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?