Last night I spent a few hours with two fellow students of William Mahone. One just finished his PhD at the University of Virginia and the other is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. The latter had spent the week conducting research in Special Collections at UVA so the three of us decided to get together to talk over a couple of beers.
All three of us have spent significant time researching the postwar political career and memory of William Mahone. We had a chance to talk about directions in research and future plans. Few people are currently working on Mahone so it was just nice to be able to talk about a subject and know that you were being understood. We threw names like Harrison Hold Riddleberger, William Cameron, William Lamb, Stith Bolling, and Abram Fulkerson as if they were household names. I know, it sounds like a real blast (LOL). Throw together a couple of overgrown nerds and I guess that’s what you get. We all agree that Mahone is missing from recent Lost Cause literature, the absence of which has left us with an interpretation that assumes a unified front. Interpretations tend to trace the development of the Lost Cause through the 1870’s and 80’s with little understanding of what is happening in Virginia. If there is dissent it stems from James Longstreet’s decision to align himself with the Republican Party. However, nothing compares with the political maneuvering of William Mahone and the success of the Readjuster Party in the early 1880’s; the party constituted the greatest threat to white political power in the South and led to bitter debates over who could claim legitimate ownership of the Confederate past. Mahone’s politics led to a bitter debate even among veterans of his own Virginia brigade, which involved serious challenges to accounts of his leadership at the Crater and elsewhere. Anyone researching Mahone and the Crater who utilizes postwar sources from this time will have absolutely no sense of what is driving these heated disagreements. This is a topic that I explore in detail in "William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History", which appeared last year in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (chapter 3 in my manuscript). Most studies simply assume that white Southerners were in agreement about who should be celebrated or remembered and why, and this supposedly led directly to reunion and reconciliation with the North. White Virginians agreed on very little during the last two decades of the nineteenth-century and this is absolutely crucial to acknowledge if we are to have a more accurate interpretation of the Lost Cause.
Part of the problem is the sheer size of the Mahone collection which is located at Duke University. There are 110 linear feet of material on Mahone in the collection that covers the period 1853-1895 — most of it on the postwar period. The collection contains 94 volumes of letterbooks, 167 containers of incoming correspondence, 33 containers of subject files, and 41 newspaper scrapbooks. I spent a week at Duke in the summer of 2003 and worked every day from opening to closing and barely put a dent in the collection. There has only been one scholarly biography and that was published back in 1935 by Nelson M. Blake. All three of us had our own stories to tell about working with this collection. Unfortunately, the most valuable sources are the incoming letters and Mahone’s scrapbooks which contain articles from a wide-range of newspapers. Much of Mahone’s writing is impossible to read; it looks like and EKG Scan.
I look forward to seeing my two new friends at some point in the near future. We are planning to organize a panel discussion for an upcoming conference so stay tuned.