Mahone was born in Monroe, Southampton County, on December 1, 1826, to Fielding Jordan Mahone and Martha Drew. Although Mahone’s father owned some land, he made his primary income as a merchant and innkeeper. In 1831, he helped lead local militia units in their hunt for the slave preacher Nat Turner, whose insurrection targeted the nearby county seat of Jerusalem (later Courtland). The Mahones relocated several times during William’s childhood but always remained in Southside Virginia. In July 1844, William Mahone entered the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington on a state scholarship; he excelled in his studies and graduated in 1847.
After failing to secure a commission in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War (1846–1848), Mahone taught school in Caroline County. Although he liked the work, he cast about for something else, deciding finally to become an engineer. He remarked to a mentor at VMI that “Internal Improvements seem to be the order of the day far and wide,” and he was right. A rage for public works projects such as toll roads, plank roads, canals, and railroads gripped Virginia at the time, and many saw these investments as a boost to the economy and, indirectly, a way to maintain the economic viability of slavery. In 1849, Mahone began work with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, and subsequently worked on the Fredericksburg and Valley Plank Road and the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. By 1853 he was chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg, and in 1860 he became president.
On February 8, 1855, Mahone married Otelia Butler of Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, and the couple had thirteen children, of whom two sons and a daughter survived to maturity. According to local lore, a number of towns along the line of the Norfolk and Petersburg, including Ivor and Waverly, were named by Otelia, who at the time of their creation was reading the medieval adventure novel Ivanhoe (1820) by Sir Walter Scott. The town of Disputanta purportedly received its name when the couple could not agree on what to call it.
Civil War Service
A slave-owner andmember, Mahone supported from the Union on April 17, 1861. On April 29, he was commissioned a of the 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry stationed near Norfolk. He was promoted to colonel on May 2 and brigadier general on November 16, but remained in the Tidewater, away from the action in central and northern Virginia. Even when his brigade was relocated in May 1862, it was for garrison duty at Drewry’s Bluff on the . At the end of May, Mahone’s brigade finally marched north and participated in ‘s attack against Union general ‘s forces at during the .
The battle was a bloody draw and left Johnston seriously wounded. Command of thetransferred to , who relentlessly attacked McClellan several weeks later during the . Mahone remained with the army and was seriously wounded at the in August 1862, forcing him to miss the the next month. Informed that he had only suffered a flesh wound, Mahone’s wife was surprised by his condition, exclaiming, “Now I know it is serious, for William has no flesh
whatsoever.” Mahone recovered to participate in the battles of(1862), (1863), and (1863), and the bloody confrontations with Union general-in-chief during the Overland Campaign (1864), including at the and . Still, he failed to win promotion. In the meantime, he was elected to the Senate of Virginia and served largely in absentia from 1863 until 1865.
After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant swung south to, but there he stalled, settling the in for . It was here, on ground that Mahone had personally surveyed for the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, that he finally earned the military glory he craved, standing forth, in the words of a biographer, “like Mars at perihelion.” At dawn on July 30, 1864, Union troops in ‘s Ninth Corps exploded a gunpowder-filled mine dug under Confederate lines and charged into the resulting crater. Lee rushed in three brigades of infantry under Mahone, and as they aimed their guns down into the thirty-foot-deep pit, they found a number of United States Colored Troops. Some of Mahone’s screamed “no quarter” and a massacre ensued, with many surrendered black troops murdered behind Confederate lines. Contemporary accounts differ as to whether Mahone bore direct responsibility for the actions of his troops at the Battle of the Crater; however, he was promoted to major general three days later. He fought at the in August, and then, after and Petersburg fell in April 1865, retreated west during the , with Lee’s army on April 9.
With Virginia’s railroads all but destroyed by the war, Mahone almost immediately returned to work on the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. He also became president of the. He set about improving the two lines and developed ambitious plans for their consolidation with a third—the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad—into a united southern railroad stretching from Norfolk to the Mississippi River. Not coincidentally, the proposed Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad would greatly benefit Southside and Norfolk, funneling commercial traffic away from the Mississippi River, across Tennessee, and out of the Chesapeake Bay.
However, Mahone’s plans angered the state’s traditional powerbrokers, who before the war had backed an expansion of the. Their idea, revitalized after the war, was to merge the B&O with the Orange and Alexandria, then push for its development into the Shenandoah Valley. Such a railroad would hurt Southside business interests—and Mahone—because it would route traffic to Baltimore, Maryland. Proponents of the B&O plan quipped that AM&O really stood for “All Mine and Otelia’s,” implying that the new line was designed to enrich only the Mahones. In order to gain political support for his plan, Mahone lobbied behind the scenes in Richmond, eventually winning the General Assembly‘s approval of a charter. The AM&O was formally organized in 1870, with Mahone as its president.
Mahone’s political dealings on behalf of the AM&O generally involved working to create and advance sympathetic factions within the two major parties in Virginia at the time—theand the . Neither party by itself adequately served his and the railroad’s interests. The Conservatives—a coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats, and —remained beholden to the Richmond and Baltimore powerbrokers who opposed the railroad, while the Republicans had trouble mobilizing a white constituency willing and able to work with the party’s black supporters. Still, Mahone found particular success in organizing younger, more business-minded Virginians in support of his various schemes.
