"He was every inch a soldier, though there were not many inches of him," was how one soldier described William Mahone. There was some disagreement about just how tiny "Little Billy" was, but nobody guessed his height at more than five feet six inches, and some said he barely cleared five feet. Estimates of his weight were 125 pounds at most; some swore he weighed less than 100. He was so thin that after the Battle of Second Manassas, when his wife was told that he had received a flesh wound, she said, "Now I know it is serious, for William has no flesh whatever." One young Confederate officer wrote that Mahone was "the sauciest little manikin imaginable" and "the oddest and daintiest little specimen" he ever saw.
In his wardrobe Mahone put comfort above convention. A comrade remembered, "On a certain hot summer's day that I recall he was seen . . . wonderfully accoutered! A plaited brown linen jacket, buttoned to trousers of the same material, like a boy's; topped off by a large Panama hat of the finest and most beautiful texture, met our eyes, and I must say he looked decidedly comfortable." On some occasions, Mahone wore a linen duster, which was so long it almost covered the tip of his sword. When he wore it, pacing nervously in front of his tent in front of his tent as he often did, he presented a comic figure: "He looked like the image of a bantam rooster or gamecock," said one veteran. He wore his hair long, his eyes were blue beneath bushy brows. He had a dainty straight nose, and the lower half of his face was covered by a drooping brown mustache and long beard that touched his chest. His voice was high and piping, like a falsetto tenor.
Mahone suffered from dyspepsia, and he 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. On the cow's back he hung all of his cooking utensils. Whether it was from his poor digestion or the other way around, he was extremely irritable, some said tyrannical. Mahone was not a popular general. He was always a bundle of nervous energy, and subordinates gave him a wide berth out of respect for his quick temper and famous cussing fits. His men retaliated when they got the chance. Never one to deny himself any comfort, Mahone kept a flock of turkeys fattening in a pen outside his tent. On Christmas morning of 1862, when he stepped outside to select the fattest for his Christmas dinner, all the turkeys had disappeared. "Who stole Mahone's turkeys?" was a question his brigade laughed over for the rest of the war. Later in the winter, Mahone's harshness created a "painful and mortifying scene" that he meant as a lesson in discipline. He formed his brigade to witness the punishment of two men convicted of stealing property they had been sent to guard. The prisoners were stripped to the waist and their hands tied to crossbars above their heads. Two soldiers had the duty of giving them each thirty-nine lashes, with a lieutenant counting. For Mahone, watching from horseback, the whip-wielders were not putting enough into it. He ordered the lieutenant and the soldiers with the whips arrested, and picked another officer to carry out the punishment to his satisfaction.
Mahone had grown up in Virginia, the son of a tavern owner. He was a gambler, a drinker and a mischief-maker, the sort the other boys' mothers told their sons to avoid. He had grit, however, and made friends easily. Early on, he was marked as someone with that "something special" that others were attracted to. Aided financially by friends, he was enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute, though he admitted later that he didn't have the academic preparation for it. When he graduated from the Institute, he taught school while he continued his education in engineering. Soon he entered the booming railroad industry. Full of restless, driving energy, his rise was swift--at the age of thirty-three he was named the president, chief engineer, and superintendent of the new Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, which he succeeded in laying across the bottomless Dismal Swamp. Settling in Norfolk, by 1861 he was dreaming of railway consolidations by which he could link the Virginia coast with the Mississippi and ultimately with the Pacific.
When Virginia seceded, Mahone, who had been a leader of secessionist feeling in his hometown, interrupted his dreams and accepted the colonelcy of the 6th Virginia regiment. When Union forces evacuated Norfolk, Mahone and his men reoccupied the city. He was promoted to brigadier general in November 1861. The next year, when McClellan invaded the Peninsula just across the James River from Norfolk, Mahone's brigade abandoned the town and marched to join the Confederate forces defending Richmond. Mahone, because of his reputation as a swift builder, was first called to aid in the defense of Drewry's Bluff against the Federal flotilla. That done, he joined the army in time for the battle of Seven Pines. There, in combat for the first time, Mahone retreated his men without orders when the Rebel line began to crumble. This led to a shouting match between Mahone and his superior, Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill--both excitable officers. Mahone considered proposing a duel, but was talked out of it. In any case, Mahone redeemed himself with a brave but futile effort at Malvern Hill a month later, where he was unlucky enough to be available to be thrown against the impregnable Federal defenses. His brigade lost 329 men in the assault, 26% of its total number.
