C. Vann Woodward, who died on December 17 at age ninety-one, was the most respected, honored, and influential American historian of the post- World War II era. He led the way in desegregating the history of his native South and in demolishing a deeply rooted mythology that dominated white Americans’ views of race relations from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the 1950s and 1960s—a mythology endorsed by many leading historians and popularized by novelists and filmmakers in, for example, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.
Negro slavery, according to this mythological tradition, had been a mild and benign means of civilizing African savages. Slavery would have evolved into a more productive and less authoritarian system of peasantry had there been no Civil War, a wholly “repressible conflict” ignited by extremists on both sides. The subsequent Reconstruction, with carpetbaggers and clownish blacks running corrupt state legislatures, had been a grotesque circus, moderately and often humorously checked by the Ku Klux Klan, until “the Redeemers” restored white supremacy and a reasonable system of “separate but equal” Jim Crow.
This was essentially the story I and other GI-Bill veterans were taught even in an Ivy League college in 1947, the year Macmillan published Vann Woodward’s masterful book The Battle for Leyte Gulf, “the largest engagement ever fought on the high seas.” By 1954, after doing research for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal campaign that led to Brown v. Board of Education, Vann initiated his own major battle by delivering at the University of Virginia, to an unsegregated audience, a lecture series that was later published as a book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), which Martin Luther King Jr. hailed as “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.”
Woodward argued that the disfranchising and segregating laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, far from codifying traditional Southern practice, were a determined effort to wipe out the considerable progress made by blacks during and even after Reconstruction. In his first book, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), Woodward had dramatically demonstrated a temporary alliance between African-Americans and Southern white Populists in the 1890s. This emphasis on discontinuity, contingency, and alternative possibilities was reinforced by Woodward’s landmark works, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951) and Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (1951), books that prepared the way for Kenneth Stampp’s pathbreaking reexamination of Southern slavery (The Peculiar Institution ). While John Hope Franklin and other African-American scholars had long attacked the dominant Southern mythology, the impact of such important books as W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935) was limited in a highly racist society. It was Woodward’s scholarly stature, coupled with his prose, that undermined the strategic foundations of the racists’ historical fortress and helped to reveal and reverse the fact that the South, despite its military defeat, had long been winning the ideological Civil War.
Yet ironically—and Woodward himself loved irony—Vann was a Southern Rebel living in exile in a cold capitalist world he could never love. He felt more at home in Mary Chesnut’s complex world of the Civil War than in a self-righteous North that blamed its racial problems on a demonized Dixie. And this sense of a heritage of sin and defeat gave him the freedom to criticize the ideology of an “innocent nation in a wicked world.” He could exhort his many distinguished graduate students and fellow historians to mediate “between man’s limitations and his aspirations, between his dreams of what ought to be and the limits of what, in the light of what has been, can be.”