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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Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews
Early on in my Mahone research I was intrigued by a letter that J. Horace Lacy wrote to the general at some point during the post-Readjuster years. Lacy shared a conversation he had with Robert E. Lee at a commencement dinner at Washington College in which the general revealed that in the event of his death or inability to lead the army he had Mahone in mind as a replacement.
Gen’l Hampton sat on the right and I as an orator of day on left of Lee. Turning to Hampton Gen’l Lee said something in a low tone, I leaned back as I thought it was possible it might be something confidential. Laying his hand upon my knee he said lean over Major I only wish Hampton and yourself to hear. Then Gen’l Hampton in the dark days which preceded the fall of the Confederacy, for a good while I was almost hopeless, and you know I did not spare this poor life, for I thought it became me to fall on one of those fields of glory. My artillery was handled well, the cavalry was in the very hands, after the death of Stuart that I preferred to any other. But I often thought if a stray ball should carry me off who could best command the incomparable Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Of course I could not nominate a successor that whole matter was in the hands of the President. But among the younger men I thought William Mahone had developed the highest quality for organization and command.
The words were written down by me that evening and are in my desk at Ellwood. I write them now hastily in a public room. But I know they are accurate. We drifted so far apart politically and I so entirely condemned your policy and methods that I would not give them to the world. Now I cheerfully write them and as far as I am concerned this may be an open letter to the world.
It’s a great story and I don’t mind admitting that back in 2004 I was seduced by it. Mahone was my guy and I was going to rescue him from historical oblivion. In fact, in my first public talks about Mahone I used the well known 1907 print, Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews to make my point. I was still thinking through issues related to how to handle certain kinds of evidence as well as questions surrounding historical memory. More importantly, at the time I still didn’t have as solid a grasp of just how divisive Mahone’s postwar politics were and my understanding of the Confederate high command was also lacking.
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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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After six long years, I am pleased to announce that the University Press of Kentucky will publish my first book, Remembering War as Murder: The Battle of the Crater. Yesterday I received an email indicating that the manuscript received the unanimous approval and enthusiastic support of the press’s editorial board. The book will appear in their series, New Directions in Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, Michelle Gillespie, and William Link. If everything goes as planned the book should be available by Spring 2012.
I am looking forward to working with Kentucky during what will no doubt be a hectic next few months, but I am already confident that they are going to do a first-rate job. Back in 2007 I published a chapter in a book of essays on Civil War soldiers edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and I have another piece that is slated to appear in the final volume of their Virginia at War series, edited by James I. Robertson and William C. Davis.
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I am finally in the home stretch of finishing the revisions of my Crater manuscript. For a number of reasons the first chapter proved to be the most difficult to revise, but I finally have it where I am comfortable. It should take me no more than 2 to 3 more weeks before I send the full manuscript back to the publisher. One of the things that I am having quite a time with, however, is the title. Since I am stumped I thought it might be helpful to ask my loyal readers for some assistance. So, here is the deal. If I use your title or a substantial portion of it you will receive a free copy of the book – assuming it is published at all. :D Long time readers will be familiar with the subject of the book, but just in case here is the original proposal/outline. It should give you some idea of what the book is about. I have to say that it was painful to look at the time line that I sketched out in the proposal. Oh well.
Thanks in advance for your help.