The Revolutionary Spirit of Billy Mahone

Published:July 14, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

One of the more remarkable figures in Virginia history made a surprise appearance this weekend in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. Writing about the legacy of Reconstruction (in response to an earlier review about the Colfax massacre), Stanford professor Carl Degler cites William Mahone and the case of Virginia. In particular, he notes “the spirit of revolutionary Reconstruction” as exhibited by “the establishment, from 1880 to 1883, of the black and white Readjuster government” in the state.

The Readjusters, led by William Mahone, a Confederate major general who had accepted Appomattox, transformed Virginia both politically and socially. They developed mental hospitals separately for blacks and whites, as well as public schools. They abolished whipping posts and the poll tax, lowered taxes for farmers of both races and enabled blacks as well as whites to serve on juries, work in state offices and serve as policemen and prison guards. As happened in Reconstruction, the Readjusters were defeated by vicious and fraudulent appeals to white superemacy [this one time the typo belongs to the Times –Ed.], ending in the Danville riot in 1883.

Mahone is certainly one of the more fascinating figures of the Civil War and Reconstruction period in Virginia, and it’s outrageous that there’s no biography of him. Kevin Levin, who is working on Encyclopedia Virginia’s Mahone entry, insists that he would write one, but for one, rather high hurdle.