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.