About William Whann Mackall
William Whann Mackall was born on January 18, 1817, in Cecil County, Maryland. He graduated from West Point in 1837, then served in the Seminole and Mexican Wars. In May of 1861, he was offered a staff position in the Union army, but declined and joined the Confederate army.
Mackall was promoted to brigadier general as of February 27, 1862, due to P. G. T. Beauregard's influence. After he was placed in command of Island No. 10, he lost it to the Union in April of 1862. He was captured, and later exchanged. After serving in Tennessee and the District of the Gulf, he was appointed chief of staff of the Army of Tennessee, as per his West Point classmate Gen. Braxton Bragg's request.
Mackall began in April, but did not like his new position . He requested relief, and left after the end of September. Another position, that of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's chief of staff, also dissatisfied him, and he again requested relief. After his request was granted, Mackall received no further assignments, and surrendered himself to the Union in Macon, Georgia on April 20, 1865. After the Civil War, Mackall became a farmer and real estate speculator. He died on August 12, 1891, on one of his farms in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Cecil County’s Civil War General
By Milt Diggins
The push of events demanded a decision. A defiant Confederate flag now waved over Fort Sumter, blood-stained Baltimore streets evidenced a clash between a mob and Union soldiers, previously wavering states declared allegiance to the Confederacy, and martial law anchored Maryland to the Union. While opposing armies massed for war, U. S. Army officers sympathetic to the South could no longer delay their decision. On July 3rd, 1861, William Mackall reported to the war department, rejected a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and resigned. The highest ranking Civil War officer from Cecil County would wear Confederate gray.
During the train ride from his duty station in San Francisco to Washington to act on his decision, Mackall likely reflected on his military career. In 1834, he left his boyhood home at Wilna, near Elkton, to attend the U. S. Military Academy. After graduating eighth in a class of fifty, he started his career as an artillery officer, assigned to the First Artillery Regiment.
Temporarily transferred in 1839 to the Third Artillery Regiment at Silver Springs, near Ocala, Mackall joined in the search for elusive Seminole raiders in the Florida swamps. Two rifle balls tearing into his shoulder marked the fledging officer’s initiation as a combat veteran. The Cecil Gazette cited two newspaper dispatches on the incident and added a personal note. Of the two reports, the St. Augustine News published the more detailed account:
Lieut. Mackall was walking on the beach of New River with Capt. Poinsett, of the steamer Santee, when he was fired upon by three Indians …. Two of the balls struck Lieut. Mackall, who called out to the guard, from whom he was separated by a narrow but steep stream, but was not heard. He then plunged in and swam across, and returned with the guard in quest of Capt. Poinsett. Capt. P was found uninjured. The Indians could not be overtaken. Lieut. Mackall is certainly entitled to great credit for his energy and coolness in swimming a stream with two rifle balls in his person, and returning in pursuit of the enemy. We are glad to learn he is doing well
Lieut. Mackall is from this county, and is the eldest son of our esteemed fellow citizen, Benjamin Mackall, Esq. We are gratified to see the praise bestowed on our young friend by the News for his presence of mind, his energy and promptitude. It is well merited (16 March 1839).
After recovering from his wounds, Mackall returned to the First Regiment, stationed at Plattsburg, New York and then relocated to Fort Adams near Newport, Rhode Island, a longer deployment that afforded Mackall a relatively settled period, and a chance to tend to personal affairs. In January, 1844, William and his two brothers bought Wilna and its 210 acres from their great-aunt Sally Maffitt (GMC 5: 368). Later in the year, William married Aminta Sorrell, from Georgia.
Uprooted and on the move again in the spring of 1845, the First Artillery Regiment garrisoned Fort Barancas, near Pensacola. The following year, with the outbreak of war, the regiment joined in the fighting in Mexico. Like many West Point trained officers who served in the Civil War, Mackall gained substantial combat experience in the Mexican War. Mackall commanded a battery of horse artillery, and advanced to brevet captain “for gallant and meritorious conduct in several conflicts at Monterrey, Mexico” (Register 594).
