“From the Colored Citizens of Virginia”

Mahone RingAs 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””

William Forstchen and Newt Gingrich Massacre the Crater… Again

Today’s Washington Post features an essay on the Crater by Forstchen and Gingrich, which focuses on the men of the Fourth Division. You may remember that two co-authored a work of historical fiction on the battle back in 2011. Shortly after its publication I was invited by the Atlantic to review the book. Needless to say, the book has numerous problems even as a work of fiction, not the least of which is its failure to deal honestly with the well documented accounts of the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers. The authors also imagine a conversation between Robert E. Lee and William and Mahone in which the former orders that no captured black soldiers be harmed. There is no evidence of such a meeting taking place and even a fictional account has numerous problems. Continue reading “William Forstchen and Newt Gingrich Massacre the Crater… Again”

Massachusetts at the Crater

Massachusetts Reunion at Crater
57th Massachusetts at the Crater with William Mahone at center (1887)

One of the things that I regret about my book on the Crater is that I failed to spend sufficient time exploring Union accounts of the battle, both during and, especially, after the war. Given that I wrote the book while living in Virginia I was always primarily interested in Confederate accounts (wartime and postwar) and what they had to say about issues related to slavery and race. Continue reading “Massachusetts at the Crater”

William Mahone Spends Night With “Deformed People”

In a letter written in 1890, William Mahone recalled spending the night before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House with an unusual family.

We marched all next day and went into camp in the evening not far from Appomattox Co. Ho. in the most God forsaken neighborhood or can well conceive. My Headquarters were
in a miserable log hut occupied by a family of deformed people – that made one shudder to behold, and whose deformity and condition forcibly suggested that we were near the end. My waggons rich with supplies for a campaign had been captured. It contained nearly a full house of all that one needs [for] sustenance and comfort and my [ ] had been captured and we had no [ ]. The bed in this miserable cabin on which I remember to have spread my oil cloth and blanket was only about four feet long.

Would love to know more about this particular family.

Recognition For William Mahone

mahoneYesterday’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”