William Mahone

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William Mahone
Born December 1, 1826
Southampton County, Virginia, USA
Died October 8, 1895
Washington, D.C.

William Mahone ( December 1, 1826 – October 8, 1895), of Southampton County, Virginia, was a civil engineer, teacher, soldier, railroad executive, and a member of the Virginia General Assembly and U.S. Congress.

As a civil engineer, he helped build Virginia's roads and railroads in the antebellum and postbellum ( Reconstruction) periods of the 19th century.

During the American Civil War, as a leader eventually attaining the rank of major general of the Confederate States Army, Mahone is best known for turning the tide of the Battle of the Crater against the Union advance during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864.

Mahone became a political leader in Virginia, led the Readjuster Party, and helped obtain funding, in 1881, for a teacher's school that later grew to become Virginia State University. Small of stature, he was nicknamed "Little Billy".

Childhood, education

William Mahone was born in Monroe in Southampton County, Virginia, to Fielding Jordan Mahone and Martha (née Drew) Mahone. The little town of Monroe was on the banks of the Nottoway River about eight miles south of Jerusalem (now Courtland), the county seat. Fielding Mahone ran a store at Monroe and owned considerable farmland. In 1840, the family moved to Jerusalem, where Fielding Mahone ran a tavern. There, the freckled-faced youth of Irish-American heritage gained a reputation for gambling and a prolific use of tobacco and profanity.

Young Billy Mahone gained his primary education from a country schoolmaster but with special instruction in math from his father. For a short time, he transported the U. S. Mail by horseback from his hometown to Hicksford, now Emporia. He was awarded a spot as a state cadet at the recently opened Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, and graduated with a degree as a civil engineer in the Class of 1847.

Civil engineer, railroad builder, family

Mahone worked as a teacher at Rappahannock Academy in Caroline County, Virginia beginning in 1848, but was actively seeking an entry into civil engineering. He did some work helping locate the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, an 88-mile line between Gordonsville, Virginia, and the City of Alexandria. Having performed well with the new railroad, was hired to build a plank road between Fredericksburg and Gordonsville.

In 1853, he was hired by Dr. Francis Mallory of Norfolk, as chief engineer to build the new Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad (N&P). Mahone's innovative 12 mile-long roadbed through the Great Dismal Swamp between South Norfolk and Suffolk employed a log foundation laid at right angles beneath the surface of the swamp. Still in use 150 years later, Mahone's corduroy design withstands immense tonnages of modern coal traffic. He was also responsible for engineering and building the famous 52 mile-long tangent track between Suffolk and Petersburg. With no curves, it is a major artery of modern Norfolk Southern rail traffic.

In 1854, Mahone surveyed and laid out with streets and lots of Ocean View City, a new resort town fronting on the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk County. With the advent of electric streetcars in the late 19th century, an amusement park was developed there and a boardwalk was built along the adjacent beach area. Most of Mahone's street plan is still in use in the 21st century as Ocean View, now a section of the City of Norfolk, is redeveloped.

In 1855, Mahone married Otelia Butler (1835 – 1911), the daughter of the late Dr. Robert Butler from Smithfield. Young Otelia is said to have been a cultured lady. She and William settled in Norfolk, where they lived for most of the years before the Civil War. They had 13 children, but only 3 survived to adulthood, two sons, William Jr. and Robert, and a daughter, also named Otelia.

The Mahone family escaped the yellow fever epidemic that broke out in the summer of 1855 and killed almost a third of the populations of Norfolk and Portsmouth by staying with his mother some distance away in Courtland. However, the decimated citizenry of Norfolk had difficulty in meeting financial obligations, and work on their new railroad to Petersburg almost came to a standstill. Ever frugal, Mahone and his mentor Dr. Mallory nevertheless pushed the project to completion.

Popular legend has it that Otelia and William Mahone traveled along the newly completed railroad naming stations from Ivanhoe and other books she was reading written by Sir Walter Scott. From his historical Scottish novels, she chose the place names of Windsor, Waverly, and Wakefield. She tapped the Scottish Clan "McIvor" for the name of Ivor, a small Southampton County town. When they reached a location where they could not agree, it is said that the name Disputanta was created. The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was completed in 1858, and Mahone was named its president a short time later.