In March, 1847 at Vera Cruz, Mackall participated in the first large-scale amphibious landing in U. S. history. In the treacherous battles amongst the bluffs and plateaus on the way to Mexico City, Mackall earned brevet major for his performance in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, and was wounded in the arm at Chapultepec.
While at Vera Cruz, Mackall first mentioned in a letter to his wife that he saw his friend Joe Johnston (Papers 13 March 1847). After the army captured Mexico City, Mackall wrote to his wife regarding his respect for Johnston’s military abilities. “He had gained deserved distinction in this war, at which I rejoice. By nature a great strategist, he hates to be beaten, even at a game of billiards” (Papers 21 Feb 1848). That faith in the older officer’s abilities and their friendship would play a part in the internecine feuds that plagued Southern leadership during the Civil War.
Shortly after the war ended in 1848, Mackall took leave, and visited at his father’s Langley, Virginia estate. William’s father Benjamin moved to Cecil County when William was around six years old and left the county around 1841, transferring guardianship of a young relative to another family member and disappearing from the county’s public records. His name resurfaced in the county in 1846, when he was then identified as a Fairfax County resident. William’s mother, whose parents were originally from Cecil County, had died when William was nine. In December 1848, Major Mackall and his brother Richard sold their interest in Wilna to their brother Henry (RCH). The sale legally ended William’s Cecil County residency, but family ties remained.
Mackall returned to duty as Assistant Adjutant General, Department of the Gulf. In peacetime, Mackall’s combat experiences meant less his reputation as a competent administrator. The next two assignments placed him and his wife closer to family and friends. In Washington, D. C., his birthplace, he served in the Office of the Judge Advocate and as treasurer of the Old Soldier’s Home, and in Baltimore he served as Assistant Adjutant General of the Eastern District.
In 1856, Mackall switched coasts, with the position of Assistant Adjutant General, Department of the Pacific, headquartered in San Francisco. When the Civil War broke out, the War Department planned on promoting him to lieutenant colonel and appointing him as General Butler’s chief of staff. When Mackall abruptly resigned, he ended an esteemed career just when experienced West Point officers had opportunities for rapid advancement. Mackall abandoned that career path for a riskier one.
In a diary entry, Cecil County judge James McCauley denounced Mackall for disloyalty: “He was a graduate of West Point and owed every thing to the Gov of the US…..He refused to accept the promotion and went over to the enemy – The public feeling here is against him.” McCauley reported: “It is said that his father & brothers persuaded him to that course” (8 April 1862).
McCauley’s attribution to family is justified, and not limited to the influence of his father and brothers. The Mackalls identified with the Southern elite. William’s father, Benjamin Mackall, owned a Virginia plantation and slaves. When Benjamin visited family in Cecil County in the summer of 1846, he purchased a new generation of slaves, three boys, ages 10 to 5 (GMC 11: 294). The Mackalls, a wealthy land-owning family, lived for generations in Southern Maryland, an area of plantation owners sympathetic to the Confederacy during the war. Through marriage, the Mackalls were related to other prominent land-owing families in Maryland and Virginia. On William’s mother’s side of the family, the Whanns and the Maffitts were upper class Cecil County families; reportedly, the Maffitt family once owned more land in Cecil County than any other family (Maffitt). William’s wife was the daughter of a prosperous Savannah merchant. One of her brothers, G. Moxley Sorrell, was a Confederate general on Longstreet’s staff, and another brother resigned as a California legislator to become a medical director in Richmond during the war. A decade before the war, Mackall expressed interest in obtaining a pamphlet titled “In Defense of the South” (Papers c. 1850). Early in the war, he wrote to his wife, “Remember darling no fretting – I told you when I came here to the Confederacy that I was not coming to a garden of roses. And that I would still hold on to the cause.... It is mine and my family’s cause….” (Papers 1862).
