Does the SCV Really Want to Share William Mahone’s Story?

Today it is being reported that Urquhart-Gillette Camp No. 1471 of Courtland, Virginia is making steady progress in restoring the boyhood home of William Mahone.  The group is currently using it for their monthly meetings, but they hope to expand their operations in the future to include educational outreach.  This includes sharing Mahone’s history as a Confederate general, businessman, and politician.  According to Greg Bell, who authored the article and is a member of Urquhart-Gillett Camp:

There is a wonderful story to be told about this good man Mahone and his contributions that is not being taught in today’s schools. Preserving this national and state historic landmark is an opportunity that this SCV Camp feels will become something positive for all the public to reflect upon while being taught about Billy Mahone…. I can tell you that when sitting in the tavern during one of the monthly SCV meetings, you can feel the history coming out of the walls. We are very proud to have been able to preserve such a historic place and help to promote the true Southern history through purchasing Little Billy Mahone’s boyhood home.

As many of you know I’ve spent considerable time researching and writing about William Mahone’s postwar career.  I published an article on the subject back in 2005 in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, which appears in revised form as chapter 3 in my forthcoming book on the Crater.  Mahone is clearly an important nineteenth-century Virginian; in fact, a case can be made that he is the most important post-Civil War figure in Virginia.  [Click here for an overview of his life.]

I have no doubt that the SCV will do a competent job of interpreting Mahone’s pre-war career as well as his rise in Confederate ranks culminating in his leadership on July 30, 1864 at the battle of the Crater.  But that doesn’t begin to address his historical significance, which comes after the war.

Mahone was involved in various kinds of commemorative events after the war, but his goal was almost always to further his business and political interests.  He led a veterans organization made up of men from his Virginia brigade and he authorized biographies as a means to attract interest in his plan for railroad consolidation.  His forays into the past usually resulted in controversy owing to his abrasive personality and political convictions.  The point is that Mahone did not languish in the Lost Cause or weep over the death of the Confederacy; rather, he was optimistic about the future and confident that he could bring Virginia into the modern age.  Such a goal stands in sharp contrast to our memory of white Southerners in the postwar period who stood up defiantly against the modernizing tendencies that they so valiantly fought against for four years.  Bell includes a nice quote from Mahone himself: “I have thought it wise to live for the future and not the dead past and, while cherishing honorable memory of its glories, I have thought that we should look to the future for life, power and prosperity.”

Most interesting is Mahone’s politics and his position on issues concerning race.  Mr. Bell seems unaware that the reasons for Mahone’s obscure legacy has everything to do with the postwar politics of race.  Unfortunately that issue is not raised in the article.  In fact, I have to wonder how many members of this particular chapter of the SCV are aware of the history of Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party from 1879 to 1883 which was the most successful bi-racial third party in the postwar South?  Do they know that Mahone was considered to be a “Judas” by many white Virginians around the state and even by the men he led into battle for bringing about a political coalition with black Virginians that led to important advances within the public sphere?  Black Virginians attended public schools in the largest numbers and served in local governments around the state, while Mahone served as senator in Washington and voted with the Republican Party.  Here are two examples of the political opposition that Mahone faced owing to his position on these controversial issues.

In 1858 [sic] occurred the raid of John Brown and the raid of Mahone and the Readjusters in 1879, though less bloody was more dangerous than that of John Brown.  Both raids occurred in Va, and the negro was in both cases the instrument relied on to destroy the old order of things. [George Bagby’s pamphlet, John Brown and William Mahone: An Historical Parallel, Foreshadowing Civil Trouble]

The Revolution gave us but one Arnold, during the whole seven years of its course, while the Confederate war failed to yield a single one on either side until after it had been fought out.”  Though many of Virginia’s native sons “held out long and well. . . at last some of them succumbed, and are now found, Arnold-like, leading their old enemy against their old friends and associates. [The Richmond State, 1881]

Reconstruction came late to Virginia and it came not at the hands of so-called “Carpetbaggers” but at the hands of a successful and popular Confederate general.  As a result, white Virginians consciously erased Mahone and the Readjusters from their public memory well into the twentieth century.  Is this really the history that the SCV is planning on sharing with the general public?  If not, then they will have missed entirely his true significance to Virginia history.

I wish the SCV all the best in raising the necessary funds to purchase the property.  It’s a home that definitely deserves to be preserved.  That said, given everything we know about Mahone, I am not at all confident that he would want them in his home.

