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Ellis Merton Coulter (1890–1981) was an American historian of the South, author, and a founding member of the Southern Historical Association. Like nearly all Southern scholars of his day, he believed in segregation and white supremacy. For four decades, he was a professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, where he was chair of the History Department for 18 years. He was editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly for 50 years, and published 26 books on the American Civil War and Reconstruction,[1] and is considered by historians to be a Confederate apologist.[2]

Background and early lifeEdit

Coulter was the son of the moderately wealthy John Ellis Coulter, a merchant and land speculator in the small town of Connelly Springs, North Carolina, in the western Piedmont. His father had hoped his son would go into the Lutheran ministry, but Coulter chose history instead.[2]

Both of Coulter's grandfathers served in the Confederate States Army. One fell in the Civil War while the other was a POW. During Reconstruction he was indicted for Ku Klux Klan-related violence and acquitted by an all-black jury.[2]

Coulter earned his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina (UNC), mentored by J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, a prominent historian who emphasized how Southern whites had suffered under Reconstruction and the lack of readiness of freedmen and blacks for suffrage. In 1914 Coulter entered the University of Wisconsin–Madison for graduate doctoral work, where he studied under additional professors sympathetic to Southern thinking about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Professional careerEdit

After teaching briefly at Marietta College in Ohio, Coulter was hired by Georgia's flagship University of Georgia, where he was a professor for six decades. In 1940 he was selected as chair of the History Department, a position he held for 18 years. As a professor and writer, he influenced generations of historians.

In addition, Coulter was editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly for 50 years. A founding member of the Southern Historical Association, he served as its first president in 1934. In both writing and teaching, he was influential. The Library of Congress lists 50 books written or edited by Dr. Coulter. He published more than 125 articles, and wrote what for decades was the standard textbook for Georgia history.[2] Coulter published books, often on forgotten and obscure people in Georgia history whose careers represented much about the state's development, such as his biographies of George Walton Williams, James Monroe Smith, Daniel Lee, Thomas Spalding, and many others. Similarly, works that he did on the now dead towns of Auraria and Petersburg discovers historical context within community. His work in professionally documenting historical truth behind local legend illustrated the scholarly value of legend shown in his work The Toombs Oak, the Tree that Owned Itself, and other Chapters of Georgia (1966).

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, "Coulter emerged as a leader of that generation of white southern historians who viewed the South's past with pride and defended its racist policies and practices. He framed his literary corpus to praise the Old South, glorify Confederate heroes, vilify northerners, and denigrate southern blacks." [2]


In the late 20th century, historians described Coulter's books as "historical apologies justifying Southern secession, defending the Confederate cause, and condemning Reconstruction." In this, he had absorbed ideas of his professor J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton at UNC, as well as views commonly shared by whites in the South. In the mid-20th century, people used Coulter's "intellectual paradigm" about Southern black failures as justification for maintaining Jim Crow segregation and opposing civil rights reform.[1][2]

Historian Eric Foner wrote: "Anti-Reconstruction scholars faithfully echoed Democratic propaganda of the post-Civil War years. 'The Negroes,' wrote E. Merton Coulter in 1947, 'were fearfully unprepared to occupy positions of rulership,' and black officeholding was 'the most spectacular and exotic development in government in the history of white civilization...(and the) longest to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.'"[3]

Foner also wrote that as late as 1968, Coulter was: "The last wholly antagonistic scholar of the era, described Georgia's most prominent Reconstruction black officials as swindlers and 'scamps', and suggested that whatever positive qualities they possessed were inherited from white ancestors."[4][5][6]


  • A Short History of Georgia (1933, 1947, and 1960)
  • History of Georgia (1954), a junior high school textbook
  • The South During Reconstruction (1947)
  • Confederate States of America (1952)
  • William G. Brownlow: Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands (1939)
  • The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (1926)
  • Auraria: The Story of a Georgia Gold-Mining Town (1956)
  • College Life in the Old South (1928, 1951)


  1. ^ a b Bailey, 2001
  2. ^ a b c d e f E. Merton Coulter, New Georgia Encyclopedia
  3. ^ Eric Foner, Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory Of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Revised, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996, p. xii
  4. ^ Foner, Freedom's Lawmakers, p. xii
  5. ^ E. Merton Coulter, The South during Reconstruction, 1865-1877, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947, pp. 141-44
  6. ^ Eric Foner, Black Legislators, pp. 119-20, and 180


  • Fred A. Bailey, "E. Merton Coulter," in Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations, ed. Glenn Feldman (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).
  • "A Few Words about E. Merton Coulter," Georgia Historical Quarterly 58 (spring 1974): 6-24.
  • Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory Of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Revised, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

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