After resigning, Mackall covertly headed to Richmond. In July, 1861, his friend Joe Johnston professed he would “give his right arm if they would send you to me as a major general” (Papers July 1861). In September, Lt. Colonel Mackall reported to Albert Sidney Johnston, Commander, Western Department of the Confederacy, as his assistant adjunct general and chief of staff. General Beauregard recommended Mackall’s promotion to major general and a division command. In March 1862, Richmond, responding with less enthusiasm, promoted Mackall to brigadier general and assigned him to General Polk’s staff. Mackall would serve the Confederacy primarily as an administrative officer - with a notable exception early in the war.
The Confederate army urgently needed an experienced artillery officer, and on March 26th, Mackall received orders to replace Major General McCown and take command of defenses at Island No. 10 and the adjacent peninsula on the Mississippi River. Mackall found himself in an ominous position; his forces outnumbered more than six to one, he was to delay federal army and navy forces thrusting southward along the Mississippi. When Mackall arrived, the island fort and near-by batteries, equipped with approximate ly fifty heavy guns, obstructed the Union advance, blocking Union gunboats on the island’s north side. While the gunboats ineffectively shelled the Confederate fortifications, General Pope’s army was held in check at New Madrid; Confederate batteries contesting attempts to cross the river and assault the peninsula south of the island. Mackall realized he could hold out only as long as the Union army was prevented from crossing the river. “When the enemy cross the game is practically up…if the enemy land this will be a beleaguered place which will not hold out ten hours in my opinion” (Rebellion, vol. 8, p. 809). The river supply line cut, the demoralized Confederate defenders had one remaining supply line, the road through Tiptonville on the peninsula.
A Union gunboat cracked the stalemate on April 4th, successfully running past the fort and batteries, and reaching New Madrid. Joined by a second gunboat that ran the same artillery gauntlet two nights later, the gunboats silenced opposing batteries, and enabled troops to cross the river and storm the peninsula. Mackall anticipated the landing but did not know where along a 25 mile shoreline. He had concentrated troops in a central location, hoping to reposition his soldiers quickly enough to impede the landing. Pope could draw on approximately 25,000 troops for the operation; Mackall could counter with at most 4,000 troops, and at least 400 men lacked firearms. Unable to prevent the landing, Mackall attempted to retreat through Tiptonville; the move was too late. The Union army and the naval gunboats trapped the beleaguered force, and Mackall surrendered his army, although roughly 500 men managed to escape through the swamps. Mackall was imprisoned at Fort Warren, Massachusetts until a prisoner exchange at the end of July, 1862. After he returned to the South, a letter from Beauregard reassured Mackall that his defeat was understandable.
I see no necessity for a court of inquiry … if you recollect, when I sent you there General Bragg and myself told you that we considered matters there in a most desperate condition, and that you were going, as it were, on a forlorn hope, so that we were not at all surprised to hear of its fall. I only regret that I had been unable to send you there several weeks earlier to enable you to make your own preparations for its prolonged defense…. (Rebellion, vol. 8, p. 134).
President Davis however judged the written report on the surrender at Tiptonville unsatisfactory. “I do not understand from this report whether all the force was captured or why it was impossible to have effected [sic] a retreat” (Rebellion, vol. 8, p. 134). Mackall submitted additional information and the matter officially ended. However, President Davis characteristically held grudges against generals that in his opinion needlessly surrendered.
When Mackall reentered Confederate territory, he was greeted by his brother-in-law, General Sorrell. In writing about the meeting, he described Mackall “of a high order of mind and of the finest and nicest elevation of character.” Sorrell considered Mackall “an able and accomplished soldier … [who] should have achieved much in the Confederate war, but circumstances were against him” (Sorrell 71-72).
