William Mahone and the Readjusters to the Rescue

Illustration of a White Member of the Readjuster Party Cajoling a Black Man to Vote

Looks like the Virginia General Assembly has been busy with resolutions about the Civil War era.  Last week I shared Sen. Henry Marsh’s resolution that would set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln and today I bring to you another resolution sponsored by Marsh that would honor black Virginians, who served in state government during Reconstruction.  The Senate committee approved the resolution and incorporated it by voice vote into SJR 13 Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868, recognizing African American representatives. The committee substitute was ordered printed and the resolution will now advance to the floor of the Senate.  I assume that for many Virginians this resolution makes more sense than one meant to honor Lincoln.  I tend to agree, but this resolution distorts a crucial moment in the state’s history.

Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this:  After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies.  Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s.  The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens.   In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government.  This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.

Marsh’s resolution conforms to this general narrative:

WHEREAS, after the American Civil War, during the era of Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877, as a condition of readmission into the Union, former slave states were required by Congress to create reconstructed governments, hold state conventions, and establish new constitutions; in Virginia, African American men were given the right to vote for and to be elected delegates to the convention, and 25 African American men were elected to the 1867-1868 Virginia Constitutional Convention, which created the Virginia Constitution of 1869; and

WHEREAS, as a result of the resurgence of virulent racial discrimination that followed the Compromise of 1877, which officially brought an end to federal Reconstruction, Southern state governments enacted a system of laws known as “Jim Crow” laws, which established a rigidly segregated and legally sanctioned social system that subjugated and disenfranchised African Americans, again relegating them to second-class citizenship from 1877 until the mid-1960s; and

Virginia’s story, however does not conform to this broad outline and the conflict can be clearly discerned in the resolution itself:

WHEREAS, Virginia Memory states that, during Reconstruction, “across the South about two thousand African Americans served in local and state government offices, including state legislatures and as members of Congress. About 100 African American men served in the General Assembly of Virginia between 1869 and 1890, and hundreds more in city and county government offices or as postal workers and in other federal jobs“; and

One might reasonably wonder how African Americans remained in positions of power on the local and state level after Virginia re-entered the Union and even after the official end of Reconstruction in 1877.  Many of these men served during the four years of Readjuster control between 1879 and 1883.  Post-Civil War Virginia makes absolutely no sense without a reference to Mahone and the Readjuster Party, which was the most successful interracial third party in the South during this period.  It matters, not simply because it’s part of Virginia’s history, but because it has something important to teach us as well.

  • Jim Crow was not inevitable after 1877.
  • Interracial cooperation was not only possible in the South between 1877 and the turn of the twentieth century but a reality for a few short years in Virginia.
  • Reconstruction came later in Virginia and was not forced on it by “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” but by legitimate stakeholders, who believed that a brighter future could be forged for both races.
  • Reconstruction in Virginia was led by a popular ex-Confederate general.

On the one hand Marsh’s resolution is refreshing and a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it is being framed in light of a history that has all but been lost.  In an unpublished manuscript on postwar Virginia written around 1910, Mason G. Ellzey reported to have heard “that General Mahone was greatly over-rated as a soldier.”  According to Ellzey, Mahone sought “credit for gallantry, and accomplishment in battle, which belonged to his fellow soldiers” and “some even went so far as to declare that he was an arrant coward.”  Even as late as the 1940’s, “the worst charge that could be brought against an [anti-Democratic] candidate was that he had been associated in any way with Mahone and the Readjusters.”  Few school-aged children were learning to appreciate the war record of Mahone and the legislative legacy of the Readjusters at the turn of the century and beyond.  Textbooks say very little about his involvement during the war and even fewer mention Mahone in the context of the debates that took place throughout the years of Readjuster control.

Memory of William Mahone and the Readjusters was consciously pushed aside owing to their connection with a brief period of interracial cooperation and black political advancement.  It is fitting to honor Virginia’s black politicians from this period, but we should do so in light of a narrative that does justice to its rich history.

[Note: Of all the things that I am hoping my forthcoming book on the Crater introduces to the general public, the history of the Readjuster Party and Mahone’s role stand out the most.]

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14 comments… add one
  • Roger Hardesty Feb 6, 2012 @ 14:53

    As it deals with themes relating history and memory AND includes discussion of Virginia Assembly resolutions recognizing the Confederacy 150 years on, I assume you would enjoy this production aired on C-Span.


    Apparently, what I know about the causes for a War of Rebellion are being ruled out of date and no longer supported by the facts. I have a 2x gr-grandfather at an Emancipation Convention in Kentucky in 1849. At the same time his half-brother successfully campaigns for election to the state’s constitutional convention. Squire Turner is one of five major figures who rewrite the constitution. It seems the momentum for calling the convention arose from concerns about judicial independence: by the time it was convened (and after abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay disemboweled Turner’s son in the campaign) slavery influenced about every topic under discussion at the 1850 convention.

