Richmond Civil War Roundtable Report or Why Mahone is So Damn Important (followed by a short rant about cell phones)

I had a great time last night at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable where I spoke in front of roughly 60 people.  The response was overwhelmingly positive.  I finished my presentation just after 9pm, but didn’t make it out until just before 10pm owing to the additional questions and comments.  The audience’s questions were thought-provoking and challenging.  Between last night’s talk and my involvement with the Civil War Memory conference at Shepherd University I am convinced that the topic of memory is not only suitable for more popular audiences, but that it is ideal.  A number of people appreciated the opportunity of being forced to think about the question of how and why we remember the past in certain ways.

I prefaced my remarks by suggesting that a careful consideration of the political and social dimensions of the postwar-South (especially in Virginia) leads to more interesting and fruitful insights of how our understanding of the war evolved.  Indeed, many of our early histories of the war can only be appreciated from this perspective.  We learn, for instance, why certain individuals or themes were remembered and others forgotten.  At one point we took a poll to see how many were taught or had read about the Readjuster Party; perhaps 6-8 people raised their hands, which is par for the course.  I kept coming back to the essential observation of how it is that we have completely forgotten about the most important bi-racial political party in the postwar-South.

Mahone is an ideal case study for a number of reasons.  He forces people to step outside and challenge deep-seated assumptions about Reconstruction and our more general assumptions concerning white Southerners and motivations of high-ranking ex-Confederate officers.  A number of people expressed difficulty trying to understand Mahone’s obsession with the railroad industry and his heavy-handed political maneuvering.  A number of people suggested that he was pragmatic, which seems to assume that white Southerner slaveowners were all principled plantation operators who had little interest in capitalism or politics.  I too have trouble coming to terms with some of these issues, but part of the problem I suspect, is that Mahone does not fit into our popular stereotypes.  He may have owned a few slaves, but he was not from the planter class and his progressive politics and business interests do not accord with our image of the traditional slaveowner.  Still, Mahone may not have been as unusual as first thought.  Peter Carmichael has recently argued that younger Virginians who came of age in the 1850s advocated the kinds of internal improvements normally associated with the “industrial North.” These are not your typical young white Southerners from wealthy slaveowning families. More importantly, when it comes to Reconstruction our images are of Northern carpetbaggers who forced the evils of “Negro Rule” on the poor helpless white South.  Not so!  Mahone serves to remind us that Reconstruction in Virginia and the rest of the South was instigated, in part, by a diverse group of white and black Southerners, including one of the most successful Confederate generals of the war.  Is it any wonder that with the coming of Jim Crow in Virginia that public leaders would have to purge the history of both Mahone and the Readjusters?  Black deference could only come about by shaping history in a way that ignored the steps that black Southerners had taken both during and after the war to to secure their freedom and civil rights.  You will have a great deal of difficulty finding Mahone or the Readjusters mentioned in histories or school primers through the mid-20th century.

No one called me a “Yankee” or “liberal” or “revisionist historian.”  It was an honest discussion and even if a few were troubled by some of my remarks they were willing to hear me out and consider the evidence that I’ve collected and an interpretation that I’ve developed over the past four years.  And this is all that one can ask for when addressing a topic that remains divisive and emotional.  In the end we all learn something.  If you live in the Richmond area I urge you to check out the RCWRT’s website for a list of upcoming speakers.  They are a lively group and I guarantee that you will have a good time.

Finally, my short rant about cell phones.  I recently broke down and bought a cell phone.  I’ve never enjoyed speaking on the telephone so the thought of having one on me in public is enough to make me nauseous.  From what I can tell 99.9999% of the conversations that I am forced to listen to in public are an absolute waste of time.  Cell phones are the perfect aphrodisiac for those who have trouble being alone.  My wife has a cell phone for emergencies, which is the main reason why I finally decided to purchase one.  I had it on me last night and given that I left Richmond much later than anticipated I decided to call home to let Michaela know that I would be late.  As we talked I pulled out of my parking spot, but within a few seconds I realized that I couldn’t drive and talk at the same time.  Now I understand that there must be a learning curve here, but I was caught by surprise over the difficulty involved in juggling the two actions.  So, my message dear reader is the following:


2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2007 @ 13:03

    Hi John, — I agree entirely re: the intellectual curiosity of the members. Your talk definitely helped to prime the pumps. Thanks

  • John Hennessy Jul 11, 2007 @ 12:54

    Kevin: I gave a talk to the Richmond CWRT back in February (I think), and had much the same positive experience you had. I spoke on the evolution of interpretation at Manassas and the battlefields around Fredericksburg–pointing out origins and connections to the veterans and descendants like Freeman and the evolution of memory over the decades. I feared I’d provoke rebuttal and resistance (I was fairly plain spoken), but found that the talk was very well received, with lots of follow-up questions. Praise goes to you, certainly, but also to the Richmond CWRT for being expansive enough in their thinking to embrace a good historical argument when they see one…..

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