General William Mahone:
"He was every inch a soldier, though there were not many inches of him," was how one soldier described General 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.
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.
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, the son of a tavern owner, was a gambler, a drinker and a mischief-maker. He was 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.
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.
"Little Billy," as he was called by some, 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.
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 at Gettysburg. 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
Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" -- by Tagg