According to some records, in 1860, Mahone owned 7 slaves, all black: 3 male (ages 13, 4, 2), 4 female (ages 45, 24, 11, 1). Nevertheless, during the Civil War and after, he showed an empathy for African American soldiers and former slaves that was atypical for the times, and worked diligently for their fair treatment and education.

"Little Billy": Hero of the Battle of the Crater

William Mahone
William Mahone

As the political differences between Northern and Southern factions escalated in the second half of the 19th century, Mahone was in favour of secession of the southern states. During the American Civil War, he was active in the actual conflict even before he became an officer in the Confederate Army. Early in the War, in 1861, his Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was especially valuable to the Confederacy and transported ordnance to the Norfolk area where it was used during the Confederate occupation. By the end of the war, most of what was left of the railroad was in Federal hands.

After Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Mahone helped bluff the Federal troops into abandoning the Gosport Shipyard in Portsmouth by running a single passenger train into Norfolk with great noise and whistle-blowing, then much more quietly, sending it back west, and then returning the same train again, creating the illusion of large numbers of arriving troops to the Federals listening in Portsmouth across the Elizabeth River (and just barely out of sight). The ruse worked, and not a single Confederate soldier was lost as the Union authorities abandoned the area, and retreated to Fort Monroe across Hampton Roads. After this, Mahone accepted a commission as Lieutenant Colonel and later Colonel of the 6th Virginia Infantry Regiment in the Confederate Army. He commanded the Confederate's Norfolk district until its evacuation. He was promoted to brigadier general in November 1861.

In May 1862, after the evacuation of Norfolk by Southern forces during the Peninsula Campaign, he aided in the construction of the defenses of Richmond on the James River around Drewry's Bluff. A short time later, he led his brigade at the Battle of Seven Pines and the Battle of Malvern Hill. He also fought at Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

William Mahone was widely regarded as the hero of the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, during the Siege of Petersburg of 1864–65. Former Pennsylvania coal miners in the Union army tunneled under the Confederate line and blew it up in a massive explosion, killing and wounding many Confederates and breaching a key point in the defense line around Petersburg. However, they lost their initial advantage and Mahone rallied the remaining Confederate forces nearby, repelling the attack. After beginning as an innovative initiative, the Crater scheme turned into a terrible loss for the Union leaders. He was promoted to a major general as a result, and was with Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for the surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

Small of stature, 5 foot 5 or 6 inches, and weighing only 100 lb (45 kg), he was nicknamed "Little Billy". As one of his soldiers put it, "He was every inch a soldier, though there were not many inches of him." Otelia Mahone was working in Richmond as a nurse, when Virginia Governor John Letcher sent word that Mahone had been injured at Second Bull Run, but had only received a "flesh wound." She is said to have replied "Now I know it is serious for William has no flesh whatsoever." Otelia and their children moved to Petersburg to be near him during the final campaign of the War in 1864-65.

Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad

After the war, Lee advised his generals to go back to work rebuilding the Southern economy. William Mahone did just that, and became the driving force in the linkage of N&P, South Side Railroad, and the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. He was president of all three by the end of 1867. During the post-war Reconstruction period, he worked diligently lobbying the Virginia General Assembly to gain the legislation necessary to form the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad (AM&O), a new line comprised of the three railroads he headed, extending 408 miles from Norfolk to Bristol, Virginia, in 1870. The Mahones were colorful characters: the letters A, M & O were said to stand for "All Mine and Otelia's". They lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, during this time, but moved back to Petersburg in 1872.

The Financial Panic of 1873 put the A,M & O into conflict with its bondholders in England and Scotland. After several years of operating under receiverships, Mahone's role as a railroad builder ended, in 1881, when Philapdelphia-based interests outbid him and purchased the A,M & O, renaming it Norfolk and Western. Although he lost control of the railroad, Mahone was able to arrange for a portion of the State's proceeds of the sale to help found a school to prepare teachers to help educate black children and former slaves. The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute near Petersburg was forerunner of Virginia State College, which expanded to become Virginia State University. He also retained personal ownership of investments linked to the N&W's development of the rich coal fields of western Virginia and southern West Virginia, contributing to his rank as one of Virginia's wealthiest men at his death, according to his biographer, author Nelson Blake.

