Civil War Wiki

Template:Infobox Writer Thomas Harry Williams (May 19, 1909–July 6, 1979)[1] was an award-winning historian at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge whose career began in 1941 and extended for thirty-eight years until his death at the age of seventy. A popular faculty member, Williams is perhaps best known for his American Civil War study, Lincoln and His Generals, a "Book of the Month" selection from 1952, and his Huey Long, the definitive 1969 study of Huey Pierce Long, Jr., winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.[2]

From Illinois to LSU[]

Williams was born in Vinegar Hill Township, Jo Daviess County, Illinois, to William D. Williams and the former Emma Necollins. His father died when Williams was a small boy, and he was reared by an uncle and grandmother. He was educated in the schools of the village of Hazel Green, Wisconsin. He procured his bachelor of arts degree in 1931 from the University of Wisconsin–Platteville (then Platteville State College) in Platteville. He thereafter obtained his Master of Arts and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1932 and 1937, respectively. He first instructed history in the extension division of UW from 1936 to 1938. He then accepted a professorship at the University of Omaha in Nebraska from 1938 to 1941. Then Williams relocated to LSU, where he was anchored as Boyd Professor for the remainder of his career.[2]

The Boyd chair is named for Thomas Duckett Boyd, a former LSU president during the peak of the post-Civil War mythology of The Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Boyd was a brother of David French Boyd, a Confederate officer who had served on the original LSU faculty when the school was based in Alexandria and under the first LSU president and subsequent Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman. During his career, Williams did much to debunk the premises and defenders of The Lost Cause.[3]

Fascination with Huey Long[]

Williams used oral history as part of his key source material in the preparation of Huey Long, having interviewed scores of supporters and opponents of the "Louisiana Kingfish".[4] On November 2, 1959, Williams presented the presidential address "The Gentleman from Louisiana: Demagogue or Democrat" before the Southern Historical Association. Williams told his fellow historians and their guests that Huey Long's governorship marked the end of the half-century of Louisiana history since the close of congressional Reconstruction. Before 1928, Louisiana had only 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 had to uncouple and ferry across the river. By 1935, when Long was assassinated, Williams observed that the state had 2,446 miles of concrete roads, 1,308 miles of asphalt, 9,629 miles of gravel, and more than 40 major bridges. He concluded that Long was "a powerful and sometimes ruthless political boss" but not one who fit the definition of a fascist, as often claimed by Long's detractors.[3]

In 1971, Williams endorsed former U.S. Representative Gillis William Long in the Democratic primary for governor, a race ultimately won by Edwin Washington Edwards. Harold B. McSween, whom Gillis Long unseated in the 8th district congressional primary in 1962 but who after a reconciliation was backing Long for governor, was asked to introduce Williams. The historian would in turn present Long to viewers of a statewide television hookup from the Rivergate in New Orleans. McSween said that he learned at the time of that occasion that Williams was "still obsessed with the subject of Huey Long but also with the significance of [Long's] place in the nation's political evolution: perhaps a new interpretation."[3]

McSween recalled having met Williams for the last time in 1976 in McSween's Alexandria home, where the former congressman asked the historian about the relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Huey Long. McSween recalled Williams having referred to Roosevelt as "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 [still] governor."[3]

Scholarly honors[]

Williams was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1957 and was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Queen's College of Oxford University in Great Britain from 1966-1967. He was president of the Southern Historical Association from 1958-1959 and of the Organization of American Historians from 1972-1973.[2]

Williams guest lectured at more than fifty colleges in the United States and Europe. He participated in countless Civil War Roundtables. In 1964, he received the Harry S. Truman Award in Civil War History.[2] During his career, Williams was honored with Doctor of Law recognition from Northland College (1953); a Guggenheim Fellow (1957); Doctor of Letters from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois (1959); Harmsworth Professor of American History, Queen's College, Oxford, England (1966-1967), and Doctor of Humane Letters from Loyola University and Tulane University, both in New Orleans, in 1974 and 1979, respectively.[4] [4]

On Williams' death, the LSU Board of Supervisors established the T. Harry Williams Chair of American History. There is also the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History and the T. Harry Williams Scholarship at LSU.[4]

Full classes[]

A stimulating lecturer who attracted the interest of non-history majors, Williams routinely taught overflow numbers of attentive students in auditorium-sized classrooms. He was said to have been a stern taskmaster but effective mentor to several generations of graduate students aspiring to be professional historians.[2] Harold B. McSween, then a young English major from Alexandria, recalled having visited Williams' lectures without being enrolled in the course, for he wanted inspiration and not college credit and the requirement to take notes:

"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."[3]


Williams wrote more than twenty scholarly books, co-authored (with Richard Current and Frank Freidel) a standard textbook still utilized in American history survey courses, edited seven works, and published more than 40 articles and some 325 book reviews.[2]

Other acclaimed works included: Lincoln and the Radicals (1941), P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray (1955), Romance and Realism in Southern Politics (1961), McClellan, Sherman, and Grant (1962), Americans at War: The American Military System, and, posthumously, History of American Wars (1981) and The Selected Essays of T. Harry Williams (1983).[5]He also wrote the foreward of John D. Winters' The Civil War in Louisana (1963).

Family life[]

On December 26, 1952, Williams wed the former Estelle Skolfield (1908-1999)[1] of Baton Rouge, herself an LSU English professor. Estelle received a bachelor of science degree from LSU in business administration and procured a master's in English. She joined the LSU faculty in 1938 and taught freshman composition and grammar for twenty-five years. The T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History established the Estelle Skolfield Williams Graduate Assistantship in her honor, a reflection of her work in helping her husband record oral interviews for the book Huey Long.[6]

T. Harry Williams adopted Estelle's adult daughter, Mai (pronounced MAY) Frances Lower (born 1929), who subsequently married John Jones Doles, Jr. (1923-2004), of Plain Dealing, a member of a prominent Bossier Parish family who in 1982-1983 served as president of the Louisiana Bankers Association. Doles was the only child of John Jones Doles, Sr., of Plain Dealing, who served in the Louisiana State Senate from 1952-1956. John and Mai Doles had four daughters, whom Williams considered his own granddaughters. Mai Doles, Williams's only surviving heir, is retired in Shreveport.[6]

Professor Williams died of pneumonia less than two months after his retirement from the LSU faculty. At the time of his passing, he had already completed significant research and written two chapters of a pending biography of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.[3]

Harry and Estelle Williams are interred at Roselawn Cemetery in Baton Rouge.[7]

In 1998, Williams was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.[8]