Emerging Scholar Heath Anderson

Anderson, HeathAs part of our partnership with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and Civil War Monitor, we’re pleased to introduce the next of our “Emerging Scholars,” Heath Anderson. Heath will be presenting his work at the museum’s Grand Opening May 4.

Selectively Remembered: William Mahone and the Readjuster Party

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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About Heath Anderson

Hello, my name is Heath Anderson, and I’m excited to take part in the American Civil War Museum’s grand opening. I grew up in Chesterfield, Virginia, and spent many hours after school as a kid reenacting scenes from Audie Murphy’s role in the 1951 adaption of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage with my grandmother. I thought then that there was no event more profound in American History than the Civil War, even if I had little understanding of the conflict as a 10-year-old.

I reignited my present interest in the Civil War era as a graduate student at VCU, and I will be graduating this spring with a master’s in history. I am interested in the antebellum South, the Civil War, and southern social and racial history through Reconstruction and disenfranchisement. My Master’s thesis is on the life and legacy of General William Mahone and the Readjuster Party that he controlled in Virginia during the 1880s. William Mahone’s political career differentiated him from many of his contemporaries in the period some scholars have termed “the New South,” and my research uses his life, and the Readjuster Party, as a lens to explore the path Virginia took during Reconstruction and what the historical memory of those years meant in the twentieth century. My long-term goal is to further my studies at the Ph.D. level and write a dissertation on Virginia during Reconstruction or a biographical study of William Mahone and the Readjuster Party.

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[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.

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12 Responses to Emerging Scholar Heath Anderson

  1. John Davis says:

    The narrative that Confederate Monuments were constructed to promote a white supremacist political and racial agenda is an absolutely false. This is the new politically correct view that is being used as an excuse to take down monuments all across our country. The truth is these monuments were erected to honor the men of the South who had given their lives for their families, friends, and countrymen. There was no need to erect monuments to white supremacy because at the time at least 95% of all white Americans believed in white supremacy.

  2. kevlvn says:

    “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.”

    Really?

    There is a monument to William Mahone located on the Crater battlefield in Petersburg. In the course of doing research for my book on the Crater and Mahone I came across a few pieces of evidence suggesting that the original location was to be in downtown Petersburg, but his postwar politics proved to be problematic.

    Kevin M. Levin

    • Author here. Indeed he did receive a monument at the Crater and not in Petersburg itself and I make both of these points in my thesis on William Mahone. Perhaps I should have included those points here. However, the simple stone obelisk at the Crater is a far cry from the grand equestrian statues commemorating numerous Confederate heroes from Virginia, and Mahone was clearly viewed as a Confederate hero at the end of the war. His politics and work with black people changed that and, in my opinion, stayed any commemoration of him at all until well into the 20th century when the Lost Cause narrative had succeeded in separating his military record from his politics.

      -Heath

      • kevlvn says:

        Hi Heath. Thanks for the response. The historian Jane Dailey once delivered a paper that made roughly this same argument about Mahone’s place in Confederate memory. It’s a difficult argument to defend because it assumes what any one former Confederate deserved. I would urge you to look broader at Mahone’s postwar career in understanding his place or absence from the Confederate pantheon. As I argue in my book, Mahone had little interest in defending the Lost Cause apart from his business interests. He was involved in veterans affairs in Petersburg, but he was much more forward looking compared with others who dwelled on the war and did everything possible to write themselves into the history. That just wasn’t Mahone’s game. The interesting question is not why his war record wasn’t better remembered during the postwar period, but why and how the Readjuster Era was expunged from public memory by the beginning of the twentieth century. Best of luck with your research.

      • I appreciate the comments, Mr. Levin. I am familiar with both your work and Jane Dailey’s work on William Mahone and the Readjusters. The goal of this blog entry is simply to discuss my work generally and place Mahone and the Readjusters in the larger context of Reconstruction and the New South. Indeed, I agree that his work as a Readjuster was far more controversial than debates over his martial record. However, his military service was a contributing factor to how he was remembered, especially for Northern Republicans that used it to call out southern Democrats’ hypocrisy when said Democrats questioned Mahone’s loyalties. My graduate thesis covers William Mahone’s life and legacy and does indeed include a chapter on the Readjuster Party’s exclusion from twentieth-century textbooks and scholarship. It will be tentatively published online in May and I would be happy to share it with you and would welcome further discussion about this topic with you.

        I can be reached at andersonhm2@vcu.edu

        Sincerely,
        Heath

  3. Pingback: Selectively Remembered: William Mahone and the Readjuster Party – Public History at VCU

  4. Edward S. Alexander says:

    Mahone’s a great choice for a memory piece. Politics aside, how much of his legacy is impacted by all his big moments happening in Petersburg, one of worst studied and interpreted battles until recent.

    The grand moment for the city in its own defense, the battle of Old Men and Young Boys, received only a simple stone marker. There’s still hardly any accessibly interpretation outside of a Civil War Trails sign. And the Crater itself, though there’s way too much crap around it today, probably doesn’t have enough interpretation for most.

    • Thank you for your comment. I have certainly benefited from the great works you refer to recently about the Crater, it’s memory and Mahone. I am trying to use the course of his life to combine several of these sub fields: military history, Reconstruction, historical memory into somewhat of a cohesive whole. I have also heard the Petersburg National battlefield is clearing some land where Mahone’s men counterattacked. Hopefully adding to our modern view of the terrain.

      -Heath

      • Edward S. Alexander says:

        You’re right. Mahone’s ravine has been cleared by the Park Service so you can better appreciate the terrain and the 1864 viewshed. They have planned to install an interpretive trail, so I’m curoius to see what the waysides are going to say.

  5. Ed Rowe says:

    I disagree with Mr. Anderson ‘s statement about why Confederate monuments were constructed. In 1871 one such monument was unveiled in Athens, GA, simply to honor the soldiers from Clarke County who had died during the war. In 1872 the names of those soldiers were inscrbed on this monument. One of the them is my great-great grandfather, 2nd Lt. Thomas Jordan Dunnahoo of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry Battalion, who was shot and killed during the action at Swift Creek, near Raleigh, NC, on April 12, 1865, during the Carolinas Campaign.

  6. Ed Rowe says:

    Sorry about the obvious typos (“One of the them is” and “inscrbed”) made during my haste to complete my reply while I was away from home, without my charger cable, and my phone was about to shut down!

    • I appreciate your comment, Mr. Rowe. I hope you might understand that the point of my blog was to truly focus on William Mahone’s legacy and why it has been treated differently, or not at all in Civil War memory. I agree with you that many common soldier monuments could certainly imply multiple meanings to multiple people, including of course mourning and loss. from a place of mourning and loss. My point was more in reference to the grander equestrian monuments of Lee etc who were promoted by Mahone’s most bitter Confederate rivals like Jubal Early. Early regularly stirred up fears over race mixing that contributed to white Virginians’ fierce backlash against Mahone and it is mostly from this perspective that I mentioned the racial motivations for putting up monuments.

      Regards,
      Heath

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