As you might imagine, William Mahone was front and center last week in Petersburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. His memory looms large over the history of the battle as well as how the battle was remembered after the war. I talked quite a bit about Mahone’s postwar political career as leader of the Readjuster Party as well as his attempts to use the memory of the battle to further his interests. As you will see on August 20 (when C-SPAN will broadcast the talk) the Q&A following the talk was dominated by the audience’s interest in Mahone and I was more than happy to oblige.
Earlier that morning during a panel discussion on the battle a gentleman, who styles himself a local historian, handed out a little pamphlet that featured a cane with a silver tip that was given to Mahone as a gift by a group of black Virginians. This short leaflet includes some choice quotes and commentary that this individual believes reflects a close relationship between Mahone and the black community. The danger, of course, is that this ring can be used to draw any number of conclusions without attention to proper historical context. And context is everything in this case. Continue reading ““From the Colored Citizens of Virginia””
Yesterday’s post about the unveiling of three plaques honoring Virginia’s post-Civil War black politicians has me thinking about my old buddy, William Mahone. While Mahone is best remembered as the “Hero of the Crater” his role in launching and leading the state’s most successful third-party political movement has largely been forgotten. In Virginia it was intentionally ignored because what came to be known as the Readjuster Party (1879-83) was bi-racial. The arc from Mahone’s role in preventing a Union breakthrough outside Petersburg that left scores of black Union soldiers massacred on the Crater battlefield to creating an opportunity for the largest number of black Virginians to vote, go to school and serve in positions of local and state government just a few short years later could not be more striking. Could anyone in 1865 anticipate that it would be a former Confederate general who would bring Reconstruction to Virginia?
Is it time to recognize William Mahone publicly in some shape or form? I say yes, if for no other reason than it would help to bring into sharper focus a piece of Virginia’s history that places yesterday’s dedication in its proper context. In other words, post-Civil War Virginia makes absolutely no sense without a reference to Mahone and the Readjuster Party. It matters, not simply because it’s part of Virginia’s history, but because it has something important to teach us as well. The period following the official years of Reconstruction (1865-1877) did not inevitably lead to Jim Crow. 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. Virginia’s Reconstruction 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. Finally, there is something juicy about all of this being introduced by a former Confederate general. Continue reading “Recognition For William Mahone”
Update: Click here for additional information from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission’s website.
The plaques include the names names of 24 African-Americans who took part in Virginia’s constitutional convention of 1867-68 and the names of 14 black people who served terms in the state Senate between 1869 and 1890. Two additional plaques list the names of 85 African-Americans who served in the House of Delegates between 1869 and 1890. Just the kind of heritage you want to see commemorated in the Richmond area. Read the story here.
The latest issue of the Journal of American History (June 2013) includes a review of my Crater book by Chad L. Williams, who teaches here in town at Brandeis University. This is a very fair review. I couldn’t be more pleased to see that Professor Williams highlighted the chapters on William Mahone, the Readjusters and local Virginia politics as constituting the most important contribution to the literature on Civil War memory. Williams is also the first reviewer to mention my blog since Jim Cullen’s review at History News Network last summer. Overall, the reviews have been very positive, which is incredibly gratifying.
Interest in the Battle of the Crater has become something of a cottage industry recently. Books on the July 30, 1864, clash between the Union army of the Potomac and the Confederate army of northern Virginia on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, have appeared from a diverse assortment of “historians,” ranging from Richard Slotkin to Newt Gingrich. The massive explosion (which created the crater and was intended to break Confederate defenses) and the subsequent disastrous Union assault mark two of the most spectacular and tragic moments of the Civil War. However, much of the renewed scholarly and popular interest in the battle has centered on the presence of African American troops and their slaughter at the hands of opposing Confederate soldiers—one of the worst racial massacres of the war. Continue reading “Crater Book Reviewed in Journal of American History”
I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond. It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well. While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war. In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.
As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans. I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.
Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater. One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks. Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only. As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.
A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:
I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg. We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.
An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals. The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well. William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.
All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.