William Mahone Replaces Lee as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews

Early on in my Mahone research I was intrigued by a letter that J. Horace Lacy wrote to the general at some point during the post-Readjuster years.  Lacy shared a conversation he had with Robert E. Lee at a commencement dinner at Washington College in which the general revealed that in the event of his death or inability to lead the army he had Mahone in mind as a replacement.

Gen’l Hampton sat on the right and I as an orator of day on left of Lee.  Turning to Hampton Gen’l Lee said something in a low tone, I leaned back as I thought it was possible it might be something confidential.  Laying his hand upon my knee he said lean over Major I only wish Hampton and yourself to hear.  Then Gen’l Hampton in the dark days which preceded the fall of the Confederacy, for a good while I was almost hopeless, and you know I did not spare this poor life, for I thought it became me to fall on one of those fields of glory. My artillery was handled well, the cavalry was in the very hands, after the death of Stuart that I preferred to any other.  But I often thought if a stray ball should carry me off who could best command the incomparable Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Of course I could not nominate a successor that whole matter was in the hands of the President.  But among the younger men I thought William Mahone had developed the highest quality for organization and command.

The words were written down by me that evening and are in my desk at Ellwood. I write them now hastily in a public room.  But I know they are accurate.  We drifted so far apart politically and I so entirely condemned your policy and methods that I would not give them to the world.  Now I cheerfully write them and as far as I am concerned this may be an open letter to the world.

It’s a great story and I don’t mind admitting that back in 2004 I was seduced by it.  Mahone was my guy and I was going to rescue him from historical oblivion.  In fact, in my first public talks about Mahone I used the well known 1907 print, Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews to make my point.  I was still thinking through issues related to how to handle certain kinds of evidence as well as questions surrounding historical memory.  More importantly, at the time I still didn’t have as solid a grasp of just how divisive Mahone’s postwar politics were and my understanding of the Confederate high command was also lacking.

Take one step back and there are plenty of reasons to doubt the accuracy of the story.  As with so many such stories attributed to Lee that appeared only after 1870 when he could not refute them, it may be true or it may not be.   As several scholars have pointed out, many of the alleged postwar conversations between Lee and George Pickett never took place; they were the product of the imaginations of John Mosby or someone else, who created them for personal/political purposes.  Ultimately, without any additional evidence to support Lacy’s claim there isn’t much we can do with it.

However, even if Lee did say it in the postwar years, does the historical record support it?  Mahone was a brigade commander until circumstances required his elevation.  He had been a brigade commander for two years, over which time Lee had several opportunities to reach out and select Mahone for higher command.  He never did.  Why not?  Mahone became a major general and a division commander, in part because Lee’s pool of potential commanders had become so shallow that even “Little Billy” now floated up to become visible on the surface.  Mahone is one of a number of Confederate brigade and division commanders who performed capably but not spectacularly.  In this regard, he’s much like Cadmus Wilcox and James Lane.  Every general is probably entitled to a “good day” as his performance at the Crater turned out to be for Mahone.  But that does not elevate him to stellar status.  But for every 30 July 1864, he will have a 2 July 1863 at Gettysburg when his men did almost nothing and he failed to respond to positive orders–several times repeated–to advance before the sun set.  One could make the argument that the real late-war success story is not Mahone, but John Gordon.

In the course of my research I was unable to find any evidence that Mahone responded to Lacy’s story.  Based on what I know about Mahone he probably didn’t care.  His political vision for Virginia as well as his own political future were in shambles and that is what mattered to Mahone.

14 thoughts on “William Mahone Replaces Lee as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

  1. James F. Epperson

    Mahone did well as a division commander around Petersburg, but he never served as a corps commander, so his administrative skills were unknown. I think the story, if true, is simply a way of Lee showing he appreciated Mahone’s combat skill towards the end.

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  2. Margaret D. Blough

    You’ve given some excellent reasons for doubting whether this conversation ever occurred. I really have trouble imagining Lee insulting his nephew Fitzhugh Lee by telling a third party that, he believed Hampton was the best commander for the ANV cavalry except for Stuart, even if he had believed it. FitzHugh, a favorite of Jeb Stuart, was a candidate for the position of commander of the ANV’s cavalry after Stuart’s death and, after Hampton was sent to North Carolina to assist Joe Johnston, commanded the ANV for a brief period post-Appomattox. Heck, it’s even insulting to Hampton. Has any reference to this alleged conversation been found in Hampton’s papers?

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    1. Ken Noe

      I agree, I think it would have come as a surprise to Hampton, who consistently felt slighted by the Lees. Rod Andrew does an excellent job discussing that in his biography.

