Anyone who has seen, heard, or read Walter Edgar recognizes his distinctive style, redolent of seersucker suits and his signature bowties and a southern accent that is hard to place but pleasing to the ear.
Historian, radio and television host, educator. Anyone living in South Carolina, newcomer or long-time resident, will encounter Walter Edgar in some form or another. Some meet him on ETV Radio by listening to the facts crafted into his one-minute history lessons on South Carolina from A-Z or the interviews he conducts with southern specialists on Walter Edgar’s Journal. Still others first encounter Edgar through the written word as they charge through his monumental South Carolina: A History or the landmark, one-volume The South Carolina Encyclopedia, a veritable treasure trove of Palmetto State history he edited and managed.
Anyone who has seen, heard, or read Walter Edgar recognizes his distinctive style, redolent of seersucker suits and his signature bowties and a southern accent that is hard to place but pleasing to the ear. A close listening will reveal his Gulf Coast dialect; this is because Walter Bellingrath Edgar was born in Mobile on the coast of Alabama. His accent and lifelong interest in gardening both come from his experiences growing up in that region.
Edgar attended a military prep school in Mobile and then moved on to Davidson College in North Carolina. He wanted to pursue a medical degree, but he did not do well in chemistry. To the dismay of his family, Edgar decided to study history, a topic that held great interest for him but seemed an unprofitable career choice. He spent four years at the University of South Carolina, where he earned his M.A. and then Ph.D. (1969) specializing in colonial history. After a few years in the U.S. Army, including a stint in Vietnam, Edgar decided to remain in the Reserves, which he did until his retirement in 1995 at the rank of colonel.
Walter Edgar came back to South Carolina in 1971 to research the papers of Henry Laurens, a delegate to the Commons House of Assembly and later the Continental Congress. Edgar was hopeful that he would go to Dartmouth next and do research on a post-doctoral fellowship, but a job at the University of South Carolina opened up in 1972, and he settled into the tenure track, marriage, and had children. Edgar said he did not imagine that he would spend the rest of his career in the state, but for forty years, he has been a public fixture at the University of South Carolina, teaching, running the Institute for Southern Studies, and sharing his research through numerous media and print outlets.
Edgar conducted his research using the traditional, pre-internet methods of the historian: he selected and analyzed primary source documents written at the time and saved in archives, and he took notes on index cards, recording what he called “nuggets” or fascinating pieces of information. He verified and validated the data he collected and then synthesized the nuggets into magisterial works. In this regard, perhaps because of his outsider status, Edgar was not wed to the magnolia and moonlight interpretations of South Carolina history that preceded him. With great fervor, he uncovered the stories of Native Americans, women, farmhands, blue collar workers, and African Americans that had previously been excluded from recorded history. He said: “I don’t like history behind picket fences. History should be a good story, [but] you don’t have to make it up.”
By the time that he started working on South Carolina: A History, he had filing cabinets full of nuggets: facts and stories he had to sort through to compose what was to become an expansive history of the state. In twenty–three chapters with extensive footnotes, Edgar chronicles every detail worth printing about South Carolina from the time when the area was known as “the land of the Chicora” for the Native peoples who inhabited this region to the tumultuous twentieth century with its troubled race relations. Building on the research of his fellow historians, including Charles Joyner and Vernon Burton, and contributing his own heretofore uncovered facts, Edgar challenged the notion of one culture and one people as the norm for Palmetto State history.
His research continues to this day. From the Cherokee Wars of the colonial period and the Redcoats and Partisans of the Revolution, to the Civil War as seen through the eyes of Mary Chesnut and the emergence of twentieth-century pop stars such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Edgar finds nuggets of historical significance and shares them with his fellow South Carolinians in a multitude of formats.
Edgar, Walter. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution. New York: William Morrow, 2001.
–––. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
–––. South Carolina in the Modern Age. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
–––, ed. The South Carolina Encyclopedia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.