William “Little Billy” Mahone—Part One

Today we welcome back guest author William F. Floyd, Jr. William worked for forty years for the City of Norfolk. In his retirement, he’s now pursuing the study of history at Tidewater Community College. The first in a two-part series.


William "Little Billy" Mahone
William “Little Billy” Mahone

It was late June 1864, when William Mahone’s men were holding the line in front of
Major General David Birney’s Union Second Corps in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Plank Road near Petersburg, Virginia. Mahone watched the slow procession of Yankees with growing impatience, as they moved across the Plank Road, anticipating orders to stop the movement. General Robert E. Lee arrived on the scene , and as Mahone later recalled, “he expressed a desire that something should be done to arrest the progress.” With Lee’s approval, Mahone quickly detailed three brigades to the task. A soldier in the 12th Virginia recalled how they “moved out [in] … double time in front of the enemy on our left flank as they fired on us all the time, now & then a man would fall wounded & some died.” William H. Stewart of the 61st Virginia added, “we marched across the open field in our front through a deep ravine to a thick wood, which covered our movements and prevented the enemy from observing us.”

It was about 3:00 P.M. when Mahone was ready to attack. A fellow Confederate officer remarked that, ” whenever Mahone moves out, somebody is apt to be hurt.” During the fighting, the Union Second Corps sustained losses of 2,392 and the Sixth Corps 150. Mahone’s losses were put at 421. The Confederate losses came from a modern survey of newspaper accounts, so their accuracy is at best questionable. As darkness fell, Mahone withdrew back to his lines after a day which could only be considered a limited Confederate victory. This ended what became known as the Weldon Railroads Operation which was not resumed again until mid August.

William “Little Billy” Mahone held a number of civilian positions both before and after the civil war. They included civil engineer, teacher, member of the Virginia General Assembly, and the United States Congress. When serving in the Confederate Army, Mahone was once described as being, “every inch a soldier, though there were not many inches of him.” He was somewhere between five feet and five feet six inches tall and at most weighed 125 pounds. A Confederate officer wrote that Mahone was “the sauciest little manikin imaginable” and “the oddest and daintiest speciman” he ever saw. He suffered from dyspepsia and could not eat anything but tea, crackers, eggs, and fresh milk. He was so dependent on milk that he brought along an Alderney cow, which he tethered to his headquarters wagon. Mahone was not popular with his men and was known as extremely irritable and even tyrannical. He always seemed to be a bundle of nervous energy, with his subordinates giving him a wide berth out of respect for his quick temper and famous cussing fits.

William was born on December1, 1826 to Fielding Jordan Mahone and Martha (Drew)
Mahone in the small town of Monroe in Southampton County, Virginia. In 1840, the Mahone family moved to Jerusalem (now Courtland). In Jerusalem, young William soon gained a reputation for gambling, the use of tobacco and profanity. His first education was at a country school and with his father who taught him mathematics. On July 20, 1844 at the age of 17 ½ Mahone entered the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He graduated July 5, 1847 with a class standing of 8th out of 12 graduates.

Map by Hal Jespersen
Map by Hal Jespersen

After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a commission in the army during the Mexican War (1846-1848), he began teaching school in Caroline County. Although he enjoyed teaching, he kept his eyes open for something better. He decided to become an engineer, remarking that, “Internal Improvements seem to be the order of the day far and wide”, which proved to be correct. In 1849, Mahone began with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and later the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. In 1853, he became chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg, becoming president in 1860.

On February 8, 1855, Mahone married Otelia Butler of Smithfield, Virginia. The couple
produced thirteen children, of whom two sons and a daughter survived to maturity. The couple settled in Norfolk and lived there in the years before the Civil War. According to a local story, a number of the towns along the Norfolk/ Petersburg rail line such as Ivor and Waverly were named by Otelia, who was reading the novel “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott, at the time.

In 1860, Mahone owned seven slaves, 3 male and 4 female, was a member of the
Democratic Party and was in favor of Virginia’s secession from the Union. Less than two weeks after Virginia succeeded, Mahone was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the 6th Virginia Volunteer infantry in Norfolk. He was promoted to brigadier general on November 16, but remained in the in the Norfolk area away from the fighting taking place in central and northern Virginia. While in Norfolk, Mahone bluffed federal troops into abandoning the Navy Yard across the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth. He accomplished this by running a single passenger train, creating great noise, back and forth, into and out of Norfolk. This created an illusion of large numbers of Confederate troops arriving. This caused the Union troops at the Yard to retreat to nearby Fort Monroe.

General Daniel Harvey Hill.
General Daniel Harvey Hill.

At the end of May 1862, Mahone’s brigade was finally marching north, where they joined
Joseph E. Johnston’s forces in an attack against the Union forces of George B. McClellan at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Virginia. The battle was at best a draw for the Confederates, but is generally seen as a tactical victory for the Union. It was at this battle that Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Mahone was part of Benjamin Huger’s forces which had no real field experience up to this point in the war. It was no surprise that when they came under fire, they gave way in confusion. A second attack was ordered, and again, were ordered to retreat in short order. D. H. Hill was in tactical command, and railed at the retreating soldiers, calling them cowards. Mahone, in command of a brigade, protested the language being used by Hill, and told him he ordered the retreat, causing Hill to turn his wrath directly on Mahone. Mahone, who had a terrible temper, “fairly foamed,” and for a time considered challenging Hill to a duel. After pushing another brigade forward, Hill decided that the battle was going nowhere and broke off the fighting.

Mahone next saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in August 1862. It
was here he took part in Longstreet’s assault. At the moment of truth, however, he hesitated to act. It was at this point that he received a flesh wound which took him out of service until the following October. When Mahone’s wife was informed that he had suffered a flesh wound, she remarked that, “Now I know it is serious, for William has no flesh whatsoever.”

To be continued….

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