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    2. Ray O'Hara

      The Hampton story sounds suspicious. Especially in the light of Lee sending Hampton away to find horses, something any Lt Col could have done and giving Fitz the command.
      I doubt Hampton would have snuck off to a cookout with an active enemy in the immediate front like nephew Fitz did so that decision bit Lee in the end.

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  3. Bob Huddleston

    Unlike the Yankees, the PACS was restricted by law to seniority in appointment of its general officers. I am sitting in an airport so cannot check Eicher for details, but, since Mahone was not a full general, it is highly unlikely he could have been appointed CG ANV. I am with Jim and Margaret on this one! The reality is that Longstreet, as the senior LT GEN, would have been given the slot. Unless Jeff Davis brought back Joe Johnston or Beauregard!

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  4. Dudley Bokoski

    The New York Times had an article on October 13, 1889 on this topic. Mahone, running for Governor as a Republican, had mailed out the Lacy quote to thousands of voters. The article notes Lacy had become the severest critic of Mahone in the state.

    Lacy is quoted in the article:

    “..before you judge Lee or myself too harshly remember that Christ permitted Judas to be numbered among the disciples, and Washington placed Arnold in command of the strategic line of the Hudson. The first, betraying his blessed Master with a kiss; sold him for thirty pieces of silver, the second got thirty thousand pounds and a commission in the English Army, but couldn’t deliver the goods. Both have gone to their own place.”
    “Mahone sold at a higher figure. When he made his deal with Cameron and Quay he sold out the Democratic Readjuster Party of Virginia for the patronage of the State. Don’t attempt to tear from his brow a leaf of that laurel leaf that entwines it. It will never be kept green by the pious tears of a grateful country, but will ever shine with a lurid lustre, for it was dipped in the dark current of the blood of more than 1,000 negroes slain by him in the Crater. Grimmest joke of all the ages! Mahone of Virginia and Chalmers of Mississippi, the one of the Crater, the other of the Fort Pillow massacre fame, chosen leaders of the poor negro, whose hands they clasp all red and reeking with their brother’s blood!”
    “The man who claims that General Robert E. Lee had chosen him as his successor has just removed the widow of a Confederate soldier at Castle Craig, Campbell County, and given the place to a negro who cannot read or write or write named Adam Clark.”

    I can imagine Lee making a quote placing Mahone in the first rank of his last batch of Division commanders. In 1865 those under 40 (the “younger men”) would have been Fields, Grimes, Pegram, Evans, and Mahone. I can’t see Lee, or anyone else, believing any of them more ready to take over the Army than the existing Corp commanders (who logically would have assumed command based on date of commission). Lee was far too much a “by the book” soldier to ever indulge in imagining such a leap over the command structure.

    In short, I believe Lacy was caught kissing the blarney stone and it blew up in his face later on when Mahone became a Republican. The alleged quote of Lee’s was probably a general comment on the younger officers at the end of the war which Mahone attributed to a conversation with Lee to make himself seem like a confidant on a famous man.

    Lacy is perhaps more familiar as the owner of “Ellwood”, the Wilderness home on whose grounds the amputated arm of Stonewall Jackson is buried. (Lacy’s brother was a chaplain in Jackson’s command).

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      1. Dudley Bokoski

        The NY Times searchable archives (where the Lacey quotes came from) are great, worth the price of a subscription. They have even more value for post war quotes than actual war coverage, because it was the case in that period that any speeches given by former generals on either side tended to get a fairly detailed reporting.

        The postwar newspapers are great fun. One you might enjoy is the Georgetown SC Times, of which there are quite a few issues on-line from the Georgetown County Digital Library (www.dcdigital.org). In fact, the library’s on-line collection has a number of different SC newspapers from before and after the war. Just getting into those, but they are fascinating.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I’ve used the NYTs database on a number of occasions – excellent resource. Thanks for the link as well.

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  5. Dudley Bokoski

    With regard to the widow of a Confederate soldier Mahone removed, I should have pointed out (which the article didn’t) that this was in reference to a postmaster appointment in which Mahone removed the widow and replaced her as postmaster with Mr. Clark.

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  6. Lyle Smith

    From reading secondary sources… isn’t there a similar assertion made about Robert F. Hoke being a designated successor to Robert E. Lee at the end of the war, or some such?

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  7. John Hess

    Lacy also owned Chatham, a mansion overlooking Fredericksburg, a location widely held to be the place were R.E. Lee courted his wife, a myth created and successfully spread by J. Horace Lacy.

    Reply

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