Biography of General William Mahone

General William Mahone, born December 1, 1826, near Courtland, Virginia, was a Confederate general, railroad builder, and politician. He attended Virginia Military Institute and began his engineering career with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Mahone’s notable engineering feat was constructing the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad through the Dismal Swamp, completed in 1858. During the Civil War, he rose to major general after leading a key counterattack at the Battle of the Crater. Post-war, Mahone led the consolidation and rebuilding of Virginia’s railroads, forming the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad. He served as a U.S. Senator from 1879 to 1885 and died on October 8, 1895.

General William Mahone
General William Mahone

General William Mahone, Confederate general, railroad builder and politician, was born near Courtland, in eastern Virginia, on December 1, 1826.

His family could not afford a higher education for him, but he showed such promise that he was appointed a State Cadet to Virginia Military Institute in 1844. He said later he owed much of his success to his years at the Lexington school. Mahone excelled in mathematics and planned to be a civil engineer but following one of the conditions of his cadetship he taught school after graduation.

His first engineering job was that of surveyor, later assistant engineer for the new Orange and Alexandria Railroad, now part of the Southern’s main line. Then, without solicitation, he was appointed chief engineer of the Fredericksburg and Valley Plank Road, an ambitious highway project which he directed until 1853, when at the age of 27, he was given a job to test the ingenuity of any engineer — that of chief engineer of the projected Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, to operate between the two Virginia cities for which it was named.

The route lay over practically bottomless Dismal Swamp and there were bridges to be built over navigable streams in the Tidewater area. Mahone devised a clever drainage scheme, then laid a matrix of cypress trunks for his roadbed to conquer the swamp. He battled, too, a yellow fever crisis which threatened to make Norfolk a ghost town. The sturdy right-of-way, including a 52-mile stretch of absolutely straight track west of the swamp, is still used by the Norfolk and Western Railway, and is one of the finest sections of roadbed anywhere.

The Norfolk and Petersburg was opened in September, 1858, and Mahone, only thirty-three years old, was elected president in 1860.

At the outset of the Civil War Mahone and his railroaders were credited with scaring the Union garrison from Norfolk through the ruse of creating so many train noises with a single engine and flat car that the Northerners believed a large detachment of troops was approaching. A few days later he entered the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel.

Mahone fought at Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, and was seriously wounded at Manassas. He recovered quickly to perform the outstanding act of his military career at the Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, in 1864. After the Northern besiegers had disrupted defenses by a tremendous explosive charge set off in a tunnel, Mahone led two brigades which completely routed the enemy troops. He was promoted to major general that day by General Lee.

Mahone’s railroad and two connecting ones — the Southside, from Petersburg to Lynchburg, and the Virginia and Tennessee, from Lynchburg to Bristol, were in fearful shape after the surrender. With little money and less material he began an almost impossible rebuilding job on the Norfolk and Petersburg and soon found himself also president of what was left of the Southside. He wanted desperately to combine all three railroads. Although he was also elected head of the Virginia and Tennessee in 1867, it took three more years of battling regional opposition before the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio — running all the way from Norfolk to Bristol — was formed with Mahone at the helm. This system, immense for its time, was the Norfolk and Western Railroad’s immediate predecessor.

General Mahone was a remarkable combination of engineer, executive and politician and he needed all his skill to keep his railroad going during Reconstruction days. Equipment was hard to replace and payrolls were often met with promises or with salt pork and cornmeal. Just when it seemed he was fighting a winning battle, the panic of ’73 threw the entire country into financial turmoil. The A. M. & O. fought on for three more years but went into receivership in 1876. The road was sold in 1881 at public auction to C. H. Clark and associates of Philadelphia for $8,605,000 after Mahone and his backers lost out in furious bidding. It was reorganized as the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

Mahone’s contribution to the opening of Virginia-beyond-the-mountains to national and international trade was great. When he began railroading the Shenandoah and the Roanoke Valleys and the regions beyond were virtual wilderness; when he left it they were joined to the seaports and the industrial centers by iron rails.

The General was a state-wide figure now and he naturally turned actively to politics. The legions of both his friends and foes were large. He was defeated for the gubernatorial nomination in 1878, to be elected U. S. Senator the next year, serving one term. He died in Washington on October 8, 1895.

(Much of the biographical material in the foregoing is drawn from a paper on the history of the Norfolk and Western Railway, delivered by its president, R. H. Smith, before the Newcomen Society in North America, in October 1949.)


Couper, Wm. (William), History of the Shenandoah Valley, Family and Personal Records, vol. III, New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1952.

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