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.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Admittedly, Mahone is not the most likeable person. In fact, in all the years that I researched the man I never caught more than a fleeting glimpse of any emotional life beyond that facial here. [BTW, I still can’t picture the man laughing.] We like to be able to empathize with those historical figures we recognize and commemorate. More to the point, I still don’t fully understand why Mahone decided to forge a bi-racial coalition. Was he motivated by lingering bitterness over his railroad going into receivership in the early 1870s – a turn of events that Mahone blamed on Virginia’s Conservative elements. Was Mahone simply thirsty for political power and understood that interracial cooperation offered the best chance of success? Finally, to what extent was he genuinely interested in advancing the cause of the state’s black population? I don’t know, but I suspect that it’s a combination of all three as well as other factors. Mahone was a complicated guy and his motives were not likely pure, but than again, who among our most beloved public servants could make such a claim.

I don’t know what a proper commemoration of Mahone might look like. The city of Petersburg owns Mahone’s postwar home, which now serves as a library and was interestingly enough the scene of a civil rights protest that led to its integration in the 1960s. His boyhood home in Southampton County is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Perhaps some kind of plaque could be unveiled on the capital grounds in Richmond. The form it takes doesn’t really concern me much.

What matters to me is the act of once again taking ownership of a small piece of history that we no longer have a reason to ignore.


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8 comments… add one
  • Larry Yates Jan 26, 2015 @ 5:22

    A very insightful piece. Mahone is indeed an enigma. As part of the history the Virginia Gentlemen have swept under the carpet, I dealt with the Readjusters in my Scalawag Scholar’s Notes on Virginia.

    One thing I would add to your points about the interracial character of the Readjusters is that the Black Republicans were already there as a force when Mahone stepped up politically. Certainly the alliance he built was crucial, but the freed people had already organized as a potential ally.

    I definitely agree with you Mahone should be commemorated. My suggestion would be to move Harry Byrd’s statue to a more obscure spot and put Mahone there.

  • London John Sep 21, 2013 @ 2:34

    “I still can’t picture the man laughing”. How can you tell he isn’t laughing under the whiskers in the photo?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2013 @ 3:00

      Good point. 🙂

  • Forester Sep 19, 2013 @ 10:49

    There needs to be a museum display about Mahone in downtown Norfolk. The N&S Railroad Museum (single room, really not much of a museum) has a cardboard standup of him and a bunch of information about him on the wall. The museum sits right next to a 100 foot “Johnny Reb” statue that has almost nothing to do with him, but is interesting to see from the museum window.

    And as often happens, the information on the wall omits the Crater (it only calls him a Civil War leader, doesn’t even specify a side) and I don’t recall it saying his party was bi-racial. Since Norfolk & Southern is running a company museum, they may be afraid of addressing controversial subjects.

    This area would be a good place for more historical markers/museums. The N&S museum sits very near the site of the 1877 meeting of Mahone’s Old Brigade and the plaque for the 1951 final meeting of the UCV (with the last 3 living Rebs). Given the history in the area, and the importance of railroads in the post-war, this could be a good place for that plaque, Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2013 @ 11:09

      Wish I knew about the display when I was writing the book. Thanks for the comment.

  • Virgil Funk Sep 19, 2013 @ 8:30

    Do you think that are any parallels between Mahone and John Winsmith in South Carolina? Winsmith didn’t start a third party, but….

  • Will Hickox Sep 19, 2013 @ 6:45

    “Admittedly, Mahone is not the most likeable person. In fact, in all the years that I researched the man I never caught more than a fleeting glimpse of any emotional life beyond that facial here. [BTW, I still can’t picture the man laughing.] We like to be able to empathize with those historical figures we recognize and commemorate.”

    Is this why you aren’t writing the definitive biography of William Mahone, a la Glenn LaFantasie’s study of Oates, etc? You would be the one to do it, after all.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2013 @ 6:47

      There are a number of reasons why I don’t feel up to the task, but this is not one of them. Thanks though for the vote of confidence.

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