and on the plateau surrounding him were all the legion of heroes both common soldiers and Lee’s lieutenants.

That intellectual place provides a comfortable destination for many memorialization and heritage groups today. Arguing that the Beauregard battle flag and related memorializations are merely expressions of pride in the fidelity of their honored ancestors sustains the faulty nature of Freeman’s and other early southern historians’ arguments.

What is absent in this recitation and a disappointing gap in the book is the context which causes such memorialization to touch upon raw nerves today. Writing nearly 60 years after Freeman’s death in 1953, neither Dickson nor his academic advisors feel compelled to address that gaping hole in modern historiography. So many well intentioned sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters and Southern partisans embrace the flawed argument suggesting that race had no role in the deification of Lee and other heroes of the “Lost Cause.” Reading Dickson’s book, we see the pervasive influence of the past on the identity and actions of a people actively practicing segregation and justifying it in their minds. It is surely a manifestation of the maturity of a society that is learning to assimilate reality and itself into present circumstances. It is understandable but still flawed in the perfect prism of hindsight.

The argument is convoluted and sure to present plenty of sides for everyone to take a grip and pull; but, the real benefit of the book is the inclusion of a very satisfying biography. Douglas Southall Freeman was not only an indispensable historian, he was a giant of an intellect who understood and articulated the very real virtues of “States Rights.” Son of a Confederate Veteran, Freeman was present for the dedication of the Lee Statue and other statues on Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue—he met and lived with the legacy of the honored veterans.

Freeman was well educated in Southern history having graduated from Richmond College. He received a three year post graduate scholarship and after receiving his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, another bedrock of pro-southern historiographic interpretations, he returned to Richmond and embarked on a career of public service. He started working in the Virginia Department of Health as the publicity director. At the time hookworm was afflicting the public and he wrote public education pamphlets in an effort to promote improved sanitary conditions. Shortly afterwards he found himself giving lectures on behalf of the Virginia anti-Tuberculosis Association. Success here led him to be named the secretary of the Virginia Tax Commission with the charter of studying and recommending to the General Assembly a plan to equalize the burden on all taxpayers in the state. Having previously written some 33 editorials on the subject he was without peer in the state. The work was “progressive” and by standards of the time reflected a view that the state government’s role was to improve the lot of people by equalizing opportunity and obligations. His statewide exposure brought him to the attention of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society—the precursor of today’s Museum of the Confederacy.

The Society understood his background and qualifications were a Godsend—he accepted their invitation to catalogue their Confederate documents collection. The product was “A Calendar of Confederate Papers.” This work led to an invitation to edit the memoirs of WW Baker—a man who had served with the martyred Confederate Naval Commander, John Yates Beall. By 1911, Freeman was being sought as an analyst of Confederate papers—none more important than the confidential correspondence between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his trusted general Robert E. Lee. By the completion of the project, Freeman had fallen under the aura of Lee’s presence noting that the dispatches demonstrated “the splendid character of the great man who wrote them.” By the age of 28, Freeman had become the indispensible advocate and analyst of the nobility of the Confederacy and its vaunted cause.

Freeman’s intellect and strong record of performance brought him the opportunity to become the assistant editor of the Richmond News Leader—it was a position he would hold for 30 years. All a while increasing his reputation for scholarship. He would win Pulitzer Prizes for his works on RE Lee and George Washington. His work, Lee’s Lieutenants was one of the most prized readings of senior leaders during World War II.

I earlier noted the dense information rich nature of Dickson’s book and it is simply overwhelming. Freeman’s achievements dwarf the men of his age and his influence in war and peace are intensely interesting. The manner in which he pursues and advocates truth in society displays his well considered research and analysis. A lifelong Democrat, he is an advocate of Woodrow Wilson and the promise of the League of Nations; conversely he detests the programs of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal which he believes to be an unwarranted intrusion into individual and state’s rights. As an isolationist, he cheers Chamberlin’s and Hitler’s Munich accord but later when he realizes Hitler is not to be trusted becomes a patriotic supporter of the war effort and the post war measures that provide the GI Bill. On the other hand, as a strong segregationist and proponent of “Separate but Equal,” he insists on absolute equality for the blacks while resisting the policies of Harry Truman to integrate at the Federal level. Eventually he encourages and then supports the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president.

Throughout this rich life, he finds parallels with the Confederacy and specifically Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia’s experience with the challenges and battles of the American armies in Europe and the Pacific. He views Patton as the Stonewall Jackson of the Second World War.
Freeman dies as he finishes Volume six of his Washington biography. He is buried with his beloved Confederate soldiers in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

This is an intellectually rigorous book. As a biography it is first rate. Of the contending themes, I argue that the book title should have emphasized that this was a biographical work. It stands strongly against any other biography I have read. It is especially triumphant in its context—the reader not only learns who and what Freeman was, they also learn the context in which he lived and contributed. That the academic argument of “Southern Identity and Memory” dominates the title page pays tribute to the author’s primary intellectual effort; but, for me I finally got up close and personal with a legend and I am a much better historical analyst for finally understanding the man holding the pen.

Sadly, academic presses are tacking hefty price tags on short run books. If you think you are up to the mental challenge or you just want to get to know a great historian and a legendary American this book will reward you. It is not a casual read; but it is an important intellectual destination for people who expect and want more from history.

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About Len Riedel

Len Riedel is the Executive Director of the BGES and is a retired Air Force officer with a Masters degree in History. He has given numerous talks on various aspects of the war and has planned over 250 different battlefield tours.

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One Response to Sustaining Southern Identity: Douglas Southall Freeman and Memory in the Modern South

  1. Deborah pillow fox May 23, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Regardless of what history has written, I am honored to have such an interesting and great ancestor!

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