First Meeting Of The Friends Of William Mahone Society

Last night I spent a few hours with two fellow students of William Mahone.  One just finished his PhD at the University of Virginia and the other is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.  The latter had spent the week conducting research in Special Collections at UVA so the three of us decided to get together to talk over a couple of beers.

All three of us have spent significant time researching the postwar political career and memory of William Mahone.  We had a chance to talk about directions in research and future plans.  Few people are currently working on Mahone so it was just nice to be able to talk about a subject and know that you were being understood.  We threw names like Harrison Hold Riddleberger, William Cameron, William Lamb, Stith Bolling, and Abram Fulkerson as if they were household names.  I know, it sounds like a real blast (LOL).  Throw together a couple of overgrown nerds and I guess that’s what you get.  We all agree that Mahone is missing from recent Lost Cause literature, the absence of which has left us with an interpretation that assumes a unified front.  Interpretations tend to trace the development of the Lost Cause through the 1870′s and 80′s with little understanding of what is happening in Virginia.  If there is dissent it stems from James Longstreet’s decision to align himself with the Republican Party.  However, nothing compares with the political maneuvering of William Mahone and the success of the Readjuster Party in the early 1880′s; the party constituted the greatest threat to white political power in the South and led to bitter debates over who could claim legitimate ownership of the Confederate past.  Mahone’s politics led to a bitter debate even among veterans of his own Virginia brigade, which involved serious challenges to accounts of his leadership at the Crater and elsewhere.  Anyone researching Mahone and the Crater who utilizes postwar sources from this time will have absolutely no sense of what is driving these heated disagreements.  This is a topic that I explore in detail in "William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History", which appeared last year in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (chapter 3 in my manuscript).  Most studies simply assume that white Southerners were in agreement about who should be celebrated or remembered and why, and this supposedly led directly to reunion and reconciliation with the North.  White Virginians agreed on very little during the last two decades of the nineteenth-century and this is absolutely crucial to acknowledge if we are to have a more accurate interpretation of the Lost Cause.

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the Mahone collection which is located at Duke University.  There are 110 linear feet of material on Mahone in the collection that covers the period 1853-1895 — most of it on the postwar period.  The collection contains 94 volumes of letterbooks, 167 containers of incoming correspondence, 33 containers of subject files, and 41 newspaper scrapbooks.  I spent a week at Duke in the summer of 2003 and worked every day from opening to closing and barely put a dent in the collection.  There has only been one scholarly biography and that was published back in 1935 by Nelson M. Blake.  All three of us had our own stories to tell about working with this collection.  Unfortunately, the most valuable sources are the incoming letters and Mahone’s scrapbooks which contain articles from a wide-range of newspapers.  Much of Mahone’s writing is impossible to read; it looks like and EKG Scan.

I look forward to seeing my two new friends at some point in the near future.  We are planning to organize a panel discussion for an upcoming conference so stay tuned.

What’s In A Name?

Last week I commented briefly on the proposed move decided on by the staff at the Museum of the Confederacy.  Towards the end of that post I suggested that the museum should think about changing its name for public relations reasons.  One of my readers commented that this was a good idea and yesterday I came across an article that reinforces my position.

The parties who dominate city government often regard the MOC as too controversial to support publicly," the report states. "Public personae and potential supporters – including individuals, politicians, corporations and foundations – will not publicly align themselves with the Confederacy and, by association, the MOC."  The report says the museum has not addressed "the problem as one of political correctness and has not seriously addressed repositioning the museum."  So, why not just change the name and take out the offending word?  "It’s not as simple as just changing the name," [H. Nicholas] Muller says. "There’s a history of over 100 years with the name. You can’t change the name without losing some of the supporters. It would be seen as a fairly shallow public relations ploy.

What I don’t understand is if you can’t maintain the support of local civic leaders than what supporters is Muller and others worried about maintaining?  They obviously have no money.  Unfortunately, the increase in publicity surrounding the Confederate flag, the politics of the Confederacy, and its presence in the current Virginia Senate race makes it a public issue that must be addressed.  There are practical reasons to move the MOC and I’ve supported it all along, but if anyone believes that a simple move is going to solve the financial problem and decrease in visitation, think again.  As this short passage above and my comments last week regarding the apparent lack of support among Southern Heritage organizations suggests, the problem is deeper. 

