The Civil War and Virginian Third Party Politics

A young man named W. C. McClellan, writing home after the Battle of the Crater, described the massacre that was committed there by the Confederate army against African-American Union prisoners. During this incident, which is recorded in Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb, another soldier had already killed several times when a horrified officer rode up and begged him “for God’s sake stop.” McClellan noted that his bloodthirsty comrade, not missing a beat, calmly requested permission to “let me kill one more,” then without waiting for an answer “deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut one’s throat.”

The name of that anonymous war criminal is lost to history. The officer who unsuccessfully attempted to intervene, on the other hand, had yet to truly begin his time in the spotlight. This was Brigadier General William Mahone, who, after the war, reinvented his public image as a champion of the downtrodden by founding one of America’s first truly successful third parties of the modern political system.

Who was Mahone? He was a civil engineer, working mainly on railroads. He was very short and had a very long beard. He was, at odds to his later career, a slaveholder, and an officer pledged to the service of a white supremacist armed insurrection; the Confederacy itself, regardless of what might be said by Lost Cause historians, was described in its own time as being explicitly founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” Yet William Mahone, unlike many ex-Confederates who accepted amnesty and returned to politics, did so on a platform of egalitarianism, and openly accepted African-Americans into his party.

During the Reconstruction era, the state of Virginia was thrust into a complicated situation regarding the payment of its debt incurred prior to the war. In particular, there was a long-running dispute with West Virginia over what portion of the debt was to be shouldered by the newly-independent state. Conservative politicians in Virginia advocated taking responsibility for the entire sum of the pre-war debt as a matter of personal honor. They were opposed by the Readjuster faction, which supported passing off at least some of the debt to West Virginia, thus freeing up funds to be used in rebuilding Virginia’s ruined infrastructure. This movement quickly built into an organized party, with William Mahone at its head.

Today, the most popular third party in the United States is the Vermont Progressive Party, which currently holds multiple seats in the Vermont state legislature and in local government but has never successfully entered national politics. (Senator Bernie Sanders is officially unaffiliated with any political party, though for seniority and committee purposes he caucuses as a Democrat.) In comparison, the Readjuster Party did even better: they won majorities in the Virginia state legislature, elected William E. Cameron as governor, and sent two Readjusters to the United States Senate (Harrison Riddleberger and William Mahone). With their political power, they moved to unilaterally renounce about a third of Virginia’s debt (the issue was settled after decades in litigation), conducted an armed campaign against oyster pirates from Maryland, and began a program of public improvement, including the establishment of Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia.

With the end of Reconstruction, unfortunately, the Readjuster Party lost its hold on Virginia’s state government. African-American voters in particular were restricted from voting as the Jim Crow laws imposed many of the same oppressive social structures that existed before the Civil War. Though William Mahone himself remained active in local politics until his death in 1895, he never again held public office. Statues were erected in honor of men such as Lee, Jackson, and Davis, but William Mahone languishes in obscurity.

Tear down the statues if you must, or place them in storage where they would best belong. A century and a half since the end of the Civil War, it is high time that Virginians should pause and think about whom they wish to memorialize from their history. Should we honor the relics of a long-dead past which stands at odds to the progress we have made as a society? Or shall we instead keep alive in our memories a man who turned back from evil -- who, in his public career, devoted himself to reaching for change and progress?