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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

March 16, 2022: AmericanThaws: William Mahone

[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, very wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on what Spring means to you in literature, culture, history, and more!]

On late-in-life evolutions that don’t impress me much, and those that do.

In a footnote to this post nominating Nathan Bedford Forrest for an American Hall of Shame, I mentioned Forrest’s apparent, late-in-life reversals in perspective on issues like race. In that footnote, I called Forrest’s shifts “far too little and too late,” and I would stand by that assessment. Of course I’m glad that Forrest seems to have seen the error of his ways before the end, but unlike (for example) Ben Franklin, whose late-in-life change in perspective on immigration was accompanied by extensive writings and efforts, Forrest’s shifts seem to have been mostly in personal relationships, which are nice but don’t leave nearly the same legacy or influence. And thus, Forrest’s enduring legacies can and should still be defined by the worst of what he did: as a slave trader who designed a particularly “successful” system for such transactions; a Civil War general responsible for one of the war’s most brutal massacres; and, most of all, the creator of one of America’s most longstanding terrorist organizations.

Just because Forrest’s thaws don’t strike me as historically significant, however, doesn’t mean I would say the same for all Confederate veterans. I’ve elsewhere made the case, for example, for why and how we should better remember James Longstreet’s impressive post-war evolutions. Even more striking, and to my mind even more impressive, were the second-act shifts of another Confederate general, William Mahone. My fellow blogger and public scholar Kevin Levin tells Mahone’s story (in the article linked above at Mahone’s name) much better than I can here, but the sweep of it can be summed up in two details: the former railroad engineer Mahone rose to prominence leading the Confederates to victory in the Battle of the Crater, another of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most brutal battles; and yet in the post-war era he became a leader instead of Virginia’s Readjuster Party, a political coalition of African Americans, Republicans, and Democrats that offered a profoundly different vision of Southern politics and identity than most of the period’s trends and narratives. In 1881 Mahone helped the Readjusters elect both a new Virginia governor (William Cameron) and himself as a US Senator.

There are lots of reasons why I find Mahone’s shifts as impressive and inspiring as I do, but I would highlight two in particular here. For one thing, I can’t imagine a better example of going against the popular trend—not only in Virginia and the South, which by 1881 were well on their way to the dominance of Jim Crow and all its accompanying histories; but throughout the nation, which likewise was well on the way to becoming “distinctly Confederate in sympathy” (as Albion TourgĂ©e famously put it in an 1888 essay). And for another, related thing, Mahone’s post-war choices and actions exposed him to unrelenting criticism and hatred from many throughout the state that had been and would remain his lifelong home (and in the 19th century development of which he had served a key role). To do something unpopular, at great personal cost, seems to me one of the most difficult and most admirable choices a person can make. The Readjuster Party may have faded in the century’s final years, but Mahone’s efforts, and the personal, political, and historical shifts they exemplified, have left a far longer and deeper legacy for us to remember and respect.

Next thaw tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?

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