The Confederate General Who Fought For Black Civil Rights

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about William Mahone over the past few months in light of the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments and the overall question of how we should understand the history and memory of the Confederacy. There are a number of challenges associated with writing a biography of Mahone, including the legibility of his writing, but there is so much source material to work with and now more than ever seems like an opportune moment to jump back in and try to make sense of it.

I am most interested in better understanding the trajectory of Mahone’s life as it relates to issues of race and white supremacy in Virginia and its significance for us today as we continue to debate issues at the intersection of Civil War history and memory. Mahone was born in Southampton County, Virginia just a few years before Nat Turner’s Rebellion. He was present at one of the most violent racial massacres of the entire Civil War at the Crater in July 1864 and after the war he led a successful third-party coalition of white and black Virginians that controlled the state government for about four years in the early 1880s. Mahone aligned himself with the Republicans during this period.

Those of you who read my Crater book know the broad outlines of this narrative, but there is so much more to cover. I want to better understand Mahone’s motivation for reaching out to the black community as well as how he interacted with black politicians such as John Mercer Langston and public figures like Frederick Douglass. I also want to better understand how he tried to maneuver through and influence the election of local black politicians throughout Virginia. What are the roots of Mahone’s interest in forming a bi-racial coalition and advocacy for black civil rights? How important was Mahone in cementing this bi-racial coalition over time in Virginia? To what extent did he advocate for black civil rights after the Readjusters lost control in 1884? Does a closer look at Mahone’s politics force us to re-consider any aspects of the formation of the Lost Cause? These are just a few of the questions bouncing around in my head right now.

I certainly haven’t made any final decisions about such a project. Over the next few months I will be busy responding to the peer review of my black Confederates manuscript, but taking on a Mahone biography is closer than it has been in years.

What do you think?

17 comments… add one
  • Richard Dec 2, 2017

    Great questions! Any reason to better engage with the understanding of history is a plus. I especially agree with the reference to “ongoing debate.” Hatred in any form, including destruction and vandalism, harms everyone.

  • David Kent Dec 2, 2017

    Next book in the offing?

  • Forester Dec 2, 2017

    Of course I think you should write it. Hell, I think you should have already written it. πŸ˜€

  • Bob Huddleston Dec 2, 2017

    Are there any statues of Mahone? Is so, what do they commemorate?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 2, 2017

      There is one on the Crater battlefield that was dedicated by the Petersburg chapter of the U.D.C.

      • Emmanuel Dabney Dec 3, 2017

        Just want to be explicit that the Crater monument to Mahone is an obelisk not a statue, erected in 1927.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 3, 2017

          Yep. Thanks, Emmanuel.

  • Joshism Dec 2, 2017

    Mahone sounds like an excellent subject for an in-depth biography.

  • Mary Dean Cason Dec 2, 2017

    Kevin, What a wonderful assignment to give yourself! I for one, would love to hear more about Mahone. Just read a bit about him–his portrait later in life is astonishingly dignified and begs to grace the cover of a book. Go for it!

  • Mel Jenkins Dec 2, 2017

    All of us, perhaps especially Southerners, are compiex creatures. Any advancements toward presenting the tangled relations of all parts of our American (subset, Southern) community should be helpful.

    Press on!

  • Ken Noe Dec 3, 2017

    Yes. We need it.

  • Steve Crain Dec 3, 2017

    I think adding some more context and texture is a great idea. Those of us who are interested in civil war history would certainly like to hear more about the character of the people involved.

  • Leonard Lanier Dec 4, 2017

    There’s definitely need a need for a new scholarly biography of Mahone; the last one came out in the 1930s. Based on the contents of his papers at Duke, I honestly believe he saved everything that ever came across his desk. The majority of that archive concerns Readjustment, which previous studies glanced over in the race to focus on his military career. Somebody–ahem, Kevin–needs to write a political biography.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2017

      I spent a few weeks with the Mahone Papers at Duke for the Crater book and I barely scratched the surface.

      • Ken Noe Dec 4, 2017

        The downside of the project quite truly is that you’d need to move there for several months.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2017

          To be completely honest, that is one of the factors against going ahead with this project.

          • Leonard Lanier Dec 5, 2017

            Hey, there are worst places than Durham. You can even visit the empty monument pedestal. 😊

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