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
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
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.
Illustration of a White Member of the Readjuster Party Cajoling a Black Man to Vote
Looks like the Virginia General Assembly has been busy with resolutions about the Civil War era. Last week I shared Sen. Henry Marsh’s resolution that would set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln and today I bring to you another resolution sponsored by Marsh that would honor black Virginians, who served in state government during Reconstruction. The Senate committee approved the resolution and incorporated it by voice vote into SJR 13 Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868, recognizing African American representatives. The committee substitute was ordered printed and the resolution will now advance to the floor of the Senate. I assume that for many Virginians this resolution makes more sense than one meant to honor Lincoln. I tend to agree, but this resolution distorts a crucial moment in the state’s history.
Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this: After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies. Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens. In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government. This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.
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