William Mahone Replaces Lee as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews

Early on in my Mahone research I was intrigued by a letter that J. Horace Lacy wrote to the general at some point during the post-Readjuster years.  Lacy shared a conversation he had with Robert E. Lee at a commencement dinner at Washington College in which the general revealed that in the event of his death or inability to lead the army he had Mahone in mind as a replacement.

Gen’l Hampton sat on the right and I as an orator of day on left of Lee.  Turning to Hampton Gen’l Lee said something in a low tone, I leaned back as I thought it was possible it might be something confidential.  Laying his hand upon my knee he said lean over Major I only wish Hampton and yourself to hear.  Then Gen’l Hampton in the dark days which preceded the fall of the Confederacy, for a good while I was almost hopeless, and you know I did not spare this poor life, for I thought it became me to fall on one of those fields of glory. My artillery was handled well, the cavalry was in the very hands, after the death of Stuart that I preferred to any other.  But I often thought if a stray ball should carry me off who could best command the incomparable Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Of course I could not nominate a successor that whole matter was in the hands of the President.  But among the younger men I thought William Mahone had developed the highest quality for organization and command.

The words were written down by me that evening and are in my desk at Ellwood. I write them now hastily in a public room.  But I know they are accurate.  We drifted so far apart politically and I so entirely condemned your policy and methods that I would not give them to the world.  Now I cheerfully write them and as far as I am concerned this may be an open letter to the world.

It’s a great story and I don’t mind admitting that back in 2004 I was seduced by it.  Mahone was my guy and I was going to rescue him from historical oblivion.  In fact, in my first public talks about Mahone I used the well known 1907 print, Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews to make my point.  I was still thinking through issues related to how to handle certain kinds of evidence as well as questions surrounding historical memory.  More importantly, at the time I still didn’t have as solid a grasp of just how divisive Mahone’s postwar politics were and my understanding of the Confederate high command was also lacking.

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Rick Santorum on Nullification and the Civil War

No, I won’t be voting for Rick Santorum in any upcoming primary, but compared to some of his nutty friends on the right [and here] this seems to me to be a pretty reasonable response to what was probably a question about whether a state has the right to nullify or secede from the Union.

Santorum latches on to the popular Shelby Foote quote from Ken Burns’s PBS documentary about how Americans supposedly referred to the nation as “these” United States before the war as opposed to the postwar reference of “the” United States.  Yes, Americans were more likely to define their allegiance primarily through their states, but such an identification did not exclude strong feelings of nationalism and patriotism.  Just ask George Washington.  Americans north and south identified themselves simultaneously as members of multiple communities beginning with their families and extending outward.  These strong feelings were informed by an understanding of their history going back to the founding of the nation as well as a firm belief in American Exceptionalism.  The process that led to secession beginning in December 1860 was not inevitable nor did it extinguish those strong national bonds in many of those southerners who came to believe that the Union was no longer tenable.

I can’t imagine that this response won Santorum many new friends in New Hampshire last night.

The Richmond Examiner Remembers Fort Pillow

I am in the process of reviewing the final edits of my Crater book.  As I made my way through chapter 1 I came across one of my favorite quotes that appears in the section that explores how white Southerners assessed reports of the massacre of black Union soldiers.  The quote comes from the Richmond Examiner, which appeared on August 2, 1864:

We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the men in the Fourth Division charged into battle screaming “No quarter” and/or “Remember Fort Pillow.”  Reports of this battle cry can be found in the letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers who were present during the battle as well as those who were not.  They can also be found in many Southern newspapers, including the Examiner.  It is fairly easy to judge who was positioned to hear such a battle cry, which raises the question of why the reference is so pervasive in southern accounts.

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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.]

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Confederate Black Hair Flag

Black Hair Flag by Sonya Clark

The artist is Sonya Clark and her work is currently on exhibit at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas.  “In Black Hair Flag, the battle flag of the Confederacy is sewn through with black fibers; cornrows make the stripes, Bantu knots form the stars of the Stars and Stripes. The hybrid design that emerges asserts the presence of black people in the making of American modernity.”