by Douglas Southall Freeman; Scribner’s; three paperback volumes, $16.95 each.
After finishing his 1934 biography R. E. Lee , Douglas Southall Freeman wanted to step back a century and write about another great Virginian, George Washington. But he found, he said, “that mentally it was not easy to leave the struggle about which one had been writing for twenty years and more. A question plagued and pursued: In holding the light exclusively on Lee, had one put in undeserved shadow the many excellent soldiers of his army?” It took him the next ten years to lay to rest the ghosts of the men who labored for Lee.
The first problem was how to write the book at all without simply echoing his earlier study. Lee himself supplied the answer when Freeman remembered a letter the commander had written in 1863: ”…our Army would be invincible if it could be properly organized and officered. There never were such men in an Army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led. But there is the difficulty—proper commanders—where can they be obtained?” Freeman seized on this: “Might not the book be a review of the command of the Army of Northern Virginia, rather than a history of the Army itself?”
And so it turned out. Over the course of three long books, Freeman told the story of the Southern command through the character of the commanders. The first volume, Manassas to Malvern Hill , shows the struggles to work out an initial command, from the brief zenith of the egotist Beauregard to the emergence of Stonewall Jackson; the second, Cedar Mountain to Chancellorsville , ends with the irreplaceable Jackson dead after his great victory; and the third, Gettysburg to Appomattox , details the blows that led to the disintegration of the army.
Virginia had no more loyal son than Douglas Southall Freeman, but he writes of his subjects with balance and insight and without sentimentality. If the prose is occasionally old-fashioned, Freeman’s “study in command” is nonetheless absorbing and judicious, and it is good to have it back in print.