Heath Anderson - General William Mahone and the Readjuster Party: VCU 3MT Competition
From Samuel Byrd on November 15th, 2018
Finalist, 4th Annual VCU 3MT® Competition, held on October 18-19, 2018.
Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are the most well-known Confederate figures of the American Civil War. However, I am here today to talk to you about one Confederate general who most are unfamiliar with, and that is General William Mahone. A native Virginian, Mahone served as Lee’s right hand man at the war’s end but he was never commemorated by southern whites after the war like Lee and Jackson. As a Civil War scholar, my research began with the question of why?
Through an analysis of William Mahone’s personal papers, and the correspondence of his contemporaries, I have concluded that William Mahone was not idolized by white southerners like other Confederate war heroes due to his political alliance with African Americans. In Post-Civil War Virginia African Americans figured prominently in the outcome of every state election prior to the 1901 state constitution, that completely disenfranchised them. William Mahone organized a coalition of African Americans and whites in Virginia into a third-party movement known as the Readjusters, who controlled state government from 1880-1883. The Readjusters elected Mahone to the United States’ senate, where he granted countless jobs in the public-school system, post office, and Norfolk naval yard to his African American constituents. It is important to note that Mahone and the Party’s white leaders did not extend full social equality to black Virginians. However, they defended African American suffrage and funded black schools and hospitals. These actions galvanized Virginia’s black voters and enraged many white conservatives. They opposed Mahone in large numbers, and through violence, intimidation, and fraud defeated the Readjuster movement and determined to disenfranchise black people in Virginia.
My research highlights a seemingly unlikely cooperation between a former confederate General, and the African Americans who voted for Mahone and his party. This was a relationship based not on genuine racial harmony but on mutual benefit. African American voters supported Mahone as long as he rewarded them with patronage from the U.S. Senate, and Mahone granted this patronage as long as black people did not seek full social equality with whites. This give and take shows the, until recently overlooked, agency of African Americans in their fight for equal political representation in Virginia, after the end of Federal Reconstruction in 1877.
My research also demonstrates that scholarly and popular views on the formation of the Lost Cause following the Civil War lack nuance. Despite being an unapologetic Confederate veteran, William Mahone negotiated with black people after the war on social and political issues and the Readjuaster Party approved meaningful benefits for black people during their brief stay in power. My research shows that this political alliance might have further benefited black people if it had lasted longer and that the Jim Crow South was not pre-determined from the end of the Civil War.