William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History

Article excerpt

Less than two weeks before a scheduled reunion of the 3d Georgia Regiment in August 1883, Robert Bagby-who had served in Company H-was "surprised" to read in a local newspaper an editorial from a fellow veteran "objecting" to the presence of their former commander, Maj. Gen. William Mahone. Bagby's response indicates that he understood the origin of this complaint. He assured his comrade that "the men who are invited to meet us on this occasion are expected to do so as survivors of a Lost Cause and not as representatives of a State or Federal Politics." The distinction drawn between the acknowledgment of a shared Confederate past and more recent political alignments reflects the extent to which Mahone's war record had become clouded by his foray into Virginia and national politics. Bagby assured his readers that he did not necessarily approve of Mahone's politics but was convinced that he could welcome his former commander with open arms:

It is not my wish or desire to applaud Gen. Mahone for the active part he bore in the late war between the States, or viliiy or abuse him for his connection with Virginia politics but as a Confederate soldier who followed where he led in the dark and trying hours of the past, I, for one, am willing to let politics of the living present rest long enough to remember the record made by Gen. Mahone while fighting for a principle that was near and dear to us all.1

By 1883, William Mahone had become one of the most controversial and divisive politicians in the country. As the organizer and leader of the Readjuster Party (named for its policy of downwardly "readjusting" Virginia's state debt), Mahone led the Souths most successful independent coalition of black and white Republicans and white Democrats. From 1879 to 1883, Readjusters governed the state. They elected a governor and two United States Senators and represented six of Virginia's ten congressional districts. With Senate patronage at Mahone's disposal, the coalition controlled the state legislature and the courts. As a result, a large percentage of the state's federal offices went to the Readjusters' black majority. These African Americans played a prominent role in shaping the party's platform, which pushed for increased access to the polls, office-holding, and jury service.

The legislative agenda of the Readjusters, as well as Mahone's prominent role within the party and the U.S. Senate, generated heated attacks in newspapers and more personal forms of communication. Even the duel, which had disappeared from the South during the first two decades after the Civil War, reappeared during the four years of Readjuster control.2 Like former Confederate general James Longstreet, Mahone incurred the wrath of a growing and influential Lost Cause movement that in addition to rationalizing Confederate defeat sought to maintain Democratic Party solidarity by fostering white supremacy and states' rights.3 Though Longstreet's affiliation with the Republican Party resulted in his being blamed not only for Confederate defeat at Gettysburg but also for the loss of the war as well, Mahone's postwar political career presented conservative Virginians with a more immediate threat. Lost Cause advocates continually attacked Mahone and the Readjusters because the increased involvement of African Americans in the political process constituted a direct threat to their goal of turning back the clock to a point in the prewar past when white southern slaveholders stood atop the social and political hierarchy.

Such Lost Cause advocates as Jubal Early and others assumed an aggressive posture toward Mahone and other former Confederates who threatened their conservative social and political agenda. That Mahone was not an outsider but a popular Confederate major general had to be dealt with severely, and they dealt with him in large part by attacking his war record. His detractors assailed a war record that Mahone and his close associates helped construct-and often embellished-to further his own postwar career, first as a railroad magnate, next as an unsuccessful candidate for the 1877 gubernatorial nomination, and finally as a leader of the Readjusters and U. …