A prominent Confederate officer, Major General William Mahone served in nearly all of the major campaigns and battles in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.
William Mahone was born on December 1, 1826, at Brown's Ferry, near Courtland, in extreme southeastern Virginia. He was the only son and the second of three children born to Fielding Jordan Mahone and Martha (née Drew) Mahone.
Mahone's family was of Irish ancestry and had a military background. Both of Mahone’s grandfathers served in the War of 1812, and his father commanded a militia regiment during Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831.
In 1840, Mahone's family moved to Jerusalem, Virginia, where the elder Mahone became the owner and operator of a local tavern. There, young William earned his reputation as an accomplished gambler who could hold his drink. When not cultivating his vices, Mahone obtained his primary education from the local schoolmaster, while receiving special instruction in mathematics from his father.
Before attaining the age of eighteen years, Mahone enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute on July 20, 1844, being the recipient of a state scholarship. He graduated three years later on July 5, 1847, standing eighth out of his class of twelve cadets. Following his graduation, Mahone pursued advanced engineering studies at Rappahannock Military Academy, where he also served as a teacher.
In 1849, Mahone found employment as an engineer working for the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Within four years, he rose to the position of chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.
On February 8, 1855, Mahone married Otelia Butler of Smithfield, in southeastern Virginia. The couple remained married for forty years and produced thirteen children, three of whom survived to adulthood. By 1860, Mahone and his wife were leading a comfortable life in Norfolk, Virginia, where they owned seven slaves, and he was employed as president of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.
As sectional tensions between the North and the South increased during the 1850s, Mahone became a proponent of secession. Twelve days after Virginia’s Secession Convention voted to leave the Union, Mahone was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel of the 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment stationed near Norfolk. Three days later, on May 2, 1861, he attained the rank of colonel.
Standing somewhere between five feet five and five feet six inches tall and weighing little more than one hundred pounds, Mahone was a stern but not imposing leader. Due to his small stature, Malone's men referred to him as "Little Billy," although possibly without much affection. Due to his strict disciplinary policies throughout the war, he was reportedly not popular among his troops. Still he rose quickly to the rank of brigadier-general, earning his first star on November 16, 1861.
Mahone's brigade was stationed in Virginia's Tidewater area during the early part of the war and did not see much action. In May 1862, they were redeployed for garrison duty near Richmond, where the defenses they assisted in constructing contributed to the Confederate victory at the Battle of Drewry's Bluff on May 15, 1862. A few weeks later, Mahone led his brigade into combat at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862) and the subsequent Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862), which concluded the Peninsula Campaign.
In August 1862, Mahone was wounded during the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28–30, 1862), causing him to miss the Maryland Campaign, including the bloody Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). After convalescing for two months, Mahone returned to action in time to command his brigade without much acclaim at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), and throughout the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864), and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864).
Mahone was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1863. Although he nominally served until 1865, his military duties prevented him from becoming an active legislator.
During the Petersburg Campaign (June 1864-March 1865), Mahone's star began to shine. On the first day of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21-23, 1864), Mahone's brigade moved undetected through a gap in the Union lines and sent the Northern foes into a panicked retreat.
At the Battle of Ream’s Station I (June 29, 1864), Mahone's infantry attacked the combined Union cavalry commands of Brigadier-General James Wilson and Brigadier-General August Kautz. During the ensuing chaos, the Federal command structure dissolved, and the Yankees were forced to burn their supply wagons and to abandon their artillery as they retreated in disarray.
On July 30, 1864, after Union troops blasted a hole in the Confederate defenses around Petersburg during the Battle of the Crater, Confederate General Robert E. Lee dispatched two infantry brigades commanded by Mahone to fill the void. Mahone's soldiers arrived at the scene and immediately began driving the few Yankees who had escaped the crater back into the chasm of death. Throughout the morning and midday, the Confederates rained a hail of lead on the living, wounded, and dead Federal soldiers baking under the blazing sun. Shortly after 1 p.m., Mahone ordered a charge into the crater that resulted in a bloody struggle, featuring fixed bayonets and rifle butts, before the Bluecoats submitted. By the end of the battle, the Federals suffered nearly four thousand casualties (killed, wounded and captured), compared with approximately 1,500 losses for the Confederates. Especially hard hit were the United States Colored Troops, who lost 1,327 soldiers, some of whom were murdered as they attempted to surrender or after they were captured. Mahone's role in the atrocities committed remains undetermined. Regardless, Lee lauded Mahone's performance and rewarded him with a long-coveted promotion to major general, effective July 30, 1864.
Following his promotion, Mahone's division exploited a gap in the Federal defenses during the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18-21, 1864). Although the Federals eventually prevailed, Mahone's troopers captured nearly two brigades of Yankee soldiers.
On August 25, 1864, at the Battle of Ream’s Station II, Mahone 's division punched a hole in the Union lines, sending two Federal brigades in a panicked retreat. The Southerners also captured nearly two thousand Bluecoats.
At the Battle of Boydton Plank Road (October 27 – 28, 1864), Mahone's division was instrumental in fending off a massive Union assault aimed at severing the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad south of Petersburg.
On February 6, at the Battle of Hatcher's Run (February 5-7, 1865), Mahone’s division, supported by Major General W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee's cavalry, attacked the Union 5th Corps near Dabney's Mill. The Yankees repulsed the initial onslaught and drove the Greycoats back, but a Confederate counterattack halted the Federal momentum. A second Rebel attack sent the Bluecoats reeling back.
Due to Mahone's conspicuous performance throughout the Petersburg Campaign, Lee considered him as one of his most trusted divisional commanders by the time of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Following the war, Mahone resurrected his railroad career. By 1867, he was president of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, South Side Railroad, and the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. In 1870, the aspiring railroad tycoon successfully lobbied the Virginia legislature to receive authorization to combine the three companies into the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad (AM&O). When the Panic of 1873 occurred, the new line struggled and went into receivership before eventually sold at auction in 1881.
During the midst of his economic troubles, Mahone reentered the political arena. In 1877, he made a failed attempt to capture the Conservative Party's nomination for governor of Virginia. Afterward, he cobbled together a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans who sought to reduce Virginia's enormous war debt by paying a reduced percentage of what was actually owed. Known as the Readjuster Party, Mahone's followers took control of the Virginia legislature in 1879. The state senate then selected Mahone to serve in the United States Senate, beginning on March 4, 1881. Mahone served one term in the upper house, losing his bid for reelection in 1886 to Democrat John W. Daniel. During his term, Mahone helped obtain funds for the establishment of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute near Petersburg, the forerunner of Virginia State University.
After leaving the Senate, Mahone made another failed bid to become Virginia's governor in 1889. Following his defeat, Mahone retired from politics and concentrated on his business ventures.
On September 30, 1895, Mahone suffered a stroke while visiting Washington, DC. He recovered temporarily, but he lapsed into unconsciousness on October 6. He died two days later, with his wife and family at his bedside. Mahone's body was transported to Petersburg, where he was buried at Blandford Cemetery.
Cite this Entry
"William Mahone," Ohio Civil War Central, 2019, Ohio Civil War Central. 25 Aug 2019 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1115>
"William Mahone." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 25, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1115
- August Kautz
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Boydton Plank Road
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Battle of Globe Tavern
- Battle of Hatcher's Run
- Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road
- Battle of Seven Pines
- Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
- Battle of the Crater
- Maryland Campaign
- Overland Campaign
- Peninsula Campaign
- Petersburg Campaign
- Robert E. Lee
- Surrender at Appomattox Court House
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