William Mahone

William Mahone (1826-1895), American political leader and Confederate Army officer, led a movement of reformers in Virginia known as the Readjustors, with whose backing he won election to the U.S. Senate.

William Mahone was born on Dec. 1, 1826, in Monroe, Va. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and decided to become an engineer. He succeeded so well that at the age of 26 he was chief engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad and at 33 was elected its president. He was a tiny man, hardly 5 1/2 feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, but he had complete confidence in himself and a commanding manner.

During the Civil War, Mahone distinguished himself in the Army of Northern Virginia, rising to the rank of major general. After the war he returned to the presidency of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad and began to consolidate it with other railroads in order to build a line that would extend to the Ohio River. He encountered strong opposition from other railroad interests, including the powerful Baltimore and Ohio. In order to get state aid, he began to help Conservative party candidates who appeared sympathetic to his interests. Nevertheless, after the Panic of 1873 his railroad system failed, and he turned his attention to politics.

In 1879 Mahone emerged as the leader of a movement of reformers known as the Readjustors, who gained control of the Virginia Legislature in 1879 and of the governorship in 1881. They enacted many reforms, such as abolition of the whipping post and poll tax, tax relief for farmers, and funds for public schools. They also elected Mahone to the U.S. Senate in 1881, where the election year membership had been evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. As an independent, Mahone could cast the vote which would decide which party would control the Senate. He voted with the Republicans, who rewarded him with all the Federal patronage in his state. This support combined with the strict control he had established over the Readjustor organization made him briefly the political boss of Virginia.

But Mahone's arbitrary rule made many enemies and his appeal for black votes enabled his opponents to raise the question of race. In 1883 the Conservatives regained control of the legislature by endorsing the Readjustors' reforms while exciting white prejudice. Mahone and the Readjustors now officially joined the Republican party but were unable to win back political control of their state. Mahone served as chairman of the state Republican party until his death in Washington, D. C., on Oct. 8, 1895.


Further Reading on William Mahone

A well-written account of Mahone's life is Nelson Morehouse Blake, William Mahone of Virginia: Soldier and Political Insurgent (1935). See also Robert H. Smith, General William Mahone, Frederick J. Kimball and Others: A Short History of the Norfolk and Western Railway (1949).