He led his brigade next at Second Bull Run in August, where he took part in Longstreet's crushing corps-strong assault. At the moment of truth, however, when his brigade was poised to make the final attack on the crumbling Federal line, Mahone hesitated to deliver the blow. It was then that he was wounded by a bullet in the chest; he was taken from the field and remained absent from the army throughout September and October.
Little Billy returned in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, and although his brigade wasn't heavily engaged, he was commended for suggesting some advanced artillery positions that proved valuable in repulsing the waves of Federal attackers.
During the winter of 1862-3, Mahone, who was a politically savvy operator throughout his life, made a campaign for promotion to major general. He was able to muster the support of thirty-five Virginia state legislators and the Governor of Virginia, as well as respected army officers such as Maj. Gen. "Dick" Anderson, who wrote that Mahone was "a thorough disciplinarian and unites to military education great skill and untiring activity in the field." Lee concurred with the idea of Mahone's promotion, but pointed out that there was no command available for a new major general. He would have to wait.
Mahone fought with his brigade in the Battle of Chancellorsville, but without distinction. As he led his brigade's march into Pennsylvania a month later, he was a competent and experienced brigade leader, but had fought the entire previous year without having distinguished himself in any of the army's battles. He was perhaps too ill-tempered to inspire great deeds from his men.
| Sharing the march of the division from Fayetteville on July 1, Mahone
turned south off the Chambersburg Pike onto Herr Ridge with the rest of
Anderson's brigades around 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon. There they camped
for the night.|
On the morning of July 2, Mahone marched forward along the Pike and filed south along Seminary Ridge before noon, where his Virginians were posted on the far left of the Anderson's division, facing east from McMillan's Woods. That day, the army's assault started with Longstreet's two divisions--posted on the far right--attacking toward the Round Tops in the late afternoon, and was taken up by Anderson's division about 6:00 P.M. When the attack had rolled up as far as Mahone's brigade, however, communication broke down. When his turn came to strike, Mahone refused to participate in the division's attack on Cemetery Ridge.
Mahone's failure is one of the most impenetrable mysteries in a day full of Confederate mistakes. Mahone's report of the battle is Sphinx-like; in little more that 100 words, he reveals nothing about his orders or his actions. But after Posey had moved tentatively toward the Union lines on Mahone's right, he sent to Mahone for support, and wrote in his report that Mahone refused because he had been "ordered to the right," (although such an order is mentioned nowhere else). Anderson dispatched an aide to Mahone with orders to advance, but Mahone again declined to do so. To justify this incredible combination of inertia at a time of extreme urgency and insubordination in the face of a direct order, Mahone responded that he had been ordered to stay put by Anderson himself. Mahone's men never moved, and the grand assault of the Army of Northern Virginia died on his front.
Just as remarkable is the fact that the next day, July 3, when Lee was scouring the army for every available man healthy enough to carry a musket toward the Union lines, Mahone's brigade--one of the freshest brigades in the army as a result of Mahone's reluctance to participate the day before--was completely overlooked. Instead, it was assigned to protect artillery positions during the climactic Pickett's Charge. Neither Lee nor Hill nor Anderson nor Mahone makes note of this oversight in his report; perhaps all were too embarrassed.
Probably because he was one of only five brigadiers in Lee's army who had held that rank for a full year, Mahone's career did not suffer from his refusal to commit his brigade in the army's most crucial battle. The next year, after some of his men accidentally wounded General Longstreet in the Battle of the Wilderness, Mahone was raised to command of the division when Anderson rose to fill Longstreet's post. He was made major general on July 30, 1864, and set the Peter Principle on its head, serving much more ably as a division commander than he had as a brigadier. By the end of the war Mahone was Lee's most conspicuous division leader.
For further reading:
Blake, Nelson M. William Mahone of Virginia: Soldier and Political Insurgent. Richmond, 1935
DePeyster, John W. "A Military Memoir of William Mahone, Major-General in the Confederate Army." History Magazine 7, 1870
Dufour, Charles L. Nine Men In Gray. Lincoln, 1993
Gottfried, Bradley M. "Mahone's Brigade: Insubordination or Miscommunication?," Gettysburg Magazine 18, Jan 1998
Hassler, William W. "Scrappy Little 'Billy' Mahone--A Profile." Civil War Times Illustrated 2, Apr 1963
Mahone, William. "On the Road to Appomattox." Civil War Times Illustrated 9, Jan 1991