Today was the perfect day to drive to Petersburg and hang out at the Crater. I try to get down there at least once a year to recharge the batteries and find those special places where I can lose myself in the past for a few moments. This trip I decided to walk off the field itself into the wooded areas along the edge of the battlefield. I walked a few hundred yards along the Confederate right where the 46th and 34th Virginia were located. The Federal attack managed to occupy about 200 yards along this portion of the battlefield, but what is striking when you walk this area is the incline that they would have had to manage. In short, it would not have been an easy area to defend given the disorganization in Federal ranks and decisiveness of the Confederate counterattacks beginning at roughly 9am. Along the Confederate left one is also struck by the uneven terrain and the difficulty that the Ninth Corps would have had in securing the area that was defended primarily by brigades from North Carolina under the command of Col. Lee M. McAfee. I also explored one of the two “covered ways” that the Ninth Corps used for its attack as well as numerous smaller traverses. Finally, I followed the “covered way” used by Mahone’s division for their counterattack. If you walk about 100 yards beyond the crater you will come to a depression where the wood line is extended out. Find an entrance into the woods and you can walk a few yards before the ground levels out. It’s of course impossible to know what the area looked like on July 30 given that the battlefield functioned as a golf course in the early twentieth century. I actually spent so much time exploring the area beyond the perimeter of the field that I almost forgot to make a quick trip around the crater itself. Along the way I ran into a very nice couple who were trying to make sense of what they were seeing. I asked if they had any questions and ended up giving them a fairly detailed account of the battle and a bit about what happened on the site after the war. They were very grateful.
From there I went to Blandford Cemetery which I like to call, “Lost Cause Central”. I absolutely love walking Blandford. It’s a beautiful spot and you can usually walk it with very few people around. I did my usual route, which took me to the Confederate section and William Mahone’s mausoleum. It’s a very curious resting place. You can’t really see it in this photograph, but the only indication that this is Mahone’s gravesite is the “M” that is situated inside the star above the door. Mahone was larger than life and in my mind the most important Virginia politician of the nineteenth century after Thomas Jefferson. The structure itself is an imposing one and perhaps fitting given Mahone’s importance, but one wonders why there is nothing more than a letter to identify its occupant. You might say that an “M” is all that would have been needed in this case, much like the simplicity of “Grant” on the monument in Washington, D.C. Or it could reflect the bitterness and anger that befell Mahone owing to his foray into politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party, which controlled Virginia state politics for four years.
Mahone’s obituaries reflect a deep mistrust from around Virginia that followed him until his death in October 1895. Much of what I found tried to focus on his military career, but in the end could not fail to notice what many deemed to be the actions of a traitor. The Richmond Times Dispatch offered a dispassionate overview of Mahone’s military and political career and listed numerous regret notices from Virginia politicians and “resolutions of regret” from local Confederate veterans organizations, including the A. P. Hill Camp, Gray’s Veterans, and the R. E. Lee Camp. The Norfolk Landmark reported to its readers that Mahone’s death “removes one of the most conspicuous figures in the public life of this State since the war.” After describing his accomplishments on the battlefield, the paper concluded that Mahone “combined with signal strategic ability a personal bravery and self command” and “enjoyed the confidence and esteem of General Lee.” Virginia “loses one of her most distinguished sons,” suggested the Portsmouth Star and “as an organizer of forces, he was unquestionably one of the greatest minds of the age.” North of Richmond, the Fredericksburg Free Lance described Mahone as a “Confederate general who displayed great ability and achieved marked success.” Even while offering favorable accounts of Mahone, the same newspapers could not resist commenting on his controversial political career. Another newspaper urged its readers to remember Mahone’s political legacy: “The name of Virginia was dragged in a mire of reproach and became a by-word and a mockery. From the effects of that political delirium we are just recovering.” And the Fredericksburg Free Lance predicted that Mahone’s death “will probably bring about the entire union and thorough cooperation of the divided and disorganized Republican party of Virginia.” Finally, one eulogist noted that, “Few public men have ever had such a loss of friends as Mahone.”
Could the placement of the “M” somehow have been the result of an unspoken compromise between the Mahone family and the community? Mahone’s remains would be interred at Blandford, but keep the visual reminder to a minimum. When it comes to trying to understand and/or debate how to remember the Civil War generation there is a tendency to simplify in a way that ignores the complexity of the lives being remembered. The categories employed tend to be more about how we feel or how we choose to identify with the past. What I find so interesting about Mahone is that he serves to remind us that not even his own generation could agree on how he ought to be remembered.
To wrap up my trip I met my friend, Emmanuel Dabney, for lunch in Petersburg. Emmanuel works as an interpreter for the NPS at Petersburg and is currently working on an M.A. in public history. He is incredibly passionate about historic preservation and hopes to make a career in the NPS. I predict that Emmanuel is going to be a real force in the preservation world.