About William "Little Billy" Mahone
William Mahone (December 1, 1826 – October 8, 1895) was a civil engineer, teacher, soldier, railroad executive, and a member of the Virginia General Assembly and U.S. Congress. Small of stature, he was nicknamed "Little Billy".
Educated at Virginia Military Institute, Mahone helped build Virginia's roads and railroads in the antebellum period. In 1855, he married the former Otelia Voinard Butler of Smithfield. Local tradition notes that they were each colorful characters. Based upon Ivanhoe, a novel she had been reading, the naming of several railroad towns in Southside Virginia is credited to Otelia and "Little Billy". The name of Disputanta was allegedly created after the couple had a "dispute" over an appropriate name.
During the American Civil War, as a leader eventually attaining the rank of major general of the Confederate States 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 1864. His wife served as a nurse in Richmond. Although the Mahone family had owned several slaves before the war, biographer Nelson Blake has noted that during the War and after, Mahone accorded the African Americans under his leadership and generally with considerably more respect than many of his peers. Still, many African American leaders complained that Mahone was relegating them to the lower rung political positions, and he was affected by public sentiments against African Americans. To elevate them could diminish his white support and needed both public and white support.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, he returned to his pre-war position heading the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, working to rebuild it, and the two trunk lines west of Petersburg to Bristol, Virginia, at the Tennessee border. He successfully united the three in 1870 to form the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (AM&O), which was headquartered in Lynchburg. As he and Otelia made their home there, the pundits were already claiming that AM&O really stood for "All Mine and Otelia's".
Even while still serving in the Confederate Army, Mahone had also become involved in politics. In the post-war years, he helped form and lead a coalition of blacks, Republicans, and Conservative Democrats that became known as the Readjuster Party (so-named for a position regarding Virginia's troublesome post-War public debt issues). Partially owned by the state, the AM&O went into receivership several years after the Financial Panic of 1873. When it was sold to northern interests who formed the Norfolk and Western (N&W) in 1881, Mahone working with African American members of the Readjuster Party helped arrange for a portion of the proceeds to be used to fund a teacher's school and collegiate institute to educate Virginia's large African American population, now known as Virginia State University, and also to build a mental hospital for blacks nearby, long known as Central State Hospital.
Mahone's hand-picked candidate, William E. Cameron, won the election as Governor of Virginia as a Readjuster, and Mahone himself subsequently won a term as a U.S. Senator. With his status as an independent, he held an important swing vote in the evenly divided upper house in the U.S. Congress, which became especially important after the assassination of President James A Garfield. However, he tended to caucus with the Republicans, and was defeated for reelection by the candidate of Virginia's Conservative Democrats, who were also assuming the other political control in Virginia they would later hold until the 1960s under the Byrd Organization.
Despite eventually losing control of both the AM&O railroad and the political power that went with the Readjuster Party, Mahone accumulated substantial wealth, partially through the foresight of valuable personal investments in bituminous coal lands in the western regions of Virginia where he had hoped to extend the AM&O. When Mahone died in 1895, followed by his widow Otelia in 1911, they were each interred with other family members in Petersburg's Blandford Cemetery. Their former residence formed a portion of a new Petersburg Public Library.
William Mahone was born in Monroe in Southampton County, Virginia, to Fielding Jordan Mahone and Martha (née Drew) Mahone. Beginning with the immigration of his Mahone ancestors from Ireland, he was the third individual to be called "William Mahone." He did not have a middle name as shown by records including his two Bibles, VMI Diploma, marriage license, and Confederate Army commissions. Likewise, the General and Otelia's first born son was christened William Mahone. The suffix "Jr." was added to his name later in his life, during a period of similar cultural naming transitions in Virginia.
The little town of Monroe was on the banks of the Nottoway River about eight miles south of the county seat at Jerusalem, a town which was renamed Courtland in 1888. The river was an important transportation artery in the years before railroads and later highways served the area. Fielding Mahone ran a store at Monroe and owned considerable farmland. The family narrowly escaped the massacre of local whites during Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831.
The local shift of transportation in the area was from the river to the new technology emerging with railroads in the 1830s. In 1840, when William was 14 years old, the family moved to Jerusalem, where Fielding Mahone purchased and operated a tavern. As recounted by his biographer, Nelson Blake, the freckled-faced youth of Irish-American heritage gained a reputation in the small town for both "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 mathematics from his father. As a teenager, for a short time, he transported the U. S. Mail by horseback from his hometown to Hicksford, a small town on the south bank of the Meherrin River in Greensville County which later combined with the town of Belfield on the north bank to form the current independent city of Emporia. He was awarded a spot as a state cadet at the recently opened Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. Studying under VMI Commandant William Gilham and a professor named Thomas J. Jackson, he graduated with a degree as a civil engineer in the Class of 1847.