One circumstance Sorrell likely had in mind was Mackall’s relationship with Jefferson Davis. Mackall suspected Davis held a bias against him not solely based on the Tiptonville surrender. In a letter to Beauregard, Mackall commented, “I understand that General Lee asked that I should be sent to him as chief of staff, but I do not think the President would want a ‘general made by Beauregard’ in that position” (Papers 14 October 1862). Mackall’s bitterness towards Davis would intensify as the war dragged on, reinforced by his friend Johnston’s hostile relationship with Davis.
For a while, Mackall’s duties removed him from the battlefield. After a brief time at Knoxville, he reported to General Forney, District of the Gulf, Mobile, Alabama. On December 14th, Mackall was appointed temporary commander for the district, replacing the departing Forney for less than ten days while awaiting the arrival of the new commander, General Buckner. For several uneventful months, Mackall commanded a division within the department, and Buckner recommended Mackall’s promotion to major general “as an act of justice to his merit” (Service record). Richmond disapproved the recommendation. However, Mackall did favorably impress Mobile citizens, and the Committee of Safety, petitioned the Confederate government to have him give him command of the Department of the Gulf when they heard Buckner was reassigned. “Gen’l Mackall [has] shown himself uniformly courteous, and always attentive to all his duties – and firm and prompt in their discharge. We regretted to see him depart from his position here & will welcome back with pleasure” (Service record). But Mackall had already moved on to Tullahoma, Tennessee to rejoin the action on the front lines.
In April, 1863, Mackall reported for duty as chief of staff to his former West Point classmate, General Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, just in time for the Chickamauga campaign. Colonel Brent characterized the new chief of staff as “a plain, straightforward, earnest officer” (Cozzens, Qtd. in Sound, 38).
Shortly after Mackall arrived, Union General Rosencrantz forced Bragg’s army out of Tullahoma, and threatened Chattanooga . Confederate uncertainty over Rosencrantz’s objective and poor coordination among Bragg’s line officers caused missed opportunities to destroy federal units just before the battle of Chickamauga. The first day of fighting at Chickamauga ended indecisively as both sides had trouble distinguishing between friend and foe in thickly wooded areas. On the second day, Bragg capitalized on confusion in the opposing lines, battered the Union army and forced its retreat. But despite victory, criticism of Bragg quickly erupted. Due to poor communication and ineffective follow-up, Bragg had failed to inflict further damage on Rosencrantz’s defeated army. While the Union army fortified at Chattanooga, Bragg became enmeshed in bitter debates with his officers; as tempers flared President Davis arrived to mediate the conflict between the abrasive Bragg and his angry officers. Mackall informed his wife, “I do not know one contented general in the army” (Papers 10 October 1863). Mackall’s letters to his wife detailed the discontent among the officers; historians writing about this incident often cite these letters.
The infighting wearied Mackall, and he attempted to dissuade Bragg from pursuing further vindictiveness. “He is as much influenced by his enemies as by his friends, and does not know how to control the one or preserve the other.” Mackall, now convinced that Bragg needed to be replaced, wrote to his wife that Bragg was indecisive, stubborn, vain, vindictive, and lacking in sound judgment. Mackall confided, “I am afraid of his generalship, and would think the cause of the country far better placed in other hands” (Papers 29 September 1863). Mackall listed only two candidates for Bragg’s position. “I do not believe that Mr. Davis could do as much good by sending ten thousand men to this army as putting Lee or Johnston here, and I do not think he can do anything but mischief by putting any other” (Papers 10 October 1863). Mackall believed Davis’s attitude against Johnston would rule him out, and probably realized that transferring Lee from Virginia was unlikely. Concluding the investigation, President Davis retained Bragg in command. The decision disturbed Mackall.
