William Mahone and the Readjusters to the Rescue

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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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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Tracking the Trajectory of Race in Nineteenth-Century Virginia

Yesterday I had one of those moments, while working on the Crater manuscript, where I was able to see the big picture of the history of race in Virginia in the nineteenth century.  It all came together around one individual, William E. Cameron.  Those of you familiar with Virginia will recognize the name.  Since the connections I made in my head were fairly simple, I am going to keep it simple here.

Cameron served as a captain in the 12th Virginia, which was raised in Petersburg.  He took part in the counterattack at the Crater, which included an entire division of black Union soldiers.  Their presence constituted a direct threat to the social and racial hierarchy that Confederate soldiers hoped to secure in their bid for independence.  Interestingly, by March 1865 we find Cameron trying to convince slaveowners to release some of their slaves for service in the Confederate army.  It is important to remember that the act President Davis signed into law on March 13, 1865 made no provision for the emancipation of slaves in exchange for service; nevertheless, Cameron’s involvement in this process came only after a very public debate about the identity and status of slaves in a society committed to maintaining the institution.  Finally, in 1882 Cameron secured the governorship of Virginia for the Readjuster Party, led by his former commander, William Mahone.  The Readjusters achieved victory, in part, based on the support of the state’s black population, which benefited in numerous way during the party’s short time in power.

And there you have it.  Cameron took part in a war fought to protect slavery only to see his government desperately attempt to utilize these very same people as soldiers, but without any change in legal status.  After the war he engaged black Virginians as free political agents that led him to the highest office in the state.  Just another reason why Virginia’s history is so damn interesting and important.

Robert Austin Paul

This encyclopedia entry is slated for publication in the African-American National Biography series which is being edited by Henry L. Gates and Evelyn Higginbotham and published by Oxford University Press.  I discovered R.A. Paul in my research on William Mahone and the Crater.  I’ve always wanted to try my hands at writing a biography and Paul would be the perfect subject.  Postwar Virginia is an incredibly interesting time in which to do research, especially the years of Readjuster control.  There was a great deal of black political action that unfortunately falls outside our radar screens in large part due to the fact that we carve up Reconstruction in a way that misses the changes that took place in Virginia after 1877.

Paul, Robert
Austin (3 Nov. 1846–1902), soldier and politician, was born to literate slaves in Virginia. As a young man Paul was taught how to read by his mother, father, and grandfather, Richard Madison. In 1852 he was sold to a neighboring slave owner, abruptly endinghis lessons until after the Civil War. Following the Civil War Paul took a job in a hotel (perhaps in Petersburg) but managed to pursue informal studies under the supervision of his mother; within a short period of time Paul was reading on such subjects as ancient history and pursuing law through Blackstone’s Commentaries. All the while he expressed an interest in a political career.

Paul eventually joined the Republican Party, though he played no active role until 1874 when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Virginia’s
ex-Democratic governor, Gilbert C. Walker. Even as Republicans struggled to counter Virginia’s Conservative Party, Paul remained active by supporting Rutherford B. Hayes against Samuel Tilden in the presidential election of 1876. Two years later he supported W. W. Newman in his unsuccessful bid for Congress against former Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. In addition Paul was appointed bailiff in 1877, and commissioned U. S. Deputy in 1880.

Paul’s political and public prominence was due in large part to the formation and success of the Readjuster Party in 1879, led by former Confederate Major General William Mahone. The rise of the Readjusters was spurred by the question of what to do about Virginia’s state debt which totaled $45,000,000 in 1870—the result of internal improvements made during the antebellum years. The Readjusters included black and white Republicans along with disgruntled Democrats like Mahone. They advocated scaling back the debt (or readjusting it) and supporting the state’s commitment to public education. By 1881 the Readjusters had control of the legislature and elected their own governor. Paul was slow to speak out in support of the Readjusters, but after election to
the Republican State Convention in 1880 called for a union with the bi-racial party. On 14 March 1881 Virginia Republicans, including Paul, met in Petersburg and decided to support the Readjusters. In June of that year Paul served as a delegate to the Readjuster State Convention in Richmond and supported William Cameron for governor. In addition the State Executive Committee appointed Paul to the position of campaign orator—one of only a handful of black Readjusters appointed to such a position.

Once in power the Readjusters adjusted the state debt downward to $21,000,000, leaving sufficient funds for public schools, the hiring of black teachers, and even a hospital for mentally ill African Americans in Petersburg. In 1882 Paul was appointed by Governor Cameron to the position of “Doorkeeper
to the Executive or Messenger to the Governor and Secretary of the Commonwealth.” He was the first black man to occupy this position. That same year Paul campaigned vigorously for the Readjusters in the Congressional elections on a platform calling for black suffrage, free education, and acknowledgment of the provisions contained in the Fourteenth Amendment. Along with the rest of the Readjusters he worked to abolish the poll tax and whipping post, which had been used to limit the black vote. The General Assembly passed legislation supporting a Literary Fund and appropriated funds for black public schools. In 1882 Paul was elected to the Richmond school board. Under his leadership black enrollment soared between 1881 and 1884 and the state mandated equal pay for black and white teachers. In addition Paul helped appoint three black men to the position of principal, and thirty-four new black teachers were selected to fill schools previously occupied by white teachers.

The end of Readjuster control of Virginia’s state government in 1883 also ended Paul’s political influence. Paul participated in the Readjuster Convention of 1884 and joined with others in aligning themselves with the Republican Party; in 1888 Paul joined the “Anti-Mahone” faction at the Republican State Convention. With the demise of the Readjuster Party Paul continued to work to improve the social standing of Virginia’s African-American population. In 1883 Paul helped subsidize the Richmond Planet, which was in publication for forty-five years and edited by John Mitchell Jr. Paul also remained involved with Lodge no. 2 of the black Knights of Pythias which he founded in 1882 in Richmond. In addition to these roles Paul commanded the black militia unit, the Richmond State Guard from 1878 to 1891. The unit was deployed by Governor Fitzhugh Lee in 1878 to Newport News to put down a strike which included black longshoremen.

Paul’s brief but active political career serves as a reminder that Virginia’s black population achieved notable success in the public sphere between Reconstruction and the more stringent segregation codes and practices that would define the Jim Crow South by the turn of the century.

Further Reading

Alexander, Anne F. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” John Mitchell Jr.(2002).
Blake, Nelson M. William Mahone of Virginia:
Soldier and Political Insurgent
Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (2000).
Williams, D. B. A Sketch of the Life and Times of Capt. R. A. Paul (1885).