William Mahone, Nelson M. Blake, and the Journal of Negro History

Access to JSTOR through my school’s library has made life much easier.  I recently came across a wonderful review of Nelson M. Blake’s 1935 biography of William Mahone which appeared in the Journal of Negro History [Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1936)].  The reviewer was J.H. Johnston who taught Virginia State College (now University) in Petersburg which was the site of both Mahone’s postwar residence and the site of the battle of the Crater.  The content of Johnston’s review reflects a vibrant black countermemory of the war and Reconstruction; his main points are clearly decades ahead of the interpretive agenda of much of the historical community.  Blake’s William Mahone of Virginia, Soldier and Political Insurgent [Garrett & Massie Publishers, Richmond, 1935] is still the only biography available.  It is clearly dated in certain respects; unfortunately no one that I know is planning to write an updated account though it is desperately needed.  Most of Mahone’s personal papers are located at Duke University while smaller collections can be found at the Library of Virginia and the University of Virginia.

What I find so interesting about Johnston’s review is that he clearly understands what the publication of this biography means within the context of memory of Mahone.  He references the monument of Mahone that was placed on the Crater battlefield which makes no mention of his role as a Virginia statesman.  His suggestion that “The author [Blake] has thus dared to render long deserved service to Mahone’s memory” points to the extent to which white Southerners (particularly white Virginians) worked to erase Mahone from public memory of the war and Reconstruction.  After all Mahone was the “Hero of the Crater” who led the most successful bi-racial coalition which controlled Virginia’s government for four years and resulted in his election to the U.S. Senate where he aligned himself with the Republican Party.  Johnston understands all too well that this biography, which devotes only one chapter to his war years and eight to his postwar career, does not compliment the Lost Cause version of the war.

The Readjuster Party was overwhelmingly supported by the Negro voters of Virginia; and because of Mahone’s political association with Negroes this former Confederate officer was despised, and until now an effort has been made to consign him to oblivion. (p. 215)

Johnston seems pleased that Blake does not relegate blacks to the background, but acknowledges that made “intelligent use of their ballot.”  It should be remembered that the standard account of Reconstruction argued that black Americans were ill-equipped to exercise the vote and/or that corruption ran rampant because of their involvement in the Southern states.  Few correctives could be found at this point, though W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 had been recently published.

As much as Johnston praises Blake’s study he does acknowledge serious shortcomings which today would be inexcusable, but at the time understandable.  In particular, Johnston criticizes Blake’s handling of the Crater and a reference to USCTs as “half-drunken negroes.”  The reviewers frustration with Blake is perhaps a function of the fact that although Blake is able to praise blacks for voting for Mahone he is unable to take the next step which would involve a more sympathetic portrayal of African Americans more generally.  Much of the literature about the Crater was written without any interest in the black perspective and the specific reference to “half-drunken references” was one way white Southerners could make the point that unless blacks were drunk or forced to fight by evil yankees that they remained loyal.  Blake would have had to spend considerable time looking for the limited amount of archival material that is available which may have given him a different perspective.  Perhaps he did not know to even question this reference.  Along similar lines while Johnston praises Mahone for completing his railroad from Norfolk to Petersburg before the war and under very difficult conditions he fails to “mention the black workmen in the swamps that helped Mahone build his railroad.”  Finally, Johnston cites what he perceives to be a major weakness in Blake’s analysis of Mahone’s political success in his failure to reference those black politicians who worked in the Readjuster Party.

The biography of Mahone will be completed only when it makes it clear that these Negro men were the authors of the bills and the makers of the laws that brought these gifts to the Negro people of the state.  This book, then, while it is a deserved tribute to William Mahone and gives a far better picture of the Reconstruction in Virginia than one finds in other such works, must be supplemented with a treatment of the participation of the Negro in the Readjuster Movement. (p. 216)

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through the Journal of Negro History in JSTOR.  Given the broad assumptions that defined the nation’s understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and race a perusal through Carter Woodson’s journal serves as a reminder that black Americans took an interest in their history and worked hard to counter the overtly racist assumptions that were so prevalent at the time.  Not until the 1970s would there be studies of black politicians during the Readjuster Era along the lines envisioned by Johnston.

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