By David Madden
Special to Magazine
November 06, 2012
LEE AND HIS GENERALS:
Essays In Honor Of T. Harry Williams
Edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt
and Thomas E. Schott
University of Tennessee Press, $45.95, 323 pp., with photographs
I can hear a stadium full of students and readers of beloved master teacher T. Harry greeting the subtitle of this collection with the cheer: “It’s about time!” Hewitt and Schott declare that “our only regret is that this tribute to our mentor was so long in coming.” That T. Harry Williams was a very popular teacher and a very popular historian makes it altogether fitting that I begin in that tone. And what more admirable way to honor T. Harry Williams can one imagine than Hewitt and Schott’s editing of the 10 original, clearly-written essays by former students, now venerable historians, of his dramatic teaching at LSU? In the same spirit, the collection is dedicated to a former student, the late Art Bergeron.
We nonstudents who knew and read T. Harry were also his students in the same sense in which Brian Holden Reid, the sole contributor who was not Williams’ student, declares that reading Lincoln and His Generals (1952), as an undergraduate he was “left dazzled by his vigorous literary skill and trenchancy of argument.” The nation honored him with a place on the best-seller list for that major work and a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his biography of Huey Long.
What Williams’ students admired and what their essays reflect is his “commitment to sound, imaginative scholarship and his spirit of broad historical inquiry.” The collection opens and closes with two essays about Williams the teacher, his writings about military command and southern politics, and his legacy. Five essays deal with “the military exploits of Lee himself and three of his battle captains.” Essays in the middle section “explore the lives of four of Lee’s generals away from the battlefield.”
The six-page bibliography of Williams’ 20 single authored and edited books and his essays and the 25-page listing of manuscripts, books, and essays that support the pieces by the 11 contributors enhance the lasting value of this sterling volume. In addition to his Lincoln and Long books, I favor Romance and Realism in Southern Politics (1961).
While each of the essays provides essential gear for our fitful march through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in which we are presently engaged, what provides a welcome means of knowing Williams better are the opening essay on Williams as a tough-minded, “practical historian” whose stress was upon character and narrative and the closing essay that delineates his “natural contentiousness,” merely verging on arrogance, in teaching, in speaking at conferences, and in writings that take generals north and south and their historians to task. As such, Williams was an iconoclastic revisionist. “Lee was a strange, almost baffling creature,” who “waged war in almost an unthinking way,” ignorant of the importance of railroads, of the fact that “the Civil War was the first of the modern wars.”
Has it really been 33 years since T. Harry gave his farewell lecture and laid down his pen? Yes, but you can still hear his story-telling voice at the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History: http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/williams.
David Madden is Founding Director of the United States Civil War Center and its online publication Civil War Book Review. His 13th novel, London Bridge in Plague and Fire, will appear in early September.