Douglas Southall Freeman on Sources

Douglas Southall Freeman, the son of a confederate veteran, was a journalist and historian in Virginia. He wrote a 4-volume biography of Robert E. Lee that rightly won the Pulitzer Prize. He followed that with a 3-volume work titled Lee’s Lieutenants, which delved into a history of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Next he wrote a 6-volume biography of George Washington which also won a Pulitzer Prize. Freeman’s biography of Lee is the most comprehensive biography of the general in existence, and perhaps will stand as the most comprehensive biography that will ever exist on Lee. It’s a wonderful read and a work of art. It’s also famous for its unabashed fawning over Lee, crossing the line into hagiography several times. Freeman was, in addition to being an accomplished writer, an academically trained historian with a Ph.D. in history.

In the inaugural issue of Civil War History [Volume 1, No. 1, March, 1955], Dr. Freeman’s May 7, 1953 speech to the Civil War Round Tables in Richmond appeared in its entirety, with the transcript taken from a tape recording made at the meeting.

In that speech, Dr. Freeman says, “In this half hour I am going to try to describe five of the difficulties that a historian of the war of 1861-65 encounters. They are by no means the only problems that have to be faced. They have nothing to do, in general, with those sources of information that may be uncovered or yet may be missing. They are, in the main, matters of historical critique, and when we have reviewed these five, I shall come at the end to a consideration of the final factor in the last of these points.” [p. 7]

With that introduction complete, Dr. Freeman moved on to discuss witness testimony historians encounter. “Every student of this period finds himself confronted with testimony from three different types of witnesses. One of those might be called the immediate witnesses. Another type is represented by the men and women who felt it necessary, or profitable, or desirable, to write almost immediately after the conclusion of hostilities. In this category, for example, belong the memoirs of General Beauregard. We have, after that, the third classification–a later series of witnesses who may be said, broadly, to have begun their work at the time of the publication of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, and simultaneously the appearance of that very remarkable book known as Battles and Leaders. Unfortunately, we have a great many writers on this period who accept as equally deserving of credibility the testimony of contemporaries and the testimony of men who wrote twenty or thirty years after the war. It is a very grave mistake to give the same measure of acceptance to the late witness that is given to the early witness. So it is for this reason, among others, that we find the most invaluable of all the documents relating to the period of your study the correspondence volumes of the Official Records. here we have the account from the field of action. It has the limitations that inevitably inhere in that type of testimony, but it has also the element of immediacy about it. No more interesting development in the study of the Civil War has come than that of the new emphasis on the correspondence, whereas thirty or forty years ago, all the emphasis virtually was on the reports. As a matter of fact, you will find in a good many instances that the reports themselves were so long delayed that they are a denial in part of the statements set forth at the moment in the correspondence.” [pp. 7-8]

Dr. Freeman gives us some general guidelines on critically evaluating these sources: “When you come to those records of events made after a prolonged interval, you have then to apply the critique of failing memory and that odd critique, gentlemen, of public utterance. That is a strange thing to have to say, but other things being even, the witness twenty years after the event always must be cross-examined by you with the greatest care. He is the witness who has told his tale over and over again. beware of the man who became a public lecturer on the Civil War, because almost always he adorns his story with every telling, until it becomes exceedingly difficult to ascertain the fabric of fact that underlies the embroidery of fancy. … Furthermore, the late witness must be subjected to another critique, namely, that of his age at the time of a given incident. Here, for example, is a young man who once met General Grant in the road; the General stopped and asked him a question. He had never seen Grant before; he never saw him afterward. The fact that he had seen Grant was one of the great events of his youthful memory. That man’s statement is much more to be trusted than the statement of a man who saw General Grant every day, talked with him every day, and quite frequently became confused as to the sequence of events about which he may be writing. Once in a long while you meet a man who has one of those incredible memories that stamp what he said as accurate fifty years after the event. … In the main, it is a safe rule to question very carefully the testimony of the average witness if it is within even five years after the event. A lot of things can be washed out in memory in five years.” [pp. 8-9]

Dr. Freeman next takes on an aspect that can be a trap awaiting unsuspecting students of the war who are putting together accounts of events. “The second troublesome point and one that calls for the application of the best critical methods we can apply, gentlemen, is that of the time of the occurrence of a given incident in the course of a battle. … You will find the accounts of the different incidents varying as much as an hour, an hour and a half–in one or two instances as much as two hours. Now that is due to various circumstances: one of them is the difference in men’s watches. They did not, of course, take time to synchronize and it was amazing how far off some of them were. Another consideration is that a man who is in action usually shortens the time, whereas a man who is waiting to go into action usually lengthens the time. If you are out under remote fire, waiting to get into battle, fifteen minutes seem like a week. If, on the other hand, you are fighting for your life, you may become so absorbed in the combat that half an hour may seem but as a flash of a moment. Always take that into account in your critique.” [pp. 9-10]

Dr. Freeman identifies the weather and its effects on soldiers as a third factor to take into account, saying that it would add to the stress a soldier feels in the field. He then moves onto the reason why it’s so important for us to walk the ground in studying a battle. “Of course, the fourth factor that calls for a most careful critique is the nature of the terrain of action. How often we are deceived. How many times it happens that we think we know the ground, and we do not. It is exceedingly difficult, even when you are following as careful a man as Warren, for example, who was an engineer, and always interpreted his movements in engineering terms, and in terms of terrain. … We can do a lot now that we never could do when we did not have the three-dimensional map, and we can find a great many things from the air that we did not know and could not have learned from the ground.” [p. 11]

The final factor Dr. Freeman considers is that of conflicting testimony. “Where these conflicts of testimony exist, of course we have the old lawyer’s rule that we follow the preponderance of the evidence; but that carries you only so far, because every witness may tell a different tale. When that happens, you have to take into account three other factors, three other subsidiaries of this critique of the conflict of testimony. The first of these is, of course, the position of the witness. Here is a man who writes of a battle and makes a statement regarding it. Does he know? Was he where he could see? That is a matter of the greatest importance. Again, what was his comprehension? Was he where he could understand the significance of what was happening? I know a great many witnesses–and you will find their reports scattered through volume after volume of the Official Records–when the man most pontifically stated what had happened, and had absolutely no comprehension of what was in the mind of the corps commander, or the division leader, whose operation was under way. First you say, is a man in a position to see and to know? Second, is he in a position where he can comprehend what is happening? Then you come to what is the final consideration. When everything else fails, the test of the evidence in conflict is the character of the man who testifies.” [pp. 12-13] I think Dr. Freeman left out a couple of things here, such as evidence of an axe to grind. We also need to take into account any other biases an individual would have.

Dr. Freeman’s given us some excellent advice we as students of the war can use in our learning. Remember all sources have to be evaluated, and these guidelines will come in handy.

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One comment

  1. This was good—think I’ll get a copy of Freeman’s article to read for myself!

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