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T. Harry Williams: A Remembrance

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000

Though it is now more than five decades ago, I remember well the morning, fall of 1946, I wandered into Harry Williams’s history class at Louisiana State University, a curious if blase poacher. This 20-year-old English major had returned to the idyllic Baton Rouge campus in June from the Second World War along with what appeared to be an infantry division of older veterans. I had heard that Williams was a lecturer extraordinaire worth hearing once. I also wanted to listen to several others on the faculty said to be worth an hour’s time. Most of us were carrying a course load of 18 hours and had other fish to fry.

According to the contemporary LSU course catalog, Williams, age 37, held the rank of associate professor. He was teaching two courses: American History and Military History of the United States. I had happened in on one of his lectures in American history, a subject in which I was as innocent as others out of the Louisiana public schools who in 11 years had been taught one course in grammar school and another in high school. That morning I got hooked on Williams. This brilliant, eloquent, and wiry Yankee with a twang of his native Illinois made such an impression that I would bootleg his lectures during the remainder of my time there, which ended when I finished the LSU Law School in May 1950.

In contrast to the general run of lecturer, who might read from a sheaf of tattered pages in a monologue or employ distracting bombast—or make failed attempts at humor, a driven Williams would engage his auditors with rapid-fire volleys in a conversational voice off the cuff without lectern, text, or notes. He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it without missing a beat. He used simple declaratory sentences with hardly a dependent clause and no filler-type utterances such as uh, as it were, or you know. If transcribed, his fast 50-minute expositions might have required twice the pages of those of others, so much ground he covered.

No sooner than I took my place in back but well within hearing, Williams began talking while seated on the front of a desk about the bitter and shifting division between patriots and Tories during the American Revolution as if holding forth in a country store before a pot-bellied stove. A natural and accomplished storyteller, he could take you back in time and hold you there. Had he been teaching Danish history or the political economy of Monaco, interest would not have flagged. I was studying Williams. Transference was occuring. That same week I caught another of his classes, considered ditching English for history until I realized I was situated in English but sitting in the catbird seat of history. Williams in Himes Hall was affording relief from obligations to the English department in Allen Hall just across the quad. Not being required to do this—and taking no notes—compounded the captivation. I was gaining inspiration instead of credit.

Williams knew he was attracting nonregistrants. We knew he knew. He would look us over when we joined questioners who surrounded his desk after class. He would encourage our queries too. Never dogmatic, Williams knew voluminous data and minutiae but also countless thematic enigmas not to be resolved. He conveyed that the past is so limitless that only some of it is recoverable. Yet such an excess hangs over us that selection must be made. Interpretation must be given. And focus. I know now he put us in a frame of mind for contemplating the qualitative limits of a retreivable past and for evaluating history’s probative pursuits: novel and heady concepts of historicism for a sophomore to try to ponder. He put me in the way of learning to love history and of understanding a little about it in the role of a lay history buff with private scholarly fantasies.

I suppose I went to hear Williams, instead of to a movie, once or more a week during my remaining four years at LSU, perhaps— difficult to realize as I add it up—almost 200 times, the equivalent of four semesters of course lectures: say, a minor in history—more likely a major in Williams. During my freshman year, 1943—44, anticipating military service, I would fritter away a vacant period between classes every morning at the Field House to visit with fellows and gals. That experience might have been repeated. I count my blessings. Not all of my time has been so well invested. After I entered the law school in 1947, I would walk across the parade ground to hear Williams whenever I could as a relief from the boredom of briefing dry law cases in the law library. Once I realized I could attend Williams’ classes with impunity I gravitated also to his course in Military History of the United States. It made little difference to me which of the classes I visited. Some weeks I’d go to both.

Williams wasn’t listed in the LSU catalogs as a full professor until the session of 1948—49. Theretofore he had ranked behind the three-only professors of history: Bell I. Wiley, Charles E. Smith, and Walter Prichard. Williams didn’t teach the Civil War until the session of 1949—50, succeeding Wiley, who had left LSU for Emory University. Williams had been yearning to teach the Civil War while waiting his turn, having always held a fascination for it. I did not know at the time I encountered Williams that he was working on his second book on the Civil War, discussed below. Already he had written Lincoln and the Radicals (1941) before arriving at LSU in 1941 while teaching at what is now the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Once Williams occupied the Civil War chair, I followed him there with a sense of opportunity. I knew little about it except what was handed down in the family. In grammar school and high school, the fall-term teachers of American history would not cover ground enough to reach Secession. The spring-term teachers would begin with Reconstruction. I cannot begin to convey the enjoyment of attending some of Williams’s lectures on the Civil War. During this time, he and I got acquainted. He covered it all: from the longsimmering divide before the war to Appomatox and beyond. Even now I can recall a few scenes from those lectures and the beginnings of an acquaintance that endured until his death.