A Nice Acknowledgment or Making A Difference

I started Gabor Boritt’s new book Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows and was pleased to find in the acknowledgments section a reference to one of my former students.  Her name is Isabel Paterson and she graduated in 2004.  She now attends Gettysburg College and works as one of Boritt’s assistants at the Civil War Institute.  Isabel was a superb student who was absolutely fascinated with the Civil War.  Rather than take my elective Isabel and I worked on an independent study on the Valley of the Shadow; in fact, it was this experience that convinced me to integrate the database into the course.  We met twice a week to talk about how residents of Augusta County, Virginia responded to the 1860 presidential election.  We read some of the relevant secondary literature and tried to figure out to what extent the experience of Virginians in the Shenandoah Valley reflected what scholars had discovered in reference to other parts of the South. 

Isabel mentioned that she was considering Gettysburg College, but it was not until her visit that she was convinced that it was the right place for her.  I still remember talking with her following the visit and it was clear that Isabel was hooked.  She is currently majoring in history with a concentration in Civil War studies.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she pursues the PhD in history and settles on a career in research and teaching.  I’ve had a few students come back to tell me that they are pursuing history degrees in college, but this is the first time that one of my students has shown such a serious interest. I hope my readers don’t mind if I celebrate this, but it is really nice to see one of my students traveling down a road that has brought me such joy.  Good luck Isabel.

Book Reviews And The Blogger’s Responsibility

I see that a few of my fellow bloggers [Dimitri Rotov, Sean Dail, and Touch the Elbow] are pleased to have received their Simon and Schuster package which includes new titles about Lincoln, Taney, and the War of 1812.  I expect to find my package at the front door later this afternoon.  Let’s admit that there is something flattering about being singled out by a major publisher, though as Sean Dail explains it is clearly in their interest to take advantage of the blogosphere.  As I see it the publisher probably doesn’t need to worry about any negative assessments of their books; it may be enough that the book is referenced and linked to by others. 

It does, however, raise some interesting questions about our responsibility in providing analytical or critical reviews of these texts – if we choose to review them at all.  Let’s face it, the value of three new hardback books is somewhere around $90 and one may be tempted to be more praiseworthy given the possibility of additional preview copies.  I’ve received a number of preview copies and make it clear to the publisher that the book will receive a critical assessment.  In the case of David Eicher’s new book I wrote a very negative review since I thought it was an overall disappointment.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I never see another book from Little Brown. 

A Message To The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star: JUST SAY NO

I know that newspapers operating in the heart of Civil War country feature articles and letters to the editor to attract readers, but there is no reason to print the kind of drivel that has appeared in the last few weeks in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  Now that I think of it a series of articles on secession back in November 2005 was the subject of one of my earliest posts.  The subject of recent weeks has been Robert E. Lee.  Here is a small sample of letters to the editor for your enjoyment.

From 10/12/06: Returning home from a church meeting, Lee sat at the supper table and was about to say grace. The general could not say a word and slumped down in his chair. It is believed that he had a stroke.  It has been written that Lee’s grief for the Southern people, some of whom were made poor by the War Between the States, may have contributed to his failing health.

From 10/16/06: While Lee was an undeniably talented military leader and an honorable man by the standards of his time, no amount of mythology and hero worship can obscure the fact that Robert E. Lee led the armed struggle to keep black people in bondage.

From 10/23/06:The seceding states were not seeking to overthrow the federal government, but were reclaiming the rights they had voluntarily granted to the federal government.  Gen. Lee certainly respected that and the 10th Amendment.  Sad to say, President Lincoln sent federal troops into Maryland’s state capital in order to prevent Maryland’s right to decide for or against secession.  Lincoln also deployed "terrorism" in order to cripple the South, through William Sherman’s leadership.  Significant enough, criminals were released to join Union ranks and would have been among the "terrorists."  And yet Lincoln, unconstitutionally, established tribunals for "Northerners" who sympathized with the seceding states.  Gen. Lee surely understood the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government, whereas President Lincoln disregarded the Constitution.  The founders gave us a constitutional republic, not a constitutional monarchy.

From 10/24/06: I know of no one with the slightest knowledge of history who would agree with such nonsense. To suggest that Lee did not do his duty is beyond ridiculous.  Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest Virginians and Americans who ever lived.   As a loving father (read "Lee’s Daughters"), devoted husband and son (one need only read surviving letters), educator, nation’s healer, and one of the finest military generals of all time, Robert E. Lee stands as one of the greatest men in history. He was truly a hero.  I’ve taught my children and my students about his character and dedication. We should all strive to emulate those qualities.  Robert E. Lee essentially gave up every material possession to defend his family and native state.  He was opposed to secession and slavery, but he could not aid a foreign country that was illegally invading Virginia.

Who needs Douglas S. Freeman, Emory Thomas, Thomas Connelly, Gary Gallagher, Michael Fellman, and Richard McClaslin when you have the good readers of the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  Is this what Carl Becker had in mind when he used the phrase, "Everyman His Own Historian"?