Virginia politics: Readjuster Party, U.S. Senate

William Mahone was active in the economic and political life of Virginia after the Civil War for almost 30 years. He was elected to the Virginia General Assembly as a Delegate from Norfolk in 1863 (during the Civil War). He served as mayor of Petersburg. After his unsuccessful bid for governor in 1877, he became the leader of the Readjuster Party, a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and African-Americans seeking a reduction in Virginia's prewar debt, and an appropriate allocation made to the former portion of the state that constituted the new State of West Virginia. Mahone led the successful effort to elect the Readjuster candidate William E. Cameron as the next governor, and he himself was elected to served as a Senator in the U.S. Congress from 1881 to 1887, when he lost his seat to Democrat John W. Daniel. Once he was seated in Congress, Mahone became affiliated with the Republican Party, and led Virginia delegations to the Republican National Conventions of 1884 and 1888. In 1889, he ran for governor on a Republican ticket, but lost to Democrat Philip W. McKinney. It was to be 80 more years before Virginia sent another non-Democrat to the Governor's Mansion (Republican A. Linwood Holton Jr. in 1969). Although out of office, the seemingly tireless Mahone continued to stay involved in Virginia-related politics until he suffered a catastrophic stroke in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1895. He died a week later, aged 68.

Although Mahone was not to live to see the outcome, for several decades, Virginia and West Virginia disputed the new state's share of the Virginian government's debt. The issue was finally settled in 1915, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50. The final installment of this sum was paid off in 1939.


Mahone mausoleum at Blandford Cemetery, identified by its "M" insignia.
Mahone mausoleum at Blandford Cemetery, identified by its "M" insignia.

William Mahone was interred in the family mausoleum in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. His widow, Otelia, lived until 1911, and was interred alongside him. Due to the political controversies that colored his later life, this hero of the Confederacy is not identified on his family mausoleum by anything more than his initial, "M".

Otelia and William Mahone's first home in Petersburg, originally occupied by John Dodson, Petersburg's mayor in 1851-2, was on South Sycamore St.:it now serves as part of the Petersburg Public Library. In 1874, they acquired and greatly enlarged a home on South Market St. and it was their primary residence thereafter. Virginia State University, which he helped found as a normal school, is a major community presence nearby.

A large portion of U.S. Highway 460 in eastern Virginia (between Petersburg and Suffolk) parallels the 52-mile tangent railroad tracks that Mahone had engineered, passing through some of the towns he and Otelia are believed to have named. Several sections of the road are labeled "General Mahone Boulevard" and "General Mahone Highway" in his honour. A monument to Mahone's Brigade is located on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The site of the Battle of the Crater is a major feature of the National Park Service's Petersburg National Battlefield Park. In 1927, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected an imposing monument to his memory. It stands on the preserved Crater Battlefield, a short distance from the Crater itself. The monument states:

"To the memory of William Mahone, Major General, CSS, a distinguished Confederate Commander, whose valor and strategy at the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864, won for himself and his gallant brigade undying fame."


  • Mahone did not have a middle name as someone has stated. Beginning with the Mahone immigration from Ireland, he was the third individual to be called William Mahone. Primary sources prove that the General's name was William Mahone. These records include his two Bibles, VMI Diploma, Marriage license, and Confederate Army commissions; also, secondary records, eg. Nelson Blake's biography of General Mahone, confirm the name. Likewise, the General's first born son was William Mahone (Jr. added later), no middle name.
  • Mahone was a civilian, and not yet in the Confederate Army, when he orchestrated the ruse and capture of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1861.
  • Mahone suffered from acute dyspepsia all of his life. During the American Civil War, a cow and chickens accompanied him in order to provide dairy products.
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