32 comments… add one

  • Ben Railton Jan 4, 2012

    Hi Kevin,

    I know you have your issues with the movement, but I’d say this is a pitch-perfect opportunity for a little Occupy the Mahone House action, no? Maybe some notecards affixed to various memorials/signs within the house …

    Ben

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2012

      I love it. :-)

  • Mike R Jan 4, 2012

    The more I learn about Mahone, the more I like him.
    However, Kevin, in the spirit of fairness I must take exception to your comment “In fact, I have to wonder how many members of this particular chapter of the SCV are aware of the history of Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party from 1879 to 1883 which was the most successful bi-racial third party in the postwar South?”
    I do not personally know any of the members of this SCV chapter, nor am I a member of the SCV. The comment you made seems to infer that in finding out that a post-war Mahone consorted politically with blacks, many members of this chapter would have apoplexy due to their inherent racism. Many times you have challenged others to back up like statements with facts, and I would ask you to do the same here. While I do not agree with much of what the SCV says and does, I am loathe to paint the entire group, or an individual chapter, as racist, without evidence of the same.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2012

      Hi Mike,

      I appreciate the concern with that passage, but I am not assuming such a response by the members of this camp. I am simply wondering whether they know much of anything about that particular phase of his life. Again, please keep in mind that the author of the article says nothing about it. Sorry for the confusion.

      • Mike R Jan 4, 2012

        Perhaps the SCV will use Mahone as an example of some of the forward thinking Confederate veterans that hoped for reconciliation and a more politically modern South. If the SCV wants to stay relevant, I think they need to embrace the Mahone’s of the era, and the new South, and distance themselves from the Forrests and the Lost Cause.

        • Robert Moore Jan 4, 2012

          That sounds too deviant from the Lost Cause script.

          It would be refreshing, indeed, if the SCV would embrace a larger history of the Confederate veteran… one that is more diverse than that allowed in the standard script.

          • Andy Hall Jan 4, 2012

            “That sounds too deviant from the Lost Cause script.”

            What has astonished me, as a latecomer to this discussion, is the degree to which Confederate heritage groups generally repeat exactly the same arguments, often word-for-word, that were being made a hundred-plus years ago at the height of the Lost Cause in speeches, books and the pages of the Confederate Veteran. They argue, of course, that they’re only asserting long-established, timeless historical truths, without any recognition that those arguments were themselves put forward in the postwar period as a revisionist, white-washing rationalization of the contemporary historical record up to 1865. Their chosen narrative is every bit as bound up in “political correctness” and revisionism as anything written by Foner or McCurry or McPherson today; the only difference is that they’re being politically correct for a different century.

            [/rant]

            • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2012

              The problem is that if this particular camp were to present Mahone’s postwar career in its entirety and honestly, they would be engaged in the very project that they defiantly characterize as “revisionist”, “pc” “Marxist”, blah, blah…

              • Pat Young Jan 4, 2012

                If you define PC as not telling hard truths to avoid hurting feelings of a self-identified group, then much of the histories written about the Civil War have been very PC in re the white southern pov. Fortunately fewer whites now demand to be told redemptive lies.

  • Scott MacKenzie Jan 4, 2012

    I recently read about Franklin Moses Jr of South Carolina. Despite started the war as the man who hauled down the Stars and Stripes from Fort Sumter, he ended it by becoming a Republican leader, including governor. What a transformation! He was later forced to leave the state on corruption charges – apparently true. I wonder what the Lost Cause people think of him.

    • Ray O'Hara Jan 4, 2012

      Major Robert Anderson, the Ft Sumter Commander lowered the American flag when he surrendered the fort. The garrison took the flag with them and it was used to raise funds and trroops to fight rebellion.
      Anderson then raised the flag over the fort when the Union retook it in 1865
      the National Park Service has custody of the flag today.

      • Scott A. MacKenzie Jan 4, 2012

        Okay, but I’m still amazed at Moses’ transformation.

  • Robert Moore Jan 4, 2012

    While it certainly doesn’t apply to all members, or even all camps of the SCV, there is a general blind-spot in memory within the organization, on much other than anything that reflects a love of Confederacy and secession. It’s sorely obvious in higher echelons of the organization. This, of course, carries over for many on their interpretation of Southern history as a whole. Because of this, there are, obviously, immense voids in the story they relate… to include a story that is often exclusionary of anyone else who was Southern at the time of the war, and makes them strangely blind of anything that would infer that anyone who did good for the Confederacy had more than four years of Southern history on their resume of contributions to the South… even that (especially that) which would compromise/put into question their contributions to the Confederacy.

