A Murky Legacy: Confederate Generals Who Fought To Uphold Slavery Later Helped Black Virginians
Editor's Note: This story was written and produced as part of a partnership with Virginia Media.
By Sam Turken and Lisa Vernon Sparks
Not much is written in Virginia’s history books about William Mahone, a general who fought with the Confederate states during the Civil War.
He led an attack against the Union Army in 1864 during the Battle of the Crater. Thousands of troops died, and hundreds of Black soldiers were massacred.
But there is another story about Mahone that is rarely told, historians say.
Post-Civil War, Mahone entered politics and led the Readjuster Party in Virginia. The group advocated for readjusting Virginia’s debt and built a biracial coalition on the might of Black voters following Reconstruction. In 1879, the party controlled the legislature during a time when many Blacks held state office. Mahone gained a seat in the U.S. Senate. The party’s mission was to reduce Virginia’s bulging debt and reestablish public education, rebuild the infrastructure and create jobs.
“African Americans are voting in the largest numbers. They are sitting in public office. They are in classrooms, teaching Black students, the largest number of which go into public schools,” said Kevin M. Levin, a Boston-based historian specializing in the American Civil War and the history of Confederate monuments.
In Gloucester County, Thomas Calhoun Walker, born a slave, trained as a lawyer in the 1880s. Remarkably, two former Confederate officers — Benjamin F. Bland and William Booth Taliaferro — carved out that path for him, historian and Gloucester Museum of History coordinator W. Robert Kelly Jr. said.
Taliaferro mentored Walker, and after he passed the Virginia Bar exam, he gave Walker a job at his firm, making him the first Black lawyer in that county.
Mahone, Taliaferro and Bland vehemently fought to uphold slavery in Virginia during the Civil War. They supported Virginia’s succession from the Union in 1861. Yet their post-war actions that benefited thousands of Black Virginians appear to place them in a unique class. As the nation continues to scrutinize segregationist tributes, these men leave murky legacies.
“Being educated, being lawyers, having experienced the war, I think they realized whether they liked it or not, the United States and their state Virginia was changing,” Kelly, the historian from Gloucester said, speaking primarily about Taliaferro and Bland. “They realized that change would mean new and different opportunities for African Americans. They were educated. They were smart. I think they realized change was coming.”
Speaking of Mahone, Levin added: “He ends up leading, in my mind, the most successful biracial political party of the 19th century. It transforms Virginia politics. One reason why it might be helpful to remember Mahone is because he offers a reminder of what was possible in the decades after the Civil War — that there was another future that was within grasp.”
Tributes to Mahone include an eastern portion of U.S. 460 that runs through Suffolk to Petersburg. The roadway runs along the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, which Mahone led. There is also a monument in his honor on a Civil War battlefield near Petersburg.
It is unclear if there is any organized effort to remove tributes to Mahone. A portrait of Bland, who served as state senator representing Gloucester and Middlesex, hangs in the Old Middlesex County courthouse.
Taliaferro, whose name is pronounced as if it were spelled “Tolliver,” was a graduate of the College of William & Mary and was a rector of its Board of Visitors. He has a residence hall named for him.
The university on Thursday adopted principles on the naming and renaming of buildings, spaces and structures. Regarding Taliaferro Hall, there is still some uncertainty, but it will be a part of that review process, university spokesman Brian Whitson said in an email.
Lawyer Walker Enters The Courtroom
In 1883, standing without representation in a Gloucester courthouse, Mary Manly, a Black 14-year-old girl faced burglary changes. A white judge doled out a two-year prison sentence.
Thomas Calhoun Walker, then 22, heard about her plight. The Hampton Institute-educated teacher later recalled feeling “a wave of personal shame and moral fury,” he wrote in his autobiography “The Honey-Pod Tree,” published in 1958. “I cannot get the case of that young girl out of my mind. My determination to become a lawyer never wavered.”
Walker met Benjamin F. Bland first. He was a bachelor and worked as a lawyer in his native Gloucester, Kelly said. Walker initially did menial tasks for Bland and describes their first encounter in his autobiography.
“I saw the Major out in his yard trying to cut up some wood. I stopped and offered to do this chore for him, but he refused, saying, rather coldly, that he did not want any ‘college man’ waiting on him. This could only mean that he disapproved of higher education for Negroes‚” Kelly shared from Walker’s autobiography.
Walker continued to help Bland, regardless, while taking no pay. Walker asked Bland if he thought he would make a good lawyer. Impressed with Walker, Bland agreed and began teaching him.
