Walter Lynwood Fleming

Walter Fleming Pike County native Walter Lynwood Fleming (1874-1932) was a noted historian of the American South and Reconstruction whose scholarship was based in the conservative, pro-states’ rights “Dunning School” of history, named for Fleming’s mentor, Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning. The viewpoint was aligned with the Lost Cause ideology, which arose in the aftermath of the Civil War and glorified and mythologized plantation life and southern rights and would greatly influence future scholarship. Over Fleming’s lifetime, he published ten books, including Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, and numerous articles and reviews making him one of the most prolific scholars of the Dunning School of history.

Fleming was born in Brundidge, Pike County, on April 8, 1874, to William LeRoy and Mary Love (Edwards) Fleming. His father migrated from Georgia to Alabama prior to the Civil War to pursue cotton production. He reportedly served in the Fifth Florida Regiment of Cavalry or an Alabama cavalry unit, depending on sources, during the American Civil War; many other relatives also served the Confederacy. During Reconstruction, Fleming became a county tax collector and later purchased the small cotton plantation upon which Walter grew up. The young Fleming attended various public schools in Pike County before entering the Brundidge Academy to prepare him for college.

After graduating high school, Fleming enrolled at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API; now Auburn University) and graduated with a bachelor’s degree with honors in 1896. He completed a master of science degree the following year. At API, he studied under George Petrie, who founded the school’s History Department, Graduate School, and football program. It was Petrie’s influence that awakened Fleming’s desire to focus his studies upon Reconstruction in the South. While working on his bachelors’ degree, Fleming honed his teaching skills in various public schools, and while working on his masters’ degree, he taught History and English at API. From 1897 to 1898, he served as an assistant librarian there before becoming an instructor in English from 1899-1900. He also served as the secretary of the API Alumni Association from 1896-1898.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Fleming left API and enlisted as a private in Company H of the Second Alabama Infantry Regiment on May 1 of that year. By July 1898, he had risen through the ranks to the position of second lieutenant before being transferred to Company A of the Third Alabama Volunteer Infantry, a unit comprised primarily of African American soldiers commanded by white officers. Neither Fleming nor either of his units ever saw service overseas and the Spanish-American war ended in August 1898. The following year, in January 1899, he was detailed by Brig. Gen. Royal T. Frank as quartermaster of the field hospital, Second Division, Fourth Army Corps.

Fleming left the military in 1899 and enrolled at Columbia University in 1900. After receiving a masters’ degree there in 1901, he was a lecturer of history at Columbia until 1904, when he graduated with a doctorate in history. On September 17, 1902, Fleming married Mary Wright Boyd, with whom he would have four children. While at Columbia, Fleming studied the history of the American Civil War and Reconstruction under William Archibald Dunning, founder of the so-called Dunning School of Reconstruction history. Followers of the “Dunning School” revived the Lost Cause mythology that painted the South as an unwitting victim of northern industrial exploitation, capitalism, and social engineering. It took a favorable view of “Redeemers,” the Southern Democrats who sought to regain political power and enshrine white supremacy. Scholars of the Dunning School also disparaged the Radical Republicans who held most of the political power during Reconstruction and who pushed for civil rights for former slaves. In the view of historians of the Dunning School, freedmen were incapable of self-government and thus needed white oversight. Segregation was seen as a necessity and their approach to history became justification for the resurgence of white supremacy, and Jim Crow laws that dominated the southern political, economic, and social landscape. This school of thought would be the dominant scholarly and popular interpretation of Reconstruction from about 1900 until the 1930s, and Fleming became one of its primary and most influential proponents during this period.

After graduating from Columbia University in 1904, Fleming became a professor of history at West Virginia University (WVU), where he spent the following year developing his doctoral dissertation into his most influential book: Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. Unlike many other contemporary works on the Civil War and Reconstruction, which typically focused solely on the political dynamics, Fleming addressed the political, military, social, economic, educational, and religious issues of the wartime and post-war period. Fleming argued that in Reconstruction, northern radicals imposed upon the South an economic philosophy that degraded the region both economically and socially. Radical Reconstruction, he argued, was disruptive and destructive to southern whites and African Americans alike. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Fleming argued that African Americans were the central figures in Reconstruction and drew extensively from the writings and political activities of African Americans during this period. He maintained that they were well protected from white degradation and had a promising future under state laws passed in 1865 and 1866. His book remains today as the only substantial political survey of Reconstruction in Alabama and its publication would serve as the basis for Fleming’s future work.

In 1905, while at WVU, Fleming coauthored one of the earliest works on the Ku Klux Klan called the Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth, and Disbandment with John C. Lester and Daniel L. Wilson. The book was an inside view of the operations of the Ku Klux Klan from various members, friends, and relatives as well as a general history of the Klan with an introduction and notes by Fleming. The following year, he published his first volume of The Documentary History of Reconstruction, which made many of the original sources on Reconstruction available to the public. In 1907, Fleming joined the faculty at Louisiana State University (LSU) and published the second volume of his documentary history of Reconstruction. In 1912, he collected and edited letters, documents, and other materials connected to the life and activities of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman from his time as the superintendent of LSU in 1859 through his enlistment into the Union Army in 1861.

In September 1917, Fleming left LSU to become the Holland N. McTyeire Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. In 1919, he published The Sequel of Appomattox: A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States, which was part of the Chronicles of America series and represents his first synthesis of the period of Reconstruction at the national level. He also served in various historical and academic capacities, including being a member of the Board of Editors of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review from 1914 to 1922, the Committee for State Historical Museum, and the programming and nominating committees of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. Fleming later served as a member of the Executive Council of the American Historical Association for two terms and twice served as chairman of the John H. Dunning Prize Committee, which awards the prize for an outstanding monograph on any subject relating to U.S. history. John was the father of William; the award was established by William’s sister Mathilda.

In 1923, Fleming became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University and later the director of the Graduate School. As an administrator, the normally prolific Fleming found that the progress of his publications slowed to a crawl. In 1926, he resigned his position as director in order to devote himself full time to teaching and historical writing. Just two years later, in 1928, ill health forced Fleming to retire from active work, though he continued to publish frequently in magazines and historical reviews. While at Vanderbilt, Fleming became close to the “Nashville Agrarians,” which was a group of 12 American writers, poets, essayists, and novelists (some of whom taught at Vanderbilt) who wrote a pro-Southern agrarian manifesto entitled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition in 1930, which they dedicated to the ailing Fleming. The Nashville Agrarians, which included Alabamian Andrew Lytle, greatly contributed to the revival of southern literature known as the “Southern Renaissance” of the 1920s and 1930s.

On August 3, 1932, Fleming died in Nashville, Tennessee. Over his 36-year academic career, he published ten books and 166 scholarly articles and reviews. In 1936, the annual Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History at LSU was established in his honor. As Reconstruction historiography has migrated away from the Dunning School in the decades since their establishment, the “Fleming Lectures” have witnessed succeeding generations of historians revising the pro-South and Lost Cause interpretations held by Fleming and other members of the Dunning School. During World War II, the USS Walter L. Fleming, a Liberty ship built in Panama City, Florida, was named in his honor.

Further Reading

  • Binkley, William C. “The Contribution of Walter Lynwood Fleming to Southern Scholarship,” Journal of Southern History 5 (May 1939): 143-54.
  • Fitzgerald, Michael W. “The Steel Frame of Walter Lynwood Fleming.” In The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, edited by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, pp. 157-77. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
  • Fleming, Walter L. Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1905.
  • Green, Fletcher M. “Walter Lynwood Fleming: Historian of Reconstruction.” Journal of Southern History 2 (November 1936): 497-521.

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