FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: Fleming, Walter Lynwood (8 Apr. 1874-3 Aug. 1932), historian,
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American National Biography Online
Fleming, Walter Lynwood (8 Apr. 1874-3 Aug. 1932), historian,
was born near Brundidge, Alabama, the son of William LeRoy Fleming,
a prosperous farmer before the Civil War and a veteran of the
war, and Mary Love Edwards. He received his B.S. from Alabama
Polytechnic Institute (later Auburn University) in 1896 and earned
his M.S. there a year later. He was teaching there when he volunteered
in the Spanish-American War. After enlisting in May 1898 as a
private, he obtained a commission as second lieutenant of the
Third Alabama Infantry Regiment (Colored) in July 1898 and served
in Alabama and Florida as a white officer of a black unit until
March 1899. He considered a career in the military but instead
returned to Alabama Polytechnic and in 1900 enrolled at Columbia
University to do graduate work in history. There he studied with
men in a wide range of social science disciplines, especially
historian William Archibald Dunning, and earned an M.A. in 1901
and the Ph.D. in 1904. He married Mary Wright Boyd in 1902; they
had four children.
At about the time he enrolled at Columbia, Fleming published
an essay, "The Buford Expedition to Kansas," in the American
Historical Review 6 (Oct. 1900). Exemplifying his interest in
his home state and the sectional crisis of the Middle Period,
the article focused on an Alabamian, Jefferson Buford, who had
sought to foster proslavery settlement in Kansas in the 1850s.
Displaying Fleming's commitment to work in primary sources, it
relied in part on letters he had found in the possession of Buford
Recognizing the need for scholarship on the Reconstruction era,
Fleming set out to study the period in Alabama. As he explained
at the time: "The Southern people have not rushed into books
with their knowledge of things. Consequently, the younger generation
knows little of the post bellum troubles except thro' tradition,
which is not very lasting, and thro' prejudiced accounts written
in Mass. [sic] or Ohio" (as quoted in Stephenson, p. 95). The
son of an Alabama planter dispossessed by emancipation, Fleming
set out to bring another perspective, correct such biases, as
he saw them, and provide an enduring history. His dissertation,
published as Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama in 1905,
displayed his prodigious research, felicitous writing style,
and interpretive powers. For it he collected and examined a wide
range of documentary materials and spoke or corresponded with
elderly Alabamians of both races.
James Ford Rhodes and Fleming's mentor William A. Dunning soon
relied on his findings when they wrote more general histories
of Reconstruction. Dunning, the early twentieth century's preeminent
historian of Reconstruction, also directed dissertations on other
states, among them Mississippi and Georgia, that, with Fleming's,
constitute what are known as the Dunning studies of Reconstruction
for their careful historical work but their antipathy for the
Republican policies of the time.
Fleming followed his first book with the two-volume Documentary
History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious,
Educational and Industrial, 1865 to the Present Time (1906-1907),
which incorporated a broad conception of history, far beyond
the confines of politics and diplomacy that tended to circumscribe
the study of history in his time. As late as 1966 David Donald
characterized it as "the broadest and best balanced collection
of original sources on the Reconstruction era."
Fleming taught at West Virginia University from 1904 to 1907
and then at Louisiana State University from 1907 to 1917, when
he went to Vanderbilt University. In 1919 he published The Sequel
of Appomattox: A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States (1919),
an interpretive work that broadened to the entire South the scope
of his Alabama book. He became dean of Vanderbilt's College of
Arts and Sciences in 1923 and later directed the graduate school
there. He returned to full-time teaching in 1926 and published
The Freedmen's Savings Bank: A Chapter in the Economic History
of the Negro Race in 1927. Ill health forced his retirement in
1928, and he died in Nashville four years later of pneumonia
after a stroke. A posthumous publication, Louisiana State University,
1860-1896, appeared in 1936.
Fleming's greatest scholarly output came between about 1902
and 1912. A central reason for the decline thereafter was how
much time he spent at both Louisiana and Vanderbilt in administration
and working to build up a center of graduate study in the South.
He also served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Valley
Historical Review (later the Journal of American History) for
its first eight years of publication (1914-1922). Professional
colleagues appreciated his manifold contributions as scholar
and administrator, and some of his colleagues at Vanderbilt displayed
their esteem by dedicating I'll Take My Stand: The South and
the Agrarian Tradition to him when they published it in 1930:
"This book is dedicated in love and admiration to Walter L. Fleming
. . . [,] to whom some of the contributors owe doctrine and example,
and all would offer this expression of perfect esteem."
Fleming became known as perhaps the premier historian of his
generation--the generation after William A. Dunning--of the South
during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. His accomplishments
went beyond his breadth of research, work in primary sources,
and integration of various facets of social and cultural history.
He did something in Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama rarely
emulated through the next seventy years when he followed through
on his insight that, to comprehend the post-Civil War years,
one must understand the developments of the prewar and wartime
periods. He also insisted: "The negro is the central figure in
the reconstruction of the south. Without the negro there would
have been no Civil War. Granting a war fought for any other cause,
the task of reconstruction would, without him, have been comparatively
simple" (Sequel of Appomattox, p. 34). Yet Fleming's limitations
related to the same insights, when he observed, from the vantage
point of the early twentieth century, that the black codes of
the immediate postwar years, "with few exceptions, were timely
and sensible, and in substance had long been and still are on
the statute books of most of the states of the Union" (as quoted
in Green, p. 508).
Recent historians have found Fleming's research more compelling
and enduring than his perspective. As early as the 1930s one
critic, pioneer black historian Horace Mann Bond, chided Fleming
for exaggerating the racial texture of Reconstruction politics.
Seeing instead a clash of railroad corporations--the Alabama
and Chattanooga versus the Louisville and Nashville--Bond spoke
of Fleming's "delightful naivete" and rejected his "strictly
racial and sectional interpretation of the period." Viewing the
Republican and Democratic parties as "only the obverse aspects"
of these two great railway enterprises, Bond suggested that "the
basic economic issue of the campaign of 1874 in Alabama was to
determine which of the financial interests involved would be
able to make the best possible settlement with a state government
bankrupted by the earnest efforts of both."
Beginning in the 1960s a new generation of students offered
major revisions of the "Dunning studies" for every state of the
former Confederacy. Central to their approach was a greater attention
to and more favorable view of black southerners in the years
before as well as after emancipation. Fleming had supplied perhaps
the strongest of the Dunning studies, but other voices insisted
on being heard a century after the events his research helped
bring to light.
Fleming's papers are at the New York Public Library, Louisiana
State University, and the Alabama Department of Archives and
History. Assessments of his life and work appear in Fletcher
M. Green, "Walter Lynwood Fleming: Historian of Reconstruction,"
Journal of Southern History 2 (Nov. 1936): 497-521; William C.
Binkley, "The Contribution of Walter Lynwood Fleming to Southern
Scholarship," Journal of Southern History 5 (May 1939): 143-54;
Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton
and Steel (1939); Wendell Holmes Stephenson, The South Lives
in History: Southern Historians and Their Legacy (1955); David
Donald's introduction to a reprint edition of the Documentary
History of Reconstruction (1966); and Beth Taylor Muskat, "The
Ironic Military Career of Walter Lynwood Fleming," Alabama Review
44 (Oct. 1991): 269-84. Obituaries are in the Nashville Banner,
3 and 4 Aug. 1932, and the American Historical Review 38 (Oct. 1932): 182.
Back to the top
Peter Wallenstein. "Fleming, Walter Lynwood";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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