My recollections are encumbered, however, by my subsequent reading and a recent rereading of the book Williams had been writing since arriving at LSU: Lincoln and His Generals (1952), yet in print. This remarkable work put Harry Williams on the map as a Civil War scholar. A new departure in Civil War history, blasphemy in some quarters, it was the first great academic work to be chosen the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club at a time when that firm issued but one principal book a month and only a few others—and hadn’t yet been taken over by Time, Inc. to become a national mail-order book store with principal sales from cookbooks, health and wellness books, and popular fiction, not literature. Small wonder, considering the royalities he received from the BOMC, that Williams named a new home in Baton Rouge “Lincoln and.”

In this work, Williams establishes that Lincoln was commander in chief in fact as well as in name. This new paradigm in visualizing the Union’s military command, contrary to what Grant wrote in his memoirs and what had been handed down in history for almost a century, has entered the mainstream of Civil War history and the annals of military history. It has held up since Williams developed it from original research. Theretofore Lincoln had been known to succeeding generations following his death as the Great Emancipator. Grant had been credited with winning the Civil War. Lee, though, had been acclaimed the greatest Civil War general. In Williams’ view, all of this had reached the level of gospel through the route of mythology. In his monumental Lincoln (1995), David Herbert Donald cites Williams’ book: “excellent on Lincoln’s relations with Grant.”

In less than 400 pages, a book neither a military history nor a biography, Williams focuses on Lincoln as director of the war from the perspective of military developments since 1865 and “to measure the correctness of his decisions by the standards of modern war.” Williams notes that the Civil War began with no army general in service who had ever commanded an army of any size, and he sees Lincoln possessing an innate military sense not held by any of his generals unless Grant. Not even Grant at first grasped that Lee’s army—not Richmond—was the target. Williams faults Grant’s memoirs, written under the influence of the postwar Grant and Lincoln myths. Grant claims that when he became lieutenant general he conducted the war with a free hand. Williams shows that a diplomatic and humble Lincoln never did abandon his careful attention to the war as its director and that Lincoln’s strategy became Grant’s strategy. He depicts the movement against Lee as Operation Crusher in modern military terminology.

Williams sees Grant the superior general to Lee “because in a modern war he had a modern mind, and Lee did not.” Lee looked to the past in war as did the Confederacy in spirit. Lee’s general staff consisted of glorified clerks. Lee performed chores that no general in a modern army could do. Thus Lee was often a tired general. Grant could see that war was total, a realism barbaric to Lee, who saw war as conflict between armies instead of a struggle between societies. Williams finds that the Union’s arrangement of a commander in chief, general in chief, and chief of staff gave the United States a system of command for modern war that was superior to any European system until von Moltke established the Prussian staff machine soon thereafter.

Williams wrote a masterpiece in Baton Rouge that established his estimable reputation worldwide and gained him in 1953 the LSU Boyd chair in history. This professorship’s name and Williams’ holding it a quarter-century evokes irony. Both David French Boyd, a Confederate officer after serving on the original LSU faculty under the new school’s president, William Tecumseh Sherman, and his younger brother, Thomas Duckett Boyd, for whom the chair was named, held presidencies of LSU during the apogee of the Lost Cause’s myth. In the ordinary course of teaching and writing history at LSU, the popular and respected Williams did much to deflate that myth.

How did a renown Civil War scholar like Williams, who could have written more about that historically controversial conflict, come to devote 13 years to writing Huey Long (1969), the biography of a regional public man of polarizing controversy but also of considerable accomplishment blighted by an overreaching for power overlong? Huey Long served as Louisiana governor and U.S. senator during seven tumultuous years, 1928—35. He held ambitions for the presidency before falling to a gunshot wound (or wounds) at age 42. One pauses in pondering it. I know that Williams derived uncommon pleasure in researching and writing this biography. I think he considered it the ultimate writing endeavor of his life.

Perhaps his psyche was turning to Louisiana. I know he loved LSU and his community of friends and acquaintances in Baton Rouge. He had entered into a happy union with Estelle Skolfield Lower, a member of LSU’s English faculty. After Lincoln and His Generals, Williams wrote the biography of a Louisianian, one of the Confederacy’s eight full generals, P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray (1955). Perhaps his psyche was also turning to politics. In the preface to Huey Long, he reports that during the early 1950’s he “became greatly interested in the project in Oral History being conducted at Columbia University.” He says also he was seized with an idea that somebody should use the oral-history technique for a biography of Huey P. Long.

When Williams received a letter from Huey’s son, U.S. Senator Russell B. Long, which commended his biography of Beauregard, he wrote the senator about a proposed biography of his father. The senator was enthused and encouraged his father’s friends to cooperate with Williams. Senator Long also signed an agreement that gave Williams a free hand not subject to editing or censorship, with which the senator was to comply.

By 1959, the year Williams interviewed my father, John H. McSween, one of his 295 interviewees of all political persuasions (I drove him to conduct interviews nearby), he already had prepared an outline for Huey Long. This is found in his presidential address of Nov. 2, 1959, before the Southern Historical Association, entitled “The Gentleman from Louisiana: Demagogue or Democrat.” [See The Pursuit of Southern History: Presidential Addresses of the Southern Historical Association, 1935—1963 (1964).] In this address, Williams notes that a political status quo had been maintained in Louisiana for a half-century since Reconstruction’s end until the governorship of Huey Long. In 1928, for example, Louisiana could boast of but 296 miles of concrete roads, 35 miles of asphalt, 5,728 miles of gravel, and three major bridges—none of which crossed the Mississippi River either at New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Trains would uncouple, ferry across the river at New Orleans. By the time of Huey’s death, the highway system consisted of 2,446 miles of concrete roads, 1,308 miles of asphalt, 9,629 miles of gravel, and more than 40 major bridges.