    I’m having problems teasing out causation. Are Turner’s constitutional constructs about property rights protections merely pretense for sheltering slavery? Turner is often quoted for his explanation of the failed economics of slavery (and – a slave owner and likely breeder – invested in canals and steam): I’m almost convinced he’s defending the constitution his revolutionary father fought for … and that slavery is simply a manifestation of a compact that required an amendment process for revision.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2012 @ 14:55

      Hi Roger,

      It’s well worth watching and relevant to a number of issues discussed on this blog. Thanks for including the link.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 6, 2012 @ 10:45

    This may be slightly off topic, but John Bell Hood was another who spoke in the 1870s of looking forward, rejecting ideas like those espoused by the Klan, and integrating blacks into Southern society. He also advocated for the education of former slaves. I have the full text of a speech he gave in SC in about 1872 and it really is remarkable. But of course Hood died in 1879 and so whatever he believed was the best course for the post-war South was lost with his passing.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 5, 2012 @ 17:02

    The problem is that Virginia’s path from Reconstruction to Redemption to Readjuster defies the usual pattern seen elsewhere. So it’s hard to fit Virginia into the pattern (because it won’t fit), and hard to generalize from Virginia (Longstreet was a bigger villain throughout the South, while Mahone’s issues were largely Virginia-centric).

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2012 @ 17:16

      Longstreet was a bigger villain throughout the South, while Mahone’s issues were largely Virginia-centric

      I completely agree.

      • Ken Noe Feb 6, 2012 @ 10:04

        While he was never Longstreet, there was a moment in 1881-82, when Mahone went to the Senate and decided to caucus with the Republicans, that he attracted all sorts of angry attention region-wide. Out-of-state papers and authors in veterans magazines delighted in attacking everything from his politics to his war record, all of which was depicted as dishonorable.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2012 @ 12:04


          Those two years are the worst for Mahone in terms of attacks on his character and war record for just the reasons you mentioned.

  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 5, 2012 @ 10:02

    What was done to Mahone was, on a smaller scale, what was done to James Longstreet (I don’t think the two were on a par militarily but it’s also hard to discern fact in the tangled web of character assassination to which both were subjected). I don’t think either man had an epiphany on the road from Appomattox that turned them into Southern William Lloyd Garrisons, but I think they had a very practical and pragmatic view of the former rebel states’ futures that did not require subjugation of blacks in order to achieve that future. I’m sorry to say I don’t know a lot of about the Readjusters, but I know Longstreet’s view included whites remaining in control, but to me, that’s ultimately irrelevant. He accepted blacks having and using the franchise. To me it’s similar to the reality that even though many, if not most, Boston Brahmins and New York aristocrats never believed that Catholic immigrants would be anything but ward heelers, allowing those immigrants into the political system in that role laid the foundation for them to learn and build and move to the highest positions of government regardless of what their erstwhile patrons wanted.

    As Piston makes clear in “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” about Longstreet, the Lost Causers had to destroy the reputation, especially the Civil War credentials, of any Confederate generals who showed any signs of accepting a changed post-war world that involved anything more than the disappearance of the slave markets. It’s a great tragedy to think of all the South could have achieved had so many been not been so oppressed and so much white time and energy been expended in this oppression

    Another commonly held error about Reconstruction is that the timeline went straight from war to Radical Reconstruction. One almost never hears about Andrew Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction and how abuses of blacks by whites gave Radical Republicans the support needed for harsher measures.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2012 @ 10:21

      There are quite a number of comparisons that can be made between the two, though I suspect that white southerners viewed Mahone as having done much more damage compared to Longstreet. The latter may have accepted a position from Grant and acquiesced to Republican control, but Mahone’s actions were a direct threat to Virginia’s political and social hierarchy. He was compared to both John Brown and Benedict Arnold in the newspapers.

      • Keith Harris Feb 5, 2012 @ 12:51

        You would know this better than I – but if memory serves me, the UDC plaque at the Crater pays tribute to Mahone’s actions there. I found it interesting considering his postwar undoing by pro-Confederate groups.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2012 @ 13:21

          Hi Keith,

          Nice to hear from you. The UDC monument does indeed pay tribute to “Little Billy” but there is some evidence to suggest that it was originally intended for a prominent place downtown. It looks like his political exploits led to the battlefield as an alternative location, which at the time of the monument’s dedication was still in private hands.

  • James Harrigan Feb 5, 2012 @ 10:02

    nice post, Kevin. Is there a good monograph available on reconstruction in Virginia? Most of what I know about reconstruction comes from Eric Foner’s 1988 masterpiece Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which I read before moving to Virginia.

  • Roger E Watson Feb 5, 2012 @ 7:49

    Great piece Kevin ! I readily admit I know next to nothing about the subject matter but, thanks to you, that is changing.

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