Mahone’s participation in politics might have ended there but for the failure of the AM&O. In 1871 Mahone sold company bonds to a group of London investors. Two years later, a financial panic hit the United States when a major American bank folded after speculating on railroad stock. Other banks crashed, credit dried up, and the stock market closed temporarily. There was rioting in New York. Although Mahone tried to weather the storm, the AM&O failed to meet its payments to the investors, and in 1876 the company went into receivership. What was bad luck for the railroad, however, proved to be good fortune for Mahone. He now had the time and the freedom to focus on his own political ambitions.
In 1877 Mahone made his first run for elected office. In an effort to win the Conservative Party’s nomination for governor, he organized a faction of supporters around the thorny issue of Virginia’s debt. Before the Civil War, the state had funded internal improvements by issuing state-backed bonds, accumulating $33 million in debt; most of these improvements were destroyed during the war, however, making it impossible for the state to earn income on the investments and pay off the debt. The establishment ofin 1863 only exacerbated the problem by reducing the state’s tax base, and by the end of the war, Virginia’s debt had increased to $45 million. In response to the crisis, the Conservative-led government in 1871 passed the Funding Act, which required “funding,” or paying off, the debt in full. Conservatives claimed to act on behalf of Virginia’s honor, although many in the party also owned the very bonds whose value was at stake.
That Conservatives were forced to raise taxes and cut social services, including public education, provided a political opening for Mahone. The Funders, as the Conservatives were sometimes called, enacted policies that aggravated African Americans and poor whites who depended on state services and came to perceive the party as representing elite eastern interests. Proposing to “readjust,” or repudiate, a portion of the state debt, Mahone lost the nomination to Frederick W. M. Holliday, who was elected governor and served from 1878 until 1881. Once in office, Holliday, a Winchester native and veteran of the, defended his party’s funding of the debt and argued that free public schools were a luxury. “Our fathers did not need free schools to make them what they were,” he told the legislature. “Free schools are not a necessity.” Misreading the public sentiment in Virginia, Holliday’s policies invited the formation of the new Readjuster Party.
From 1879 until 1883, Mahone was the leading voice of the Readjusters, a motley, biracial coalition of Conservatives and Republicans intent on reducing the debt and restoring social services. Elected to a tightly divided U.S. Senate in 1881, he caucused with the national Republican Party, giving it the majority and allowing Mahone to dispense patronage positions in Virginia. His detractors accused him of caring “not a fig for either a Republican or a Democrat farther than he can use him for his own benefit. If a man be Mahoneite, he needs no other recommendation or qualification.” Indeed, historians have wondered how Mahone—a conservative former slaveholder who may have presided over the massacre of black troops at the Crater—could have broken with the Conservative Party and united with African Americans against the state’s ruling interests. Mahone himself seemed to possess no deep commitment to racial equality, and some historians have speculated that politics were a means to advance his continuing railroad ambitions. If so, that power came with a price. Virginia Conservatives and partisans of theview of the Civil War attacked Mahone and impugned his military career, much as they did with another former Confederate general-turned-Republican, .
For a time, the Readjusters enjoyed great success, capturing a majority of seats in the General Assembly in 1879 and, two years later, electing as governor, a former mayor of Petersburg. They reduced the state debt by a third and the interest rate from 6 to 3 percent; restored public schools; spent more on hospitals, penitentiaries, and higher education; and reformed the tax code in favor of farmers and small-businessmen and against the railroads. In the meantime, Mahone managed his coalition with machine-style politics dependent on his ability to dole out patronage appointments and his constituents’ willingness to remain loyal to his sometimes autocratic leadership. Such an arrangement worked well enough for other parties both before and after the Readjusters; for instance, and, later, both ran the Virginia Democratic Party from the U.S. Senate. But race was too combustible an issue in post–Reconstruction Virginia for Mahone to control. After a in Danville in 1883, Democratic politicians blamed the violence on the pro–African American policies of the Readjusters and exploited white fears in order to regain control of the General Assembly that year.
Significantly, Democrats allowed many Readjuster policies to stand, thus preventing any resurgence of the coalition. As Democrats took control they also dismantled the Readjuster machine, stripping Mahone’s patronage appointees of their positions. Mahone remained in the Senate, and became more and more associated with the Republican Party. In 1886,, a Democrat, was elected governor, and Mahone lost his Senate seat to Democrat , a former aide to Confederate general .
Despite the disintegration of the Readjuster Party, Mahone remained involved in Virginia politics as a Republican and headed the state party’s nominating committees. Mahone himself ran for governor as a Republican in 1889 but lost to Philip W. McKinney. After this defeat, Mahone largely retired from politics and spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., involved in various investment schemes, most of which failed. On October 8, 1895, he died from complications resulting from a stroke. His body was transported to Petersburg, where he was buried at Blandford Cemetery.