by Heath Anderson

Modern discussions about Confederate monuments have led all of us to reconsider what is the best way to remember and teach the American Civil War. These monuments were constructed to promote a white supremacist political and racial agenda and therefore are instructive lessons in what white southerners wanted to commemorate and what they wished to forget. William Mahone was one prominent Confederate general from Virginia who never received a statue to commemorate his wartime service because of his postwar political allegiance to the Republican Party and his acceptance of African American suffrage. The life and career of William Mahone demonstrates the complexities of the Reconstruction years that defy the period’s traditional timeline and reminds us that we should resist generalizing the actions and views of white and black people and Republicans and former Confederates during the tumultuous postwar years.

Reconstruction is often taught as a bookend to the cataclysmic war and as an unpleasant cleaning up act that ended with the successful admittance of the rebel states back into the harmonious United States that was ready to take its place on the world stage. For decades, and even to this day, many white southerners maintain that Reconstruction was a period of tyrannical northern rule over the former Confederate states that only ended with the return of southern white men to political power. Modern scholarship has reframed our discussion of Reconstruction to a focus on the actions of black people and the successes of Reconstruction despite recalcitrant white southerners. However, most current works still use the year 1877, when the last federal soldiers left the South, as the endpoint for Reconstruction. William Mahone and the Readjusters operated in the 1880s and their example demonstrates the need to expand our discussion of Reconstruction into the 1880s and 1890s when the South disenfranchised most of its African American citizens.

Mahone was part of a younger generation of white men who fought for the Confederacy and, like many of his generation, he was more interested in his own personal wealth and how to reform Virginia along a northern industrial model than a concern over what his former comrades thought of him. When Virginia Conservatives could not find a satisfactory resolution to Virginia’s crushing wartime debt, Mahone organized the Readjusters and pledged to reduce the debt or refuse to pay it all together. White farmers flocked to his banner and black people, who argued that as former slaves they should not be required to participate in debt repayment, supported Mahone as well. The Readjusters elected Mahone to the United States Senate and, in exchange for their support, Senator Mahone funded black schools and hospitals with the Readjuster Party placing black men on public school boards in Richmond and Petersburg, and he declared that Virginia’s politics would no longer be decided by racial issues. This movement temporarily represented the most successful case of a biracial political party on a Republican model in the postwar South.

The success of Mahone the politician was the primary reason white Virginians moved to disenfranchise almost all the state’s black voters between 1880 and 1902. Conservative whites in Virginia tolerated African American suffrage because they made up over 40 percent of the electorate and they believed black people could be made to vote their way. However, they could not tolerate the apostasy of William Mahone’s change of allegiance to the Republican Party and the Readjusters’ employment of black men and defense of their suffrage. In the lead up to the election of 1883, the Conservative Party renamed themselves as Democrats and campaigned on a platform of white supremacy, which culminated in a massacre of at least four black men in Danville Virginia. Following these killings, the Readjuster Party was defeated and Mahone’s political career declined steadily until his death in 1895.

When Mahone died in 1895, his legacy was problematic for a Virginia moving toward the legal disenfranchisement of most of its black citizens and many whites. As a result, William Mahone and the Readjusters were either ignored entirely by white Virginians and the Lost Cause, or they were molded to fit into the narrative that the triumph of white supremacist government in Virginia was an inevitable and timeless truth. A major way this was accomplished was through the publication of school textbooks. These textbooks were published by former Confederates and their descendants, and their authors either ignored Mahone and the Readjusters or described black suffrage and voting as “negro-rule” over southern whites. Prominent textbook authors who had their works taught in schools for nearly forty years wrote that the Reconstruction years, and the 1880s and 1890s, were “barren of interesting events.” [1]

Mahone’s legacy as a Readjuster thus began to die out in the twentieth century, obscured by the narrative of Reconstruction promoted by the Lost Cause and forgotten as a failure by most black people who suffered under the policies of Jim Crow. Some African Americans remembered Mahone’s movement as a practical political lesson or a symbol of hope from the past. In 1927, African American newspaper the Norfolk New Journal and Guide argued that using funds for a Mahone monument to instead help fund schools and hospitals for black people would best commemorate the spirit of the Readjuster Party. Others despaired over the current position of black people in Virginia and advocated for a monument to Mahone as “a sign of Negro thankfulness and love and to remind the world that Negroes lived in Virginia once.” [2] Mahone’s legacy has resurfaced today as an October 2017 editorial in the Roanoke Times advocated for the construction of a monument to General Mahone on Monument Avenue in Richmond Virginia, which is replete with Confederate monuments. The author argued that this would correct the mistake of statue builders a century ago who “tried to erase Mahone from history” because of his political career.[3] Virginia does not need any more Confederate monuments, but the story of William Mahone and the Readjusters demonstrates, that the postwar years defy any singular interpretation or analysis. As we continue to discuss how best to remember the Civil War and Reconstruction today, it is important to remember that the legacy of that period was shaped by subsequent generations as much if not more than by those who lived through it.

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Heath Anderson is an M.A. candidate in the VCU History Department who was selected as an “emerging scholar” by the American Civil War Museum and Emerging Civil War.  He will present his work at the grand re-opening of the American Civil War Museum on May 4.  This post originally appeared on April 11, 2019 on the Emerging Civil War blog.

[1] Mary Tucker Magill, The History of Virginia for the Use of Schools (Lynchburg: J.P. Bell Company, 1890), 372-373 (All textbooks, except where noted, are from collections of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond Virginia. Their textbook collection is currently housed at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, also located in Richmond Virginia); Mary Bayliss, “Mary Tucker Magill,” Encyclopedia of Virginia, June 24, 2008, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Magill_Mary_Tucker_1830-1899#start_entry.

[2] “A Different Type of monument for General Mahone,” Norfolk New Journal and Guide, July 1927; ibid., “A monument to General Mahone,”; ibid., “The Hero of Jerusalem,”; “Let the Negros Remain Excluded” Baltimore (MD) Afro American, Aug 1914.

[3] “Letter to the Editor” Roanoke Times, Oct 21, 2017.