Gen. William Mahone

From Huffpost (hat tip: Kate McGrath):

The Confederate General Who Was Erased

There’s a reason you won’t find many monuments in the South to one of Robert E. Lee’s most able deputies.
 

Some years ago, I went to a conference in Charleston. During a free moment, I strolled down to an old marketplace where I browsed the shops — all of which, it seemed, specialized in Confederate memorabilia. In search of a small gift for my son, I wandered among stacks of toy rifles, piles of Confederate belt buckles, and displays of battle flag bumper-stickers. At some point my eye caught a large framed lithograph of Robert E. Lee and the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia entitled “Lee and His Generals.” Inspecting it, I saw that something — or rather, someone — was missing. I was looking for a tiny, bearded, Major General, a divisional commander who was with Lee at Appomattox and who shared in the decision to surrender that April day in 1865. I was looking for General William Mahone of Virginia, and I did not find him because he was not there.

A native Virginian, a railroad magnate, a slaveholder, and an ardent secessionist, Mahone served in the Confederate army throughout the war. He was one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s most able commanders, distinguishing himself particularly in the summer of 1864 at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg. After the war, Robert E. Lee recalled that, when contemplating a successor, he thought that Mahone “had developed the highest qualities for organization and command.”

How did such a high-ranking Confederate commander wind up missing in action in a Charleston gift shop? Not, I think, by accident.

By now, Americans interested in the Confederate monument removal project have had it drilled into them that the monuments were erected decades after the end of the Civil War as testimonies to white supremacy in all its various manifestations: segregation, disenfranchisement, lynching, peonage, and second-class citizenship across the board. But the monuments were not merely commemorative. They were designed to conceal a past that their designers wanted to suppress. That past was the period after Reconstruction and before Jim Crow, years in which African Americans in the former Confederacy exercised political power, ran for public office, published newspapers, marched as militias, ran businesses, organized voluntary associations, built schools and churches: a time, in other words, when they participated as full members of society.

General William Mahone has not been forgotten entirely. Rather, he has been selectively remembered. There is a Mahone Monument, for example, erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, at the Crater Battlefield in Petersburg, and Civil War scholars have treated Mahone’s military career with respect.  There is an able biography. The problems posed by William Mahone for many Virginians in the past — and what makes it worthwhile for us to think about him in the present — lie in his postwar career.

Senator William Mahone was one of the most maligned political leaders in post-Civil War America. He was also one of the most capable. Compared to the Roman traitor Cataline (by Virginia Democrats), to Moses (by African American congressman John Mercer Langston), and to Napoleon (by himself), Mahone organized and led the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation South. Mahone’s Readjuster Party, an independent coalition of black and white Republicans and white Democrats that was named for its policy of downwardly “readjusting” Virginia’s state debt, governed the state from 1879 to 1883.

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