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 received his primary education from the local schoolmaster, while getting special instruction in mathematics from his father.
Virginia Military Institute Graduate
Before reaching the age of eighteen years, Mahone received a state scholarship to the Virginia Military Institute, which he entered on July 20, 1844. 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 worked 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, Confederate officials commissioned Mahone 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 a little over one hundred pounds, Mahone was a stern but not imposing leader. Many of Mahone’s men referred to him as “Little Billy,” possibly with little affection. Because of 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 served in Virginia’s Tidewater area during the early part of the war and did not see much action. In May 1862, officials redeployed them for garrison duty near Richmond. The defenses they helped construct there 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.
Wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run
In August 1862, Mahone was wounded during the Second Battle of Bull Run (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 with little 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).
In 1863, voters elected Mahone to the Virginia Senate. 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 First Battle of Ream’s Station (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. The Yankees burned their supply wagons and abandoned their artillery as they retreated in disarray.
Battle of the Crater
On July 30, 1864, after Union troops tunneled under Confederate defenses around Petersburg and detonated a blast that created a gaping chasm over 170 feet long, sixty feet wide, and thirty feet deep. It instantly killed at least 278 Rebel soldiers, blowing some of them as high as 100 feet in the air. Union leaders rushed soldiers into the crater they created. Confederate General Robert E. Lee dispatched two infantry brigades commanded by Mahone to fill the void in the Rebel line. When Mahone’s soldiers arrived, they drove the Yankees trying to escape the pit back into what became a 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 4,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured), compared with roughly 1,500 losses for the Confederates. The United States Colored Troops lost 1,327 soldiers. Rebel soldiers murdered black soldiers as they sought to surrender or after capturing them. Mahone’s role in the atrocity remains undetermined. Nevertheless, Lee lauded Mahone’s performance and rewarded him with a long-coveted promotion to major general, effective July 30, 1864.
Battle of Globe Tavern
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.
Second Battle of Ream’s Station
On August 25, 1864, at the Second Battle of Ream’s Station, Mahone’s division punched a hole in the Union lines, sending two Federal brigades in a panicked retreat. The Southerners also captured nearly 2,000 Bluecoats.
Battle of Boydton Plank Road
At the Battle of Boydton Plank Road (October 27–28, 1864), Mahone’s division helped to fend off a massive Union assault aimed at severing the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad south of Petersburg.
Battle of Hatcher’s Run
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.
Surrender at Appomattox Court House
Because of Mahone’s stellar 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). During the financial Panic of 1873, the new line struggled and went into receivership before being sold at auction in 1881.
During the midst of his economic troubles, Mahone reentered the political arena. In 1877, he failed 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. 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 U.S. Senate, being replaced in 1886 to Democrat John W. Daniel. During his term, Mahone helped secure 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. The family had Mahone’s body transported to Petersburg, where it was buried at Blandford Cemetery.