Travis Shaw, the Education Director of the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area, recounted the fateful luck of a local soldier named Luther W. Slater during the 1861 American Civil War.
Aspiring Minister to Novice Soldier
While most Loudoun County residents supported the Confederacy in 1861, a few locals, including Luther Slater, remained loyal to the United States Army.
Slater was 21 years old when the war began. He intended to study at a seminary in Salem, Virginia, before moving to Pennsylvania to become a Lutheran minister. But, like all other men during this time period, Slater had to put his career on hold to participate in the Civil War.
Unlike many of his Northwestern Loudoun County neighbors, Slater enlisted in the Federal Army in the summer of 1862 and was commissioned as First Lieutenant of the pioneering Loudoun Independent Rangers under the command of Samuel C. Means. The Loudoun Rangers were formed to act as Union army scouts and anti-partisan troops against men such as Elijah White and John Mosby. They were also tasked with assisting unionists in the area. Slater was appointed as the First Lieutenant despite his inexperience on the battlefield.
Eventually, word of the Loudoun Rangers spread like wildfire throughout town, reaching into White’s ears that a Unionist Cavalry Battalion had been raised within the borders of Confederate Virginia. The Confederate commander was building his cavalry battalion around the same time—the 35th battalion of Virginia Cavalry—when he heard that Means was going back to Waterford to recruit men for the Unionist Cavalry.
So, that summer of 1862, White declared his intention to “Whip Sam Means,” as Shaw narrated.
‘Lucky’ Luther Slater
Means was with a small group of recruits, about 20 men, when White and his men initiated a surprise attack on the Loudoun Rangers in the pre-dawn hours of August 27. The Confederate Cavalry crept through the fields surrounding Waterford. Just as they were about to set up their traps, a Union officer outside the Waterford Baptist Church happened to notice them and challenge White. His men—that officer happened to be Slater.
The lieutenant fired a shot that rang out into the darkness, which ensued in an intense firefight.
Means, on the other hand, slipped out of his house and disappeared into the early morning darkness, in a way, abandoning Slater and the recruits behind to fend for themselves.
Despite his inexperience on the battlefield, Slater had gathered up the 20 or so men he had and utilized the sturdy brick building of the Waterford Baptist Church as their fortress against the raining shots from the Confederate cavalry outside. The fire exchange continued for the next several hours, and White demanded their surrender during those times. Unfortunately, Slater sustained dangerously fatal wounds, including to the head, chest, arm, and hand.
“He’s lucky because our story isn’t going to end here,” Shaw jested, and indeed true because Slater unbelievably managed to stay conscious and commanded his troops in the firefight as he lay down, bleeding on the floor.
Both sides seized fire when Loudoun Rangers agreed to finally surrender under the condition that they would be allowed parole rather than go into the southern prison war camps.
“I’m sorry to see you so dangerously wounded, lieutenant,” White said upon seeing Slater lying on the church floor, soaking in his pool of blood.
Nursed by his ‘Guardian Angel’
Slater survived his wounds, beating everyone’s pessimistic prediction. He was transferred to the home of one of his college buddies in the north of Pennsylvania since it would be much safer there for him to recover. While in rehab, Slater will meet his friend’s sister and eventually wife, Mollie Yount, whom he endearingly refers to as his “guardian angel.”
He wasn’t mistaken, though. Yount has literally nursed the severely injured lieutenant back to his feet.
When he regained his strength in November 1862, Slater rejoined his unit in the war. His recovery was impressive, but that doesn’t mean his old wounds won’t cause him problems. The First Lieutenant just lost a limb since he couldn’t use it, which stressed the crap out of him. It finally took a toll on him, and he resigned from his commission in the Loudoun Rangers in February 1863.
“He gets to retire, essentially to a quiet corner of Pennsylvania where he is gonna sit out the rest of the war in relative peace and harmony—or is it?” Shaw rhetorically asked.
Shaw continued by saying he may or may not have omitted some details earlier in the story. “Mollie and her family live in a little town in Southern Pennsylvania called Gettysburg,” re-emphasizing the circumstantial luck of his protagonist. “Which, in 1863, isn’t exactly the best place to go if you’re trying to avoid the civil war.”
Leading an ‘underqualified’ Company A
“Luther is a guy that really can’t avoid the sense of duty, the sense of patriotism,” Shaw described, “…and so as the Confederate army […] crossing the Mason-Dixon line and is entering Pennsylvania.”
Because of the rising tension, Slater offered his services to the governor of Pennsylvania. He received his commission almost immediately and was assigned to the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia as Second Lieutenant in Company A, composed of a bunch of inexperienced students. Nonetheless, Slater guided his men to execute their task: delay the Confederate troops as long as possible. But, of course, it was easier said than done.
The now 22-year-old officer marched together with his young troops, most of whom had “never heard a shot in anger” before. They all marched out on the morning of June 26th and were positioned on the west side of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they would meet the war-hardened veterans of northern Virginia.
Shaw narrated: “Now, in one of those weird twists of fate […] Those Confederate cavalrymen (who were escorting the hardened veterans) are members of the 35th battalion of Virginia Cavalry led by none other than White.”
Brothers against brothers, two cavalries representing Loudoun County on opposite sides of the battlefield, exchanging fire on the soil of Gettysburg. However, it was pretty apparent that the Confederates had the edge in this battle, and with the company treading on a thin, unstable thread, Slater made a run out of the field and escaped.
Since then, Slater has concluded his frontline duty. Instead, he worked as a medical officer for the United States Army. He also married Mollie, and the couple had a daughter soon after the war ended and settled in Lovettsville.
His luck ultimately ran out in 1871, when Mollie died shortly after giving birth to their second child. Eventually, his young son would pass away a few weeks later, further shattering Slater’s already mourning heart. To cope, he buried himself in work and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., to take on a handful of essential roles until his unexpected death in 1909.
Briscoe Goodhart, a fellow Unionist of Slater who served with him in the Loudoun Ranger, wrote a heartwarming eulogy for Slater, stating:
“Not only obeyed and respected but loved by all. A large, physically well-built man, a true type of American soldier, and brave as a lion.”