“… I am in doubt what to do. Should I quit my position now, it might look as though I am wanting to add to the troubles, and to stay is very disagreeable” (Papers 12 Oct 1863). In a letter to Johnston, Mackall revealed his inner turmoil, “I am for the first time, I think, in my life, after serious reflection, unable to make up my mind as to the right, though I do not presume to say the conclusion was always wise” (Papers Oct 13, 1863). A few days later Mackall resigned as chief of staff. Bragg accepted the request, remarking “The General and the Army will long feel the sacrifice made in sparing the services of one so distinguished for capacity, professional acquirements and urbanity” (Recollections 186-187). Cozzens, in his book Shipwreck of Their Hopes, appraised the loss as a serious blow to Bragg. “Enjoying good relations with both Bragg and his lieutenants, Mackall had been able to smooth many a misunderstanding and clarify the commanding general’s orders. Joe Johnston always believed Mackall ‘absolutely necessary’ to the stability of the army’s command structure, particularly during Bragg’s frequent bouts of ill health” (28).
Leaving the front, Mackall took brigade command under Johnston, Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana at Enterprise, Mississippi. The brigade, the remains of Herbert’s Brigade, a once proud and distinguished unit prior to its surrender and parole at Vicksburg, was described by Mackall as a dispirited group needing restored moral and military discipline. Johnson and Mackall also showed signs of their own sagging moral.
Johnston and Mackall spent the time complaining about President Davis’s animosity towards them, and his unfair criticisms of Johnston’s generalship, the most recent coming after the defeat at Vicksburg. The Johnston-Davis feud arose early in the war when Johnston, who had been senior officer in the U. S. Army, took umbrage over his fourth place ranking in seniority in the Confederate army; the rift festered throughout the war.
But Davis handed a prized opportunity to Johnston and Mackall. In December 1863, Johnston took command of the Army of Tennessee, and a month later Davis approved Johnston’s request to name Mackall the chief of staff. A Johnston biographer asserted that “Johnston would find him [Mackall] an invaluable aide” (Symonds, 252). Mackall managed the command’s administrative tasks, mundane, vital routines necessary to field a roughly 62,000 man army. His duties were not all desk-bound. He accompanied Johnston on his rounds, and often rode into the field to relay Johnston’s orders and return with communications from the line.
The situation facing Johnston and Mackall likely tempered any elation felt over their new positions, and Johnston’s prideful quest for vindication still required a victory; General Sherman’s army was entering Georgia. Johnston set up well-defended positions, but Sherman kept maneuvering around the Confederate army, drawing the defenders out of their strong positions and closer to Atlanta.
Historians generally praise Mackall prior to the Atlanta campaign, but a more critical tone surfaces in Albert Castel’s Decision in the West, an extensive work on the Army of Tennessee during its stand against Sherman. Castel’s first explicit criticism of Mackall occurs when he discusses Johnston’s defensive position at Rocky Face Ridge. Johnston attempted to shore up vulnerable areas but he glossed over a potential weak point. “Although his instructions to Cantey seem to recognize the possibility of a Union thrust through Snake Creek Gap at Resaca, they are clumsily written (Chief of Staff Mackall wrote them) and do not specifically mention that gap, conceivably a serious omission in view of the fact that Cantey had just arrived at Resaca and can know little of the local geography.” Finding the pass inadequately guarded, Federal troops poured through, forcing Johnston to relinquish his strong position to avoid being outflanked (Castel 130).
In a later defeat, Johnston had failed to guard Snake Creek Gap. The investigating officer, General Cleburne, complained he did not receive satisfactory answers to his inquiries. “The only explanation he received was from General Mackall who ‘told me it was the result of a flagrant disobedience of orders, by whom he did not say.’” Castel questions this claim. Noting Johnston’s customary quickness in blaming others to protect his reputation, he wonders why Johnston did not make the same accusation in official reports or in writings after the war. Castel concludes Mackall was covering for Johnston (183-185).
Castel does credit Mackall and other staff officers with issuing “detailed written orders” for a successful withdraw from Resaca, “a dangerous and difficult operation to perform when in close contact with the enemy“ (179).
