Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins

Sarah Van Voorhis Woolfolk Wiggins (1934-2020) was an Alabama and southern historian, long-time editor of The Alabama Review, and the first woman faculty member of the History Department at the University of Alabama. During her 30-plus years at the university, Wiggins mentored countless students, including many doctoral candidates She researched, wrote, and presented extensively across the state and nation, in the specialty areas of Civil War and Reconstruction, Alabama history, and the Gayle-Gorgas family. In addition, Wiggins was actively involved in professional, community, and civic organizations across a career that spanned more than 60 years.

Wiggins was born June 29, 1934, in Montgomery, Montgomery County, to Robert Nelson Woolfolk Jr., and Dixie Gilliland Woolfolk and was an only child. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Huntingdon College in Montgomery in 1956. From there, she attended Louisiana State University, earning a master’s degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1965, working with the well-known Civil War and Reconstruction historian T. Harry Williams. One of the few women in the profession at the time, Wiggins began her teaching career as a graduate teaching assistant, before serving as an instructor at Southern Seminary Junior College in Buena Vista, Virginia (1959-1961), instructor at the University of Alabama (1961-65), and then in the tenure-track assistant professor position after earning her doctorate. In 1961, when she first arrived in Tuscaloosa, Wiggins met English faculty member Peyton Norvell Wiggins. They soon married and would have a daughter. Wiggins’s entire university teaching career, after 1961, was spent at the University of Alabama (1965-69 as assistant professor, 1969-78 as associate professor, and 1978-95 as professor). Her courses included Alabama history, Civil War and Reconstruction, the Old South, and other U.S. history topics. She retired from teaching in 1995 but continued to engage actively in research projects and speaking engagements.

Wiggins published extensively across the years; her bibliography covers 1962 to 2015. For many years and based on her research on the so-called carpetbaggers and scalawags in the state, she was the acknowledged expert on the Reconstruction era in Alabama history. Her early research included 15 journal articles, beginning with an April 1962 article in the Alabama Review while in graduate school, as well as multiple presentations and encyclopedia entries that was consolidated in the 1977 book The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. The value of this monograph was recognized with a 1991 reprint edition, which Wiggins updated in the preface. Her work helped develop nuances in the historiography, taking it beyond the rather one-dimensional yet wide-ranging influence of historian Walter Lynwood Fleming’s work on this period in state history. Fleming was particularly known for promoting the view that the impact of Reconstruction policies and politics on the postwar recovery of the South was wholly negative. Her broader standing in the national academic community may be judged in part by the 13 entries she wrote for the respected Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, published in 1993.

In 1976, Wiggins took on the role of editor for the Alabama Historical Association‘s quarterly peer-reviewed journal, the Alabama Review. Beginning with the October 1976 issue, Wiggins served as editor of this journal for 20 years, until the April 1996 issue. The journal is respected among peers both within and outside of the state, being viewed as a model for a state-level journal. Wiggins was known for her attention to detail and for the accuracy of information contained within the articles published under her editorship. In 1987, she compiled a set of seminal articles from the first 40 years of the Review. Titled From Civil War to Civil Rights, Alabama, 1860-1960: An Anthology from The Alabama Review, this work provided a much-needed overview of important aspects of Alabama history. At the time, an updated comprehensive text of the state’s history was lacking, and this anthology helped to bridge the gap until the 1994 publication of Alabama: History of a Deep South State. The anthology remains a valuable collection of articles by respected Alabama historians that cover the important transitions of the state during that century of its history. 

Beginning in 1989 with her “Introduction” to a reprint of John Gibson’s 1950 work Physician to the World: The Life of William C. Gorgas, Wiggins began a 25-year period of research that concentrated on the extended family of John Gayle (1831-35), who served as Alabama’s seventh governor. The Gayle-Gorgas research spanned the early nineteenth century to the early-to-mid twentieth century. Initially begun with the Gorgas portion of the family, Wiggins explored the marriage of Josiah Gorgas and Amelia Gayle, daughter of John and Sarah Haynsworth Gayle. Wiggins authored four entries in the online Encyclopedia of Alabama on members of this family, Josiah Gorgas, William Crawford Gorgas, John Gayle, and Sarah Haynsworth Gayle. In her research, Wiggins used the original journals kept by Josiah Gorgas. Recognizing the value of this extensive collection, in 1990 Wiggins expanded her professional expertise and training by attending the National Historical Publications and Records Commission Editing Seminar at the University of Wisconsin, learning the best practices for editing personal diaries for publication. In 1995, the University of Alabama Press published The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857-1878. Additional research on the Gorgas family led to interest in Amelia’s family, the Gayles. The interest in the Gorgas journals, coupled with concern for the rapidly deteriorating diary of Amelia’s mother Sarah, resulted in Wiggins’s last major research project, which came to fruition with the publication by the University of Alabama Press in 2013 of the expansive The Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835: A Substitute for Social Intercourse (coedited with Ruth Truss).

In addition to her scholarly work, Wiggins also maintained a lifelong interest in making history broadly accessible to non-academicians and in preserving all facets of the state’s history. This interest is evident in the many articles and essays written for non-academic sources and in the years of service to various community, state, and regional historical organizations. Wiggins served the Alabama Historical Association in many capacities, including as president from 1996 to 1997 and on the board of directors. She also served on the Southern Historical Association Executive Council from 1988-1992, and on the Alabama Association of Historians Executive Council from 1993-1994. She was a member of the Alabama State Capitol Preservation Commission (1969-1978); the Alabama State Board of Advisors, National Historical Publications & Records Commission (1976-1986); the Alabama State Records Commission (1986-1995); and the Alabama Local Records Commission (1986-1995). Her community interest included historical preservation: She served on the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society board of directors from 1993 to 2011 and on the Jemison-Van de Graaff Foundation board of directors for two multi-year terms and as president of the foundation from 2009 to 2011. Finally, Wiggins also was a long-standing member of the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board and was active in various ministries with Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa. Sarah Wiggins died on April 12, 2020, at her home in Tuscaloosa. In recognition of her distinguished career and especially of the two decades of service as editor of The Alabama Review, the Alabama Historical Association established the Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins Doctoral Dissertation in Alabama History Award. The award is presented in even-numbered years and recognizes a doctoral dissertation that focuses on Alabama history completed at any institution of higher education in the previous two years. Delayed because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, a memorial service was held at Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa on November 6, 2022. Sarah Wiggins is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery.

Selected Works

The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881 (1977)

From Civil War to Civil Rights, Alabama 1860–1960: An Anthology from The Alabama Review (1987)

The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857–1878 (1995)

Love and Duty: Amelia and Josiah Gorgas and Their Family. Tuscaloosa (2005)

The Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835: “A Substitute for Social Intercourse” (2013)

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Ruth Truss and Sarah Wiggins

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Todd Minder
Ruth Truss and Sarah Wiggins