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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 566

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This is the grave of William Mahone.

Born in 1826 in Brown’s Ferry, Virginia, Mahone grew up in a relatively well-off but not elite family. His father ran a store and owned some land (and I presume some slaves). The family was nearly attacked in Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. His father later owned a tavern, which is where Mahone spent quite a bit of his teenage years, learning a lifelong love of profanity. When the Virginia Military Institute was created, Mahone’s father managed to get his son a spot there, the surest way to rise into the Southern elite class for an already upwardly mobile family. He graduated there in 1847 with a specialty in engineering.

Unlike many VMI graduates though, Mahone didn’t really have a great interest in the military. He started teaching and tried to get a job as a civil engineer. By the early 1850s, he was helping advance the railroad industry through his skills, planning routes and developing innovative techniques to build roads across difficult landscapes such as Virginia’s swamps, some of which are still used today. By the time the Civil War began, Mahone was a pretty well-off professional who owned seven humans, the real standard of prosperity in the South.

Mahone ardently committed treason to defend slavery. As a railroad engineer, he was especially valuable to the Confederacy. He used his tricks of knowing his own railroads to bluff Union troops into thinking the South had many more troops than they did and got them to retreat in Virginia back to Fort Monroe. He rapidly rose to the rank of brigadier general in the treason army. He fought in a bunch of battles, was wounded at Second Manassas, where the tiny man (he weighed maybe 100 pounds) received a flesh wound. He was out of action until Fredericksburg. He was also a very good politician and began rallying for a promotion, but the traitor Lee refused to move him to major general. He was at Gettysburg and was supposed to be part of the charge on Cemetery Ridge, but disobeyed orders and did not engage his troops there. He suffered no punishment for this, in part because his political skills had made him so many friends.

It was Mahone’s troops that wounded James Longstreet in friendly fire at the Wilderness; too bad they weren’t more accurate. At the Crater, that most horrifying of events, it was Mahone who rallied the treason troops after the explosion and this made him a hero in the South. He grew closer to Lee over time and was with him at Appomattox.

After the war, Mahone went back to his railroads, becoming a key figure of the New South in terms of building up its industrial economy. He was involved in several railroad schemes up into the early 1880s. Like the railroads generally during this era, there was a lot of sketchiness and people trying to cheat each other and all sorts of other shenanigans going on. Mahone was as involved in this as anyone else.

So there was very little to really recommend Mahone as an interesting figure over the first several decades of his life. But his politics got really interesting after the Civil War. He became mayor of Petersburg for awhile and ran for governor in 1877, but lost. However, Mahone also started getting frustrated with the backwards-looking white South elite and wanted to build a real modern world in his home state. So he became associated with the Readjusters.

The Readjuster Party was a biracial coalition in Virginia politics in the late 1870s and early 1880s, one of many tenuous and failed attempts to create a biracial politics before Jim Crow was fully implemented by 1900. The initial move of the Readjuster Party was to refinance Virginia’s debts, after the state’s elites passed laws to demand the state pay off its debts in full from the pre-war era; not coincidentally, it was they that held the bonds on these debts that were often for infrastructure destroyed in the war and thus bringing in no money to the state. Like other austerity campaigns, it demanded a lot of sacrifice from the poor to serve the interests of the rich. It quickly moved toward the state making real investments in infrastructure that would build a more successful future state. First and foremost was a major investment in public education that was notably for black schools as well as white. It sought to hire well-educated black teachers to teach black students. It vastly increased funding for higher education too, especially what is today Virginia Tech. The Readjusters abolished both the poll tax and the whipping post. It also reset the state’s tax code to favor small business over the wealthy.

Mahone became the Readjusters’ leading figure. He worked to see his friend and fellow Readjuster William Cameron be elected governor. And with this movement taking over the Virginia statehouse, Mahone got sent to Washington as Senator in 1880. There, he entered a Senate that was evenly divided and since Mahone was happy to work with either party on a given issue, he immediately became a very important figure. Since Republicans wanted him to caucus with them, he demanded and received a key post on the Agriculture Committee and gained total control over the state’s patronage from President Garfield. This gave Republicans control over the Senate. Mahone’s patronage networks set him up as a party boss, which is what he wanted. He ran the Readjusters as his personal machine.

Of course, the state’s conservative establishment despised him and the Readjusters generally. They saw Mahone as a traitor to white supremacy and the cause of the Civil War. It’s unlikely that Mahone really had some great conversion about black rights. His support for them was more likely an expediency based around building a coalition for issues he cared about more and to build his own personal power. Either way, Virginia conservatives were happy to use violence to take back control over the state, which happened in the years after 1883. Mahone would only be a one-term senator, as there was no way he was getting reelected in 1886. He was replaced by the shockingly awful white supremacist John Daniel.

Still, Mahone remained involved in both his railroad plans and his political career until his death in 1895 after a stroke. He ran for governor as a Republican in 1889, but did not win. He was 68 years old when he died.

William Mahone is buried in Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia. I find it somewhat amusing that the United Daughters of the Confederacy or whatever racist organization it is that goes around to southern cemeteries and puts up Confederate flags in 2019 (seriously, these must be the worst people in America) honors Mahone, who was seen as a race traitor in the last 20 years of his life.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. As always, your funding of this series allows it to happen and if you would like to see it continue, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Other people in Mahone’s life include James Longstreet, buried in Gainesville, Georgia, and William Cameron, who Mahone had elected governor, is also in Petersburg. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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