R.E. Lee, A Biography

By Douglas Southall Freeman

Words from the achiever

I think the book that I learned the most from in terms of technique, as a storyteller, was Douglas Southall Freeman’s great biography of Robert E. Lee. He tells you in the foreword what he’s going to do. You’re never going to know anything in this book that Robert E. Lee didn’t know. So if we’re in the middle of the Civil War at the time of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and Hooker is coming around Lee’s flank, and he’s going to try to sneak in and make an attack from the rear, and Lee doesn’t know that, you’re not going to know that as a reader. You’re going to find out what Hooker is doing at the moment that Lee finds it out. In telling a story, don’t ever flash-forward, don’t ever give your story away. Keep your concentration on the person you’re writing about or the event you’re writing about. Let things develop chronologically, because that’s the way it happens in real life. Now that sounds very simple and very easy to do, but it’s awfully hard to do. The temptation of flashing forward and saying, “But he was going to find out how wrong he was,” and you give the whole damn story away. So that’s what I learned from Freeman.

About the book

One-volume abridgement of Douglass Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning four-volume biography of the Confederate General.

“Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole south is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and, though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for a redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state.”

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.”