On this day in 1826, William Mahone was born in Monroe, Southampton County. Known by his nickname, “Little Billy,” he was, in the words of a contemporary, “short in stature, spare almost to emaciation, with [a] long beard, and keen, restless eyes.” Also, let’s be honest, a killer jaw and hair that was quite extraordinary. During the Civil War, Little Billy finally came into his own at the Battle of the Crater, when he led a bloody counterattack against a division of United States Colored Troops. Things did not end well for the black troops. Many were killed after surrendering, and while one Confederate colonel admitted that “it seems cruel to murder [the black soldiers] in cold blood,” the Confederates had their reasons and, in the end, “it ha[d] a splendid effect on our men.”
One has to admit that this is all very unpleasant, which is why we need Newt Gingrich. It’s true. Last year, the former presidential candidate coauthored a novel, titled The Battle of the Crater, in which Robert E. Lee sends Little Billy—“small and lean as a starvation year,” in the words of the much better writer Douglas Southall Freeman—into the breach. First, though …
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his soldier. “I want the full honor of war observed. Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Funny it didn’t turn out that way. If only Little Billy had listened to Saintly Bobby!
A version of this post was originally published on December 1, 2011.
PS: If you don’t know anything more about Mahone than his “glory” at the Crater, then read our entry. You might be surprised.
IMAGES: A William Mahone Triptych: An undated photograph from Mahone’s early years (Garrett & Massie, Publishers); Mahone in uniform at the Mathew Brady Studios, ca. 1865 (National Archives); an undated photograph from Mahone’s later years (Library of Congress)