William “Little Billy” Mahone—Part Two

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 second in a two-part series.

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William "Little Billy" Mahone

William “Little Billy” Mahone

Mahone was present at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December but his brigade was not heavily engaged. His only real contribution was for suggesting artillery positions that were valuable in repulsing Federal attackers. During the winter of 1862-3, Mahone ever the politician, campaigned for promotion to major general. He was able to gain the support of thirty-five Virginia state legislators as well as the governor. He had the endorsement of many well respected army officers such as Major General Richard Anderson. Lee was in favor of the promotion, but there was at present no military command for a major general. Mahone would have to remain at his current rank for the time being. In the first week of May 1863, Mahone and his brigade were at Chancellorsville, and were the first infantry to engage Hooker’s Right Wing near the Chancellorsville Crossroads. They fought under the eye of Stonewall Jackson on May 1st, and on May 3rd were engaged at both the Chancellorsville Crossroads and Salem Church.

Mahone’s brigade, as they moved towards Gettysburg, totaled 1,542 men as part of Richard Anderson’s Division of the Third Corps. On July 2, took up their positions, forming the left flank of the division. At about 6:00 P.M. on the second, the division launched attacks on Cemetery Ridge. Realizing the ridge could not be held, General Wright sent for assistance. Mahone believing he would be disobeying an earlier order did not react. All of Anderson’s Division were engaged while Mahone’s brigade were merely spectators. On July 3, incredible as it may sound, Mahone’s brigade was not chosen to take part in the grand charge.

On May 6, 1864, at the Wilderness, Mahone’s brigade took part in an attack on Hancock’s flank leading to a Confederate victory. Later in the day, the mood in the Confederate camp would change dramatically. Lieutenant General James Longstreet was mistakenly shot by someone in the 12th Virginia. Longstreet was shot in the neck and at first the wound was thought to be fatal. A doctor from the First Corps was the first to treat the general and was probably saved his life. Almost immediately after fighting in the Wilderness ended, the action shifted to Spotsylvania.

On May 7, Lee had to make a decision as to who would replace the wounded Longstreet. It was decided that Major General Anderson would assume the position. As Anderson moved over to command of the First Corps. Mahone was chosen to command Anderson’s division. He was heavily involved in the intense fighting at the “Mule Shoe”. Grant’s plan at Spotyslvania was to interpose himself between Lee’s army and Richmond, but was unable to complete the maneuver.

The next major engagement in Virginia was the Battle of Cold Harbor where Mahone was in basically a reserve roll. After Cold Harbor, Grant moved south to Petersburg where his forces stalled, beginning a long siege of the city. It was here, in an area that Mahone had surveyed for the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, where he finally earned the military recognition he had longed for.

Alfred Waud sketch of the explosion of the Federal mine at the "Crater".

Alfred Waud sketch of the explosion of the Federal mine at the “Crater”.

At dawn, on July 30, 1864, troops in Burnside’s Ninth Corps. exploded a mine in a tunnel they had dug under the Confederate lines. Mahone was in command of three brigades as the Confederates began aiming their muskets into the thirty-foot deep hole. A number of Mahone’s troops screamed “no quarter.” At this moment a massacre of the troops in the pit began. These troops included many from the USCT (United States Colored Troops). It was later said that a number of the black troops were shot behind Confederate lines after they had surrendered. Accounts differ as to whether Mahone played any direct role in the slaughter. The siege of Petersburg went on for eight more months ending with Lee’s retreat to the west. In early march, still under siege, Lee came to the conclusion that his best option was to make the move west and attempt to link up with General Joe Johnston’s forces in North Carolina. The retreat was not going to be easy, as Lee soon found out.

On April 1, Union General Philip Sheridan convincingly defeated General George Pickett at Five Forks, allowing Grant to finally crush Lee’s lines around Petersburg. There were small skirmishes and maneuvers along the way, with the next major action taking place on April 6 at Sayler’s Creek. In one afternoon, Lee lost one-fourth of his remaining army, stating “My God! has the army dissolved?” Mahone quickly responded, “No general, here are troops ready to do their duty.” At Mahone’s request Lee handed him the flag, and with his own men, he drew a line behind which retreating men rallied. On April 9, the Confederates probed the Union lines and found them to be too strong. That afternoon- Palm Sunday-Lee met Grant, in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in  Appomattox Village, to discuss peace terms. This meeting essentially ended the Civil War. At the end of the war, Lee told his generals to go back to work rebuilding the country. Mahone did exactly as Lee advised.

The Appomattox Campaign. Map by Hal Jesperson.

The Appomattox Campaign. Map by Hal Jesperson.

Mahone became the driving force in bringing together the Norfolk & Petersburg, the South Side Railroad and the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. He became president of all three by 1867. In 1870, the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad was organized and Mahone made president. The company was to be short-lived as it went into receivership. This was bad for the railroad, but turned out to be good for Mahone, as he now had time to focus on his own political ambitions. In 1877, Mahone made his first run for political office, running for governor mainly on the issue of Virginia’s debt which had grown to $45 million by the end of the war. In response to the debt, the conservative led government, in 1871, passed legislation requiring the debt to be paid off in full. In order to do this, the conservatives had to raise taxes, giving Mahone a political opening. This move by the conservatives aggravated African Americans and poor whites who depended on state services. Mahone proposed to adjust a portion of the state debt, but lost the nomination to Frederick Holliday who was elected governor. This lead to the formation of the Readjuster Party. From 1879 until 1883, Mahone was the leading voice of the new party.

The Readjuster Party was a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans who were seeking to reduce Virginia’s prewar debt, and allocating a portion to the new state of West Virginia. Mahone was the leading supporter in electing the readjuster candidate, William E. Cameron as Virginia’s governor. Mahone was elected as senator and served in the U.S. Congress from 1881 to 1887. The share owed by West Virginia was disputed for several decades. It was finally settled in 1915, after Mahone’s death, by the United States Supreme Court and paid off in 1939. The Readjuster Party eventually disintegrated, but Mahone still remained active in Virginia politics. He ran for governor as a Republican in 1889 but was defeated. After losing the election, Mahone largely retired from politics, spending much of his time in Washington D.C. involved in unsuccessful investment schemes. He died on October 8, 1895 from complications of a stroke. He is buried in Blanford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.

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