Civil engineer, railroad builder, family
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.
On April 12, 1853, he was hired by Dr. Francis Mallory of Norfolk, as chief engineer to build the new Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad (N&P). Mahone's innovative 12 mile-long roadbed through the Great Dismal Swamp between South Norfolk and Suffolk employed a log foundation laid at right angles beneath the surface of the swamp. Still in use 150 years later, Mahone's corduroy 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. With no curves, it is a major artery of modern Norfolk Southern rail traffic.
In 1854, Mahone surveyed and laid out with streets and lots of Ocean View City, a new resort town fronting on the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk County. With the advent of electric streetcars in the late 19th century, an amusement park was developed there and a boardwalk was built along the adjacent beach area. Most of Mahone's street plan is still in use in the 21st century as Ocean View, now a section of the City of Norfolk, is redeveloped.
He was surveyor for the Norfolk and South Air Line Railroad, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
On February 8, 1855, Mahone married Otelia Butler (1835 – 1911), the daughter the late Dr. Robert Butler from Smithfield, who had been State Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1846 until his death in 1853. Her mother was Butler's second wife, Otelia Voinard Butler (1803–1855), originally from Petersburg.
Young Otelia Butler is said to have been a cultured lady. She and William settled in Norfolk, where they lived for most of the years before the Civil War. They had 13 children, but only 3 survived to adulthood, two sons, William Jr. and Robert, and a daughter, also named Otelia.
The Mahone family escaped the yellow fever epidemic that broke out in the summer of 1855 and killed almost a third of the populations of Norfolk and Portsmouth by staying with his mother some distance away in Jerusalem. However, as a consequence of the epidemic, the decimated citizenry of the Norfolk area had difficulty in meeting financial obligations, and work on their new railroad to Petersburg almost came to a standstill. Ever frugal, Mahone and his mentor, Dr. Mallory, nevertheless pushed the project to completion.
Popular legend has it that Otelia and William Mahone traveled along the newly completed railroad naming stations from Ivanhoe and other books 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. The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was completed in 1858, and Mahone was named its president a short time later.
According to some records, in 1860, Mahone owned 7 slaves, all black: 3 male (ages 13, 4, 2), 4 female (ages 45, 24, 11, 1). Nevertheless, during the Civil War and after, he showed an empathy for former slaves that was atypical for the times, and worked diligently for their fair treatment and education.
"Little Billy": Hero of the Battle of the Crater
As the political differences between Northern and Southern factions escalated in the second half of the 19th century, Mahone was in favor of secession of the Southern states. 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 the railroad was in Federal hands.
After Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Mahone was still a civilian, and not yet in the Confederate Army, but working in coordination with Walter Gwynn, he orchestrated the ruse and capture of the Gosport Shipyard. He bluffed the Federal troops into abandoning the 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, 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 lieutenant colonel and later colonel of the 6th Virginia Volunteer 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 Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
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 at Second Bull Run, 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."
Although his wound at Manassas had not been serious, Mahone did suffer from acute dyspepsia all of his life. During the War, a cow and chickens accompanied him in order to provide dairy products. Otelia and their children moved to Petersburg to be near him during the final campaign of the War in 1864-65 as Grant moved against Petersburg, seeking to sever the rail lines supplying the Confederate capital of Richmond.
It was during that final campaign that William Mahone became widely regarded as the hero of the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. During the Siege of Petersburg of 1864–65, former Pennsylvania coal miners in the Union Army tunneled under the Confederate line and blew it up in a massive explosion, 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, repelling the attack. After beginning as an innovative initiative, the Crater scheme turned into a terrible loss for the Union leaders. The quick and effective action led by Mahone was a rare cause for celebration by the occupants of Petersburg, embattled citizens and weary troops alike. "Little Billy" Mahone was promoted to major general as a result.
However, Grant's strategy at Petersburg eventually succeeded as the last rail line from the south to supply the Cockcade City (and hence Richmond) was severed in early April 1865. Mahone was with Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for the surrender at Appomattox Court House about a week later. Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, noted biographer of Robert E. Lee, wrote that, after the surrender, Lee instructed his lieutenants: "Go home and start rebuilding."
Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad
After the war, Lee advised his generals to go back to work rebuilding the Southern economy. 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 three by the end of 1867. During the post-war Reconstruction period, 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 comprising the three railroads he headed, extending 408 miles from Norfolk to Bristol, Virginia, in 1870. This conflicted with the expansion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from Baltimore. The Mahones were colorful characters: the letters A, M & O were said to stand for "All Mine and Otelia's". They lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, during this time, but moved back to Petersburg in 1872.
The Financial Panic of 1873 put the A,M & O into conflict with its bondholders in England and Scotland. After several years of operating under receiverships, Mahone's relationship with the creditors soured, and an alternate receiver, Henry Fink, was appointed to oversee the A,M & O's finances. Mahone still worked to regain control, but his role as a railroad builder ended, in 1881, when Philadelphia-based interests outbid him and purchased the A,M & O at auction, renaming it Norfolk and Western (N&W).
Before the Civil War, the Virginia Board of Public Works had invested state funds in a substantial portion of the stock of the A,M & O's predecessor railroads. Although he lost control of the railroad, as a major political leader in Virginia, Mahone was able to arrange for a portion of the State's proceeds of the sale to be directed to help found a school to prepare teachers to help educate black children and former slaves near his home at Petersburg, where he had earlier been mayor. The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute eventually expanded to become Virginia State University. He also directed another portion of the funds to help found the predecessor of today's Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, also located adjacent to Petersburg. Mahone personally retained his ownership of land investments which were linked to the N&W's development of the rich coal fields of western Virginia and southern West Virginia, contributing to his rank as one of Virginia's wealthiest men at his death, according to his biographer, author Nelson Blake.
Virginia politics: Readjuster Party, U.S. Senate
William Mahone was active in the economic and political life of Virginia for almost 30 years, beginning in the midst of the Civil War when he was elected to the Virginia General Assembly as a Delegate from Norfolk in 1863. He later 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 that constituted the new State of West Virginia. In 1881, Mahone led the successful effort to elect the Readjuster candidate William E. Cameron as the next governor, and he himself as a United States Senator.
At the Congressional level, with a 37-37 split between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and with a second third-party candidate willing to caucus with the latter, Mahone's affiliation would determine which party would control the Senate, since under Senate rules, Vice President of the United States Chester A. Arthur, a Republican, would cast any tie-breaking votes. Mahone's eventual decision to caucus with the Republicans came at a high price to them. Despite being a freshman senator, he received chairmanship of the influential Agriculture Committee and gained control over Virginia's federal patronage, both from President James A. Garfield, and by the right to select both the Senate's Secretary and Sergeant at Arms.
Once affiliated with the Republican Party, Mahone led Virginia delegations to the Republican National Conventions of 1884 and 1888. However, he lost his Senate seat to Conservative Democrat John W. Daniel in 1886. In 1889, he ran for governor on a Republican ticket, but lost to Democrat Philip W. McKinney. It was to be 80 more years before Virginia sent another non-Democrat to the Governor's Mansion (Republican A. Linwood Holton Jr. in 1969). Although out of office, the seemingly tireless Mahone continued to stay involved in Virginia-related politics until he suffered a catastrophic stroke in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1895. He died a week later, aged 68. His widow, Otelia, lived on in Petersburg until her own death in 1911.
Although Mahone was not to live to see the outcome, for several decades, Virginia and West Virginia disputed the new state's share of the Virginia 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.
William Mahone was interred in the family mausoleum in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. His widow, Otelia, lived until 1911, and was interred alongside him. The mausoleum is identified by the General's well known monogram, the initial "M" centered on a star inside a shield.
Otelia and William Mahone's first home in Petersburg, originally occupied by John Dodson, Petersburg's mayor in 1851-2, was on South Sycamore St. That structure now serves as part of the Petersburg Public Library. In 1874, they acquired and greatly enlarged a home on South Market St. and it was their primary residence thereafter. Virginia State University, which he helped found as a normal school, is a major community presence nearby.
A large portion of U.S. Highway 460 in eastern Virginia (between Petersburg and Suffolk) parallels the 52-mile tangent railroad tracks that Mahone had 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. A monument to Mahone's Brigade is located on the Gettysburg Battlefield.
The site of the Battle of the Crater is a major feature of the National Park Service's Petersburg National Battlefield Park. In 1927, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected an imposing monument to his memory. It stands 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."