“Bland actually purchases legal books for T.C. Walker for him to study. Bland and Walker begin meeting two nights a week over the course of three years,” Kelly said. “Bland not only has provided these books, but now he’s actually providing legal education and legal training to this former slave man. This Confederate Major (is) educating a former enslaved person on the legal system.”
Bland became ill, but connected Walker with Taliaferro, who had taken note of Walker’s abilities and agreed to continue with lessons. A friendship bloomed.
An excerpt from Walker’s autobiography says, “When he and I were both working in his library, he would open up a discussion with me on my personal problems as a Negro. It was just as if I were white or he were not a former Confederate General. We even discussed the slave system for hours at a stretch.”
Walker went on to represent hundreds of Black people, including many cases of men being falsely accused of sexually assaulting white women, according to a biography on the National Park Services website. He became a fierce advocate for education, held local office in Gloucester County and served in two presidential administrations. One appointment that earned him the nickname “Black Governor of Virginia.”
Mahone, a Southampton native, went back to his previous work in railroad ventures following the war and onset of Reconstruction.
Meanwhile Virginia’s debt had ballooned to $33 million, mostly from state-backed bonds. Conservative interests wanted it paid off as soon as possible, while others had a different vision — Mahone among them.
“There’s another group of people who are much more interested in beginning to see Virginia become a bit more progressive,” Levin said. “They want to see the development of roads. They want to see internal improvements and other kinds of infrastructure. Rather than pay down the entire debt, they want to just pay down part of it, or so-called readjusted. And that’s where the name Readjuster comes from.”
Concurrently, Blacks began exercising newly found freedom, assured at least on paper by constitutional amendments. They sought opportunities, voted in large numbers and gained seats in Virginia’s legislature, Levin said. The Readjuster party helped establish Virginia's first Black university — the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, later renamed Virginia State University.
“It’s a transformative moment,” Levin said. “It’s an interesting life, given where Mahone starts out, especially his experience during the war, and where he ends up. I think Mahone sees a political opportunity in aligning himself with African Americans. In the early 1880s, when they control the state apparatus, it’s a marriage of interest more than it is Mahone coming to terms with his racism and having fought for a country that was trying to establish an independent slave holding republic, which is exactly what the Confederacy was fighting to create.”
But Mahone and his party were viewed as a threat to white political power and Virginia’s racial hierarchy. After four years, the Readjusters lost control, and Mahone was defeated in Congress. After the turn of the 20th century, Virginia rewrote its constitution.
“When they rewrote the state constitution, they barred the vast majority of African Americans who had been voting throughout the state,” Levin said. “In a sense, the rewriting of that constitution undercuts all the work that the Readjusters had accomplished.”
Murky Legacies Debated
Walking on the William & Mary campus’ quiet grounds, alumna Phyllis Terrell, who is Black, recalls moving into Taliaferro Hall as a freshman during America’s bicentennial.
At the time, the school stressed the proper enunciation of Taliaferro’s name to new students, but nothing about who Taliaferro was or his connection to T.C. Walker, she said.
It does not surprise her that a building at W&M, in Virginia, would be named for a Confederate general. Whether he deserves a pass for his help to Walker is another matter.
“I’m not sure. Was he doing it to genuinely be redeemed? And I’m not sure I’m the one to judge,” she said.
The school laid the cornerstone for Taliaferro Hall in 1934, and the brick building was completed a year later. Terrell questioned the need to keep memorializing a war that did not end well for the Confederacy at taxpayers’ expense.
“The difficult or surprising piece to start to understand is that how could families or persons or organizations have that sort of mindset,” she said.
Regardless if the university removes the name, Terrell said she would appreciate seeing a fuller account of his story.
Mahone, other than the highway and battlefield monument, has all but been erased from Virginia’s memory, Levin said.
“If you read his obituaries, people were very, very split on his legacy,” he said. “I went through Virginia history textbooks throughout the first half of the 20th century. There is not a word about him. He is completely erased from the historical landscape, at least in the classroom.”
Virginia Delegate Josh Cole, D-Fredericksburg, who is Black, said celebrating segregationists, who even after the Civil War perpetuated those beliefs, needs to change.
But for others who fall in the middle, such as Mahone and Taliaferro, perhaps it’s worth a closer look.
“You’re now stuck with a dilemma. I do believe it brings, you know, some complexity into the discussion and the decision-making process,” Cole said. “If you found out that in their later years, they did some great work, you know, for racial reconciliation, some people may not want to change the name after that.”