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.