historian, author, film producer

Sen. James Murray Mason, Black Labor, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

On a recent research trip to the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, U.K., I was working through the papers of William Schaw Lindsay, the M.P. who was the most vocal supporter of the Confederacy in Parliament. Lindsay traveled widely in the U.S. before the Civil War. Indeed, he was in America during the 1860 Presidential election and as a leading British businessman and representative he met many U.S. politicians. Lindsay corresponded with numerous Americans during the secession crisis. In 1861 he gave a speech at the North Shields Mechanic’s Institute on “America and the Americans” in which he argued that the separation of the North and South was permanent, that war was avoidable if Britain and others intervened, and that while slavery was abominable the North had no intention of eliminating or abolishing the institution. Taking Lincoln at his word, Lindsay thought slavery would not be touched in the states in which it existed. As for the future promise of America, it lay in the west. He traveled the Illinois Central Railroad in 1860 and observed first-hand “as far as the eye could see” the open lands on the prairie. This was a land of huge potential, he told his British listeners, and separation without war was preferable to a tragic national bloodbath. On his tour through America in the fall of 1860, Lindsay met Virginia’s leading U.S. senator–James M. Mason. Then, during the war he hosted Mason who as the Confederacy’s lead diplomat sought British recognition for the Confederate States.

Header from James M. Mason December 21, 1869 letter to William Schaw Lindsay from "Clarens"

William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


The story of Mason’s failed diplomatic overtures is well known. His capture aboard the R.M.S. Trent prompted an international storm over the U.S. violation of Britain’s neutral rights. But Mason’s life after the collapse of the Confederacy was lived out of the public gaze.

I was surprised to see in the Lindsay papers a letter from Mason dated December 20, 1869 from “Clarens, near Alexandria.” Because I grew up at Clarens in the 1970s, the heading on the letter jumped out and caught my eye. I knew that Mason once owned Clarens. In fact, the legend of the place was that Mason never sat on the north-facing front porch because it looked out over the Potomac at Washington, D.C., the capital city Mason despised so much. Mason told Lindsay that while Clarens was a beautiful property, “the feature that mars all is that we are but eight miles distant from Washington, that nest of serpents + which is in full view but I have no communication with them.” So part of the Clarens legend had been confirmed–Mason had no love for the nation’s capital.

Mason’s home before the war broke out was in Winchester, Virginia, and, as he explained to his friend Lindsay, it was “destroyed, or rather obliterated, by the invaders.” After the war Mason stayed in Britain into 1866, a Confederate without a country, then went to Canada, where he and his family waited. Their waiting, according to his daughter Virginia Mason’s account, was an “exile” from their homeland–the South. But Mason, like Jubal Early and the other former Confederate leaders and officials waiting in Canada, waited because they were officially not extended amnesty until July 1868.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


Deciding in 1869 to return to Virginia, Mason bought Clarens. The property adjoined that of his friend, the former Confederate General Samuel Cooper and was near the Episcopal Seminary, where other friends resided. “I gave for the whole establishment nine thousand dollars” in greenbacks, Mason told Lindsay in his letter about the purchase of Clarens. The greenbacks were his only remaining money, he confessed, and came from his wife’s family assets held in Pennsylvania through the war.

Mason described Clarens in this way: “an old residence, large + commodius home well built of brick + in good repair, ample lawns with venerable trees, and the garden (we call here the garden that which is appropriate to vegetables for the kitchen), good orchards of fruits pertaining to the South, including grapes with their trellises, The whole comprises nearly thirty acres of land. The side on the first high lands receding from the Potomac River distant two miles and of which on its summits commands a view of many miles. Our nearest town is Alexandria, one of the oldest towns on the Potomac, where there is good society and at the distance given above.”

Although he said nothing about whether he intended to rock on the front porch overlooking Washington or not, Mason did make a particular vow in his letter to Lindsay. “The poor negroes since they were manumitted are of course worthless, or rather worse than worthless,” Mason declared, “I have none of them in my service, and do not, however deeply I regret the necessity, intend to have.” Mason had brought “domestic servants (women) from Canada” and he intended to hire whites only. Negroes, he believed, were “the great curse of the country.” The fact that Reconstruction brought black voting particularly offended him; it was, he thought, the rule of the mob and the “end of the republic.”

With such convictions and with such vows, Mason lived another two years and died at Clarens in April 1871. Whether he rocked on the front porch or not, he likely did not employ any freedmen. Years later in 1906 Mason’s daughter Virginia compiled his letters into a published account of his life, and she passed on her father’s views to the next generation. She presented the plight of Southern whites as the main drama of the post war South–“their former homes reduced to ruins, and to be themselves reduced to the condition of quiet submission while ignorant and irresponsible negroes elected men to fill all the offices.” (The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason, p. 589)

James M. Mason’s strongly-held convictions about Clarens and the all-white labor force he employed there after the war set in motion a range of stories and ideas that suggested the limitations of Reconstruction and the profound resistance to change many Southern whites would exhibit in the coming years and decades. The war itself had been fought over the control of black labor–in the form of slavery. The post war South too would fight over the control of black labor. Newspapers were filled in the years after the war with urgent pleadings from the white South that it must have black labor or its entire economy would not move. It may not have occurred to James M. Mason that with their emancipation Alexandria’s blacks might share similar convictions and make similar vows as well–that they might never work for him even if he wanted them to.