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William Mahone

William Mahone - Stories

Civil War (Confederate) · Confederate Army · Major General

William Mahone

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

    As a Major General of the Confederate 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 the US Civil War. He was a civil engineer who helped build Virginia's railroads in the antebellum and postbellum (reconstruction) periods.

    Mahone became a political leader in Virginia, led the Readjuster Party and helped obtain funding in 1881 for a teacher's school which 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 on December 1, 1826 to Fielding Jordan Mahone and Martha (Drew) Mahone. The little town of Monroe was on the banks of the Nottoway River about 8 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 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 newly-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

    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 as chief engineer to build the new Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad (N&P). Mahone's innovative roadbed through the Great Dismal Swamp near Norfolk, Virginia, employed a log foundation laid at right angles beneath the surface of the swamp. Still in use 150 years later, Mahone's 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 which is a major artery of modern Norfolk Southern rail traffic. He was named president of the N&P after the railroad was completed.

    In 1855, Mahone married Otelia Butler (1837-1911), the daughter of the late Dr. Robert Butler from Smithfield, Virginia, who was said to be a cultured lady. Otelia and William Mahone settled in Norfolk, Virginia and lived there before the Civil War. They had 13 children, but only 3 survived to adulthood, two sons, William and Robert, and a daughter, also named Otelia, who married William McGill.

    The Norfolk and Petersburg railroad was completed in 1858. Popular legend has it that Otelia and William Mahone traveled along the newly completed railroad naming stations from Ivanhoe a book 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.

    In 1860, Mahone owned 7 slaves, all black: 3 male (ages 13, 4, 2), 4 female (ages 45, 24, 11, 1).

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

    Mahone was in favor of secession. 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 it was in federal hands.

    After Virginia seceeded 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 (again with much noise, etc.) 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 Lt. Col. 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 the Second Battle of Manassas, Battle of Fredericksburg, Battle of Chancellorsville, Battle of Gettysburg, Battle of the Wilderness, and Battle of 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 in 1864-1865. Pennsylvania miners with the Union forces tunneled under the Confederate line and blew it up, 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, and repelled 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 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 in the Second Battle of Manassas, 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. 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 3 by the end of 1867. 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 3 railroads he headed, extending 408 miles from Norfolk to Bristol, Virginia in 1870. The letters A, M & O were said to stand for "All Mine and Otelia's." The Mahones lived in Lynchburg, Virginia during this time, but moved to Petersburg in or before 1880.

    After several years of operating under receiverships, Mahone's role as a railroad builder ended in 1881 when northern interests purchased the A,M, & O and renamed it Norfolk and Western. 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.

    Virginia politics: Readjuster Party

    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 which 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.

    Although Mahone was not to live to see the outcome, for several decades, the two states 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.


    After suffering a stroke, he died on October 8, 1895 in Washington, DC. He is buried Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. His widow, Otelia, lived until 1911, and was buried with him.

    Otelia and William Mahone's former home in Petersburg now serves as part of the Petersburg Public Library. Virginia State University, which he helped found, is a major community presence nearby.

    The site of the Battle of the Crater is a major feature of the National Park Service's Petersburg National Battlefield Park.

    A monument to Mahone's Brigade is located at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

    A large portion of U.S. Highway 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk, parallels the 52-mile tangent railroad tracks he 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 honor.

    In 1927, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected in imposing monument to his memory. It stands in Petersburg Battlefield Park, on the preserved Crater Battlefield, a short distance from the Crater itself. The monument states:

    "To the memory of William Mahone, Major General, CSA, 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's Brigade Anderson's Division, 3rd Army Corps Gettysburg

      The monument to Mahone's Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia is on West Confederate Avenue.

      The brigade was commanded by Brigadier General William Mahone, a VMI graduate, railroad engineer and president.

      Mahone's Brigade saw little fighting at Gettysburg. It was positioned to join into Longstreet's attack on July 2nd and both Wright's and Posey's brigades requested support from Mahone in their advance on CemeteryRidge, but he refused, saying he had other orders.

      The brigade was then planned to take part in the attack against Cemetery Hill by the Second Corps that evening, but the attack had failed before Mahone could join and they returned to their breastworks.

      The fact that the relatively rested and unblooded brigade was not included in Pickett's Charge on the 3rd when several other much more badly hurt units were shows a serious failure of Confederate staff work. The brigade was a front row spectator of the bloody charge.

      Mahone went on in 1864 to be one of Lee's hardest-hitting division commanders but no one could have predicted that from his performance at Gettysburg. His brigade contributed very little, and ended the battle with the lowest casualties of any Confederate brigade.

      From the monument:

      C. S. A.
      Army of Northern Virginia
      Hill's Corps Anderson's Division
      Mahone's Brigade
      6th 12th 16th 41st 61st Virginia Infantry

      July 2. Arrived and took position here in the forenoon under orders to support the artillery. A strong skirmish line was sent out which was constantly engaged and did effective service.

      July 3. Remained here in support of the artillery. Took no active part in the battle except by skirmishers.

      July 4. In line here all day. At dark began the march to Hagerstown.

      Present 1500 Killed 8 Wounded 55 Missing 39 Total 102

      Battle of the Crater

      • Petersburg, Virginia

      On July 30, 1864, the Union exploded an underground mine, blowing a hole in the Confederate defenses outside Petersburg. However, the Federals bungled the rest of the attack, and Brigadier General William Mahone was able to launch a counter-attack that led to the defeat of the Federals.