C. Vann Woodward was among the best that there ever was when it came to American historians in the twentieth century. Several of his books remain essential reading, if for no other reason than it pays to read that with which you disagree. Woodward wrote often about southern history, but, aside from his book Reunion and Reaction (1951), a somewhat controversial book about the Compromise of 1877, he did not prepare a book-length study of any topic that falls in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. However, he excelled at the art of the essay, sometimes using extended book reviews to make his point, an approach also embraced by one of his students, James M. McPherson.
I found Woodward’s writings on the Civil War and Reconstruction both provocative and just plain provoking. I liked some of what he had to say, and at times what he wrote prodded me to think; but I also found in his writing a tendency to take pot shots at white northerners in what I like to call the “you, too” approach to history that seems to capture the imagination of some white southerners (regardless of their position on the political spectrum). This approach is characterized by taking a northern complaint about the South (a problematic exercise in itself) and turning it around on white northerners. This was especially true with matters of racial attitudes. Woodward rightly pointed out the persistence of white northern racism and how it circumscribed the possibilities for revolutionary changes in race relations as a result of emancipation. Where he erred, I thought, was that in reminding us of the importance of northern attitudes, he seemed a little too eager to skip over the role played by white southerners in shaping the post-emancipation world and in constricting the contours of black freedom.
It took me a while to understand why this was so. After all, Woodward believed in the civil rights movement: one could not mistake him as a conservative on matters of race relations. Some of his scholarship on race relations was used in support of civil rights initiatives. And yet Woodward’s triparte identity … a white male who was a southerner and a liberal … created something of a tension in his own work. Even as he deplored many of the racial practices in his own home region, he resented the self-righteousness of white northerners and their portrayals of his region. Nevertheless, over the years, as he became more pointed in his criticisms of white northern liberals (he spent far more time on Republicans and abolitionists than he did on northern Democrats, who play a minimal [and, over time, decreasing] role in his scholarship), he moved northward, retiring from Yale University.
Sometimes Woodward was both irritatingly consistent and wonderfully inconsistent at the same time. I recall an essay he wrote in the 1950s that was critical of Grant as president, portraying him as the captive of the Radical Republicans. He prepared that piece on the eve of a historiographical revolution in how historians viewed Reconstruction, in which the Radicals became either the good guys or not nearly as important as moderate Republicans. One result of that revolution was to transform Andrew Johnson from a hero to a villain, and, in fact, most of the scholarship that revolutionized our understanding of Reconstruction as national policy concentrated on the 1860s, leaving the Grant administration for later historians. It took some time for historians to revise their understanding of Grant, but one of the reasons that happened was because of a biography of Grant written by another of Woodward’s own students, William S. McFeely, which, while artfully done, was nearly an unrelenting attack on Grant, especially when it came to matters of race relations. If we were to believe McFeely, Grant was not invested in black freedom, and failed to serve black interests in the postwar period. Indeed, he was supportive of Andrew Johnson until his ambitions for higher office caused him to embrace the Republicans. Woodward, writing a review of his own former advisee’s work (Woodward had a deplorable habit of doing this, even commenting on books that had been dissertations completed under his supervision), embraced this view of Grant as a pawn in the hands of conservatives without so much as a nod to what he had said before.
I was in graduate school when the McFeely biography came out, and while I disagreed with it, I was not exactly concerned by it until the Woodward review appeared. It was a major contributing factor to McFeely’s winning the Pulitzer Prize. It was the review that ticked me off. At that time I had not framed a dissertation topic, but before too long I had one. But it was not until 1994 that I got something off my chest about the whole matter. That spring I spoke at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Atlanta. None other than C. Vann Woodward chaired my session. The room in which I spoke was jam-packed with people, who were there not to see me (or even my distinguished copanelists, including Joel Silbey and Michael Les Benedict), but Woodward, the session chair. My paper was on Republican Reconstruction policy; in it I mentioned that a certain unnamed historian had characterized Grant as a Radical pawn in the 1950ws and a puppet of Andrew Johnson in the 1980s as highlighting how Grant had continued to come under criticism even as we revised our understanding of Reconstruction. I think he got the message (I know historians in the audience did).
Woodward’s work reflected the challenges many white southern liberals faced. Loving their region despite its faults, indeed battling to rectify those faults, they nevertheless resented haughty northern condescension and criticism directed at their home region. However, when in response they turned their attention to describing northern shortcomings and hypocrisy, sometimes to excess, they tended to let their fellow white southerners off the hook, and failed to examine the African American experience during this period in much depth. The finger-pointing has decreased over the years, with concessions from all involved, and with a more realistic understanding of where the problems were. While he may not have provided the final word on these issues, Woodward contributed to shaping present-day understandings of race and Reconstruction, in the students he produced and the readers he influenced, even when he provoked their ire.