In May, Johnston set a trap at Cassville. Johnston accurately predicted Sherman would divide his army unto two roads leading to the town. Johnston planned to attack one column before the other could cross the rough terrain to come to its aid. Hood, about to spring the initial attack to his left, became engaged with an unexpected Union force to his right. Considering it foolhardy to launch an attack on the enemy in one direction with a second enemy force of unknown size to the rear, Hood pulled back. When Mackall rushed from the field and announced that Hood withdrew, Johnston cancelled the main attack. Frustrated by the lost opportunity, Mackall confided to his wife he “could not restrain his tears when I found we could not strike.” He, like others, skeptical of the claim that the enemy appeared on Hood’s right, blamed Hood for the failure (The unit was real, an out-of-position detachment that stumbled into Hood’s force and exposed the trap). “One Lieutenant General talks about attack and not giving ground, publicly, and quietly urges retreat” (Papers 21 May 1864).
In correspondence home, Mackall repeatedly defended Johnston’s leadership. “Of course, the friends of the President will now try to show that Johnston has done exactly like Bragg, but the army sees that it is not so. We came back step by step, never out of the sound of the enemy’s guns and have hit them many hard blows” (Papers 3 June 1864). Throughout the campaign, Hood sent self-serving letters criticizing Johnston to Davis and the president’s military advisor, Bragg. With the series of Confederate retreats and behind-the-scenes intrigue, Richmond intervened. Bragg arrived to consult with Army of Tennessee officers, and Hood provided Bragg with more self-promoting testimony on Johnston’s performance.
On July 17th, Davis replaced Johnston with Hood, and a few days later Mackall allowed resentment to outweigh military protocol and courtesy. Bragg was visiting Hood’s headquarters, and upon seeing Mackall, reached out to shake his hand. Mackall snubbed the gesture. Hood promptly requested Mackall resign from his staff. Castel believes Hood had intended on removing Mackall anyway, considering him too loyal to Johnston. “’[T]he replacement of Mackall is a good move.’ Colonel Beatty comments in his diary, for ‘he always was opposed to fighting – always predicted disaster [and] he was aptly termed ‘the owl of the army’” (qtd by Castel 422-423). An explanation under “owl” in the Oxford English Dictionary clarifies the remark’s harshness: “Applied to a person in allusion to … appearance of gravity and wisdom (often with the implication of underlying stupidity).” Even though it would put his replacement at a disadvantage, Mackall left with the chief of staff records. Castel presumes this was done to assist Johnston in building a defense of his command during the Atlanta campaign.
Mackall settled in at his brother-in-law’s house in Macon. Johnston joined Mackall there for several months, and General Hardee also “entered into correspondence with General Mackall for the purpose of supplying him, and through him, General Johnston, with information to use against Hood” (Castel 497). During the Mexican War, Mackall had written scornfully about bickering among the high command –“What a pity our Generals can not be content with their own glory, but must quarrel like schoolboys” (Papers 12 January 1848). Now he was embroiled in the Johnston-Hardee-Hood and the Johnston-Davis school-boy quarrels, the lessons of an earlier war forgotten.
Within days after leaving the Army of Tennessee, Mackall requested new orders. On the folder the War Department used for the incoming correspondence, someone had penciled “What shall be done with General Mackall?” (Service record). No one bothered to answer. In late September, Mackall submitted another request: “Being anxious in a struggle such as this country is now engaged not to be an idle spectator” (Service record). General Samuel Jones requested Mackall for a command in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. With Sherman moving unchecked through the South, Mackall accepted post command at Macon, the temporary Georgia capital, a supply distribution center, and home of the Macon Armory. On April 20th, 1865, while Johnston, restored to his former command, observed an armistice and negotiated surrender terms with Sherman in North Carolina, Mackall and three other generals surrendered at Macon. Mackall left Macon, briefly lived in Baltimore, and then joined his father at the Langley estate, where he resided for the rest of his life.