  • Richard Williams Jan 4, 2012

    Kevin – in your research about Mahone and the Readjuster Movement, did you happen to come across the name B.F. Williams?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2012

      Nice to hear from you, Richard.

      I did indeed. I must assume that he is part of the deeply rooted Williams family tree? :-) I will have to double check, but I may even have a file on him.

      • Richard Williams Jan 4, 2012

        My carpet-baggin’ great-great grandfather and one of the “Big Four” in the Virginia Senate. I also have a file on him. I’d be interested in what you might have.

  • John Maass Jan 4, 2012

    Why do you have to have all this history get in the way of SCV plans? ;)

  • Jonathan Dresner Jan 4, 2012

    Whether they’re aware of it or not, Mahone’s post-war career seems to me tailor-made for some of the narratives of SCV partisans: that Confederates were not motivated by slavery, that they were (at least) no more racist than Northeners of the time, that they were equally forward-thinking economically. They’ve shown in the past a pattern of using “what about [exception]?!” arguments to obscure norms.

  • Pat Young Jan 4, 2012

    They should also laud the post-war career of James Longstreet who was willing to lead black militiamen against rioting whites.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2012

      I think they are pre-occupied with his supposedly poor performance at Gettysburg.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jan 4, 2012

        The timing and intensity of the attacks on Longstreet’s military record bore a direct relationship to his activities in Louisiana. The Lost Causers could not permit someone of his stature to take the positions that he did and go unpunished. Longstreet expected to be attacked for them (his uncle warned him that he would be crucified for them) but it took him a while, too long in fact, to believe that anyone would believe flat out lies about his military record. Even Lee’s adoring aides rebutted the Dawn Order canard, as did Lafayette McLaws who was still estranged from Longstreet when the canard surfaced. Any attack that begins with a flagrant lie has serious issues of credibility.

  • Leonard Lanier Jan 5, 2012

    We desperately need a new full-length biography of William Mahone. The only published account is over seventy years old and focuses mostly on his career in the Confederate Army.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012

      You are absolutely right, Leonard. You are referring to Nelson Blake’s biography, which was published in the 1930s. Actually, only a small part of the book focuses on his military career while the rest of it is postwar. The problem is that the postwar sections, while still quite helpful, is outdated.

      • Leonard Lanier Jan 5, 2012

        It definitely reflects Harry F. Byrd’s Virginia of 1935. Blake worried more about Mahone’s defection from the political norm, conservative Democratic rule, than in Readjuster Party policies and politics. The irony is that I believe Blake hailed from Vermont.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012

          Absolutely. Blake was one of the first scholars to have access to Mahone’s personal papers, which is enormous and I believe he was instrumental in relocating most of the collection to Duke, where he completed his Phd. Much of the rest of it went to the University of Virginia. I spent a week at Duke back in 2004 and barely scratched the surface of his papers. The guy saved everything, though reading his own handwriting is like interpreting an EKG scan.

        • Leonard Lanier Jan 5, 2012

          The Mahone Collection at Duke is an unheralded gold mine for scholars looking at both Civil War memory and late nineteenth century southern politics. I consulted part of the archive during my research on the connections between Readjuster politics and the early history of R.E. Lee Camp in Richmond. There is a newly minted PhD from UPenn that wrote his dissertation on Mahone and the Reajusters. Hopefully, he’ll soon have a book on the topic.

          • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2012

            I don’t remember his name, but we met for dinner a few years back during a research trip that brought him through UVA. We had plans to start some kind of Mahone Appreciation Society. :-) Haven’t heard from him since, but he is definitely positioned to make a contribution to the field.

            • Leonard Lanier Jan 5, 2012

              Eric Taylor, that’s his name. We presented on a panel together at the 2010 Virginia Forum. At the time he worked for the Francis Parker School, a private high school out in California. He also gave a paper at the SHA meeting in New Orleans. I’ve not read the dissertation, but if the conference papers are anything to go by, then he certainly deserves full membership in the Mahone Appreciation Society.

            • Ray O'Hara Jan 5, 2012

              Mahone’s greatest service was refusing to advance on July 2nd when such a move would have possibly unhinged the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

  • Rob Baker Jan 5, 2012

    “Reconstruction came late to Virginia and it came not at the hands of so-called “Carpetbaggers” but at the hands of a successful and popular Confederate general.”

    Sort of thing that can be expected from an anti-southern, PC, liberal, yankee academic. ;-)

  • Forester Jan 5, 2012

    Wow, I had no idea who Mahone was and I’ve been reading about the CW for ten years. How did I miss out on him? So much new stuff to learn ….. great blog you have, Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2012

      Thanks, Forester.

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