In this address, Williams holds that Long was an American boss, “a powerful and sometimes ruthless one, who in his last phase had too much power.” Long, though, “had none of the qualities we associate with the Fascist leader.” Williams also sees Long as a mass leader, and advances the view that politicians are judged by a standard higher than businessmen are judged, doubtless referring to business practices begun during the Gilded Age and yet prevailing.

Although Huey Long, a popular bestseller, was accorded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and provoked generous reviews in the main as a most readable and fascinating work, it revived controversy in Louisiana and generated adverse reaction among some scholars. In writing an accurate factual account of Huey’s life, allowing for exceptions in respect to an alleged connection with Frank Costello and accepting as fact that Huey was assassinated instead of being the victim of an accidental shooting, much of it inimical to Huey, the book comes across to some as overly sympathetic in its interpretations. Williams conveys a need to justify Huey’s political means toward his ends that such exhaustive research turned up and Williams revealed with an even hand.

Williams’ colleague and former LSU Professor of English Robert B. Heilman, wrote a balanced essay-review of praise and fault by literary measure, “Williams on Long,” collected in his The Southern Connection (1991). The senior Southern literary critic, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., who also knew Williams, wrote a sharper critique, “Versions of the Kingfish,” that appeared in the Sewanee Review (1993). My centennial essay on Huey Long, which expresses views on both Huey and Huey Long appeared in this journal (1993).

Our paths crossed once again in 1972, when Williams and I supported the same candidate for governor of Louisiana. I was asked to introduce Harry, he in turn introduced Gillis Long over a statewide TV hookup that emanated from the Rivergate in New Orleans, where 2,000 guests were taking dinner at a fundraiser. The occasion enabled us to spend time together. I learned that night that Harry was still obsessed with the subject of Huey Long but also with the significance of Huey’s place in the nation’s political evolution: perhaps a new interpretation.

My last visit with Harry occurred one evening in 1976 at our home following his bicentennial lecture in Alexandria, an evening of reminiscence over drinks less than three years before his death. I decided to broach a subject of longtime curiosity. “Harry, how did Huey go wrong after such an auspicious start as governor . . .initiatives of several kinds that included the largest new highway construction program of any state in the nation?”

Williams did not hesitate. He said that Huey and FDR were not compatible. Roosevelt was an elitist snob who looked down on Huey as a low-born common man not to be trusted. Huey underrated FDR and the huge political apparatus that FDR would set against him: sending a battalion of IRS agents to Louisiana and awarding political patronage to Huey’s enemies. Huey reacted by extracting even more power from the Louisiana legislature, meeting in special sessions, for the caretaker state administration that he controlled from Washington as if yet governor.

Harry changed the subject, said he had begun working on a biography of Lyndon Johnson. “You knew Lyndon. What do you think of the idea?” Although I had gained only a short and passing acquaintance with Johnson, I told Harry to go for it. He did not live to get far along on his LBJ project. Williams died suddenly July 6, 1979, age 70, at the top of his game, having written an even dozen books, including his last, The History of American Wars (1981), issued posthumously.

I am holding in my hand a copy of the 43-page typescript of Williams’ presidential address of April 12, 1973, before the Organization of American Historians. (See the Journal of American History (1973). This provocative document discloses that Williams’s thought about Huey Long had evolved since he wrote Huey Long, that he had already formed a view of Lyndon Johnson. From this can be seen how he might have proceeded with his biography of LBJ. Moreover, Williams gives a synthesis about radicalism in the South:

My thesis is that although radicalism has not appeared often in the South, when it has, it has been more intense and insistent than in other sections. In support of this thesis I offer that the two greatest political radicals in recent history have been Huey Long and Lyndon Johnson and that the most radical mass movement in recent times has been the black civil rights movement—all of these phenomena coming out of the South, that supposedly conservative South that would win in a landslide any contest to pick the section least likely to dissent. Two of these phenomena, Huey Long and the civil rights masses, were so radical that they were willing to bend or even break the system. The other one, equally rooted in the South, remained convinced that reform must come within the system—Lyndon Johnson.

Had I read this engrossing address when I last talked to Harry Williams in 1976, I would have been anxious to discuss it with him. By 1973, he had observed both the Civil Rights Movement and the humanitarian legislation enacted during the Johnson administration: far-reaching occurrences that were manifesting themselves only as he was completing Huey Long.

Digesting these developments enabled Williams to reach a new paradigmatic interpretation in respect to politics of an order of that he had advanced about Lincoln’s role as commander in chief a generation before. As an historian, Williams was searching for the underlying meaning of changing and epochal events and willing to change his mind until the end.


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