First Contact at Gettysburg

We can’t say with certainty how many men from the Heritage Area were present at the Battle of Gettysburg, but it is undoubtedly in the hundreds. Men from the region filled the ranks of the 8th and 49th Virginia Infantry Regiments, which both saw heavy fighting during the three day battle. Others served in the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry or the 6th Virginia Cavalry, guarding Lee’s flanks and protecting his army’s retreat. Untold others served as individuals or small groups scattered throughout the Confederate Army. On the other side, several dozen men from Loudoun and the neighboring counties were serving in the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Infantry, Cole’s Maryland Cavalry, and there are undoubtedly more in other regiments that have yet to be uncovered. The presence of men from the Heritage Area fighting on opposite sides of the battle provides us with personal stories of communities that were divided during the war. It also calls attention to a little-known prelude to the battle that saw two Loudoun County residents facing off against one another.

Luther Slater was born near Lovettsville in 1841. As a young man he worked towards a future as a clergyman, studying first at Roanoke College and then at the Preparatory Department of Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg (now Gettysburg College). His intention was to enroll at the now well known Lutheran Seminary there, but the coming of the Civil War interrupted his plans and set him on a new path.

A photo of Luther Slater taken later in life (FindAGrave/Edward Spannus).
The Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, where Slater planned to attend. The building now houses the fantastic Seminary Ridge Museum.

Slater returned home to Loudoun County, and in late June, 1862, he was one of dozens of local unionists who enlisted in a newly formed cavalry unit known as the Loudoun Rangers. Although only 21 years old at the time, he was elected 1st Lieutenant of Company A. The company was still assembling and new recruits were training two months later, when Slater and his command would endure their baptism of fire.

Early on the morning of August 27th, 1862 Slater and around 20 of his men were surprised and surrounded in the Waterford Baptist Church by Elijah White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. In the ensuing firefight that lasted several hours, Slater was wounded severely – shot in the head, shoulder, arm, and hand. When the outnumbered Rangers finally surrendered to White’s force, the Confederate commander is said to have told Slater “I am sorry to see you so dangerously wounded, Lieutenant.”

Maryland born Elijah V. White commanded the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, and was a frequent opponent of Slater and the Loudoun Rangers.
The Waterford Baptist Church, site of the August 1862 fight and Luther Slater’s terrible wounding.

With his life in the balance, the badly wounded Lieutenant was sent away to recover among friends that he had met while studying in Gettysburg. He became particularly attached to one of his caregivers, Mollie Yount. Luther remained in Gettysburg for several months, before returning to the army as a provost guard at Point of Rocks. It wasn’t a combat role, but his arm injury caused him repeated problems, which led to his resignation from the army in February, 1863. He returned to Gettysburg (and to Mollie), where it was hoped he would be far from the seat of the war.

That summer, the war came to Luther Slater as the Army of Northern Virginia marched into Pennsylvania. The state’s governor called for emergency militias to be raised in an effort to slow the Confederate advance. Not one to forgo his duty, Luther Slater volunteered, despite his old wounds. The young Lieutenant, arm still in a sling, was soon at the head of a company of Gettysburg college and seminary students that became part of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. On the morning of June 26th, this militia regiment, along with some local farmers mounted as cavalry, stood along the banks of Marsh Creek, just west of Gettysburg. Bearing down on them was a strong force of veteran Confederate infantry, with the horsemen of Elijah White’s 35th Battalion leading the way. The Confederate cavalry “came with barbarian yells and smoking pistols” and easily brushed aside the inexperienced militia, capturing many and routing the rest. Later that same day the militia attempted to regroup north of town, but was again driven off.

The Skirmish at Marsh Creek (Battlefield Trust)

Slater survived his second brush with Elijah White, and remained with the militia for the next month. He was detailed to the signal corps, and according to some sources he also served in the hospital corps as well. In November 1864, he married Mollie, and at the end of the war he and his bride moved back to Lovettsville. From there he had a distinguished career in politics and civil service – first as a constable and postmaster in Loudoun County, then as a 40-year career employee with the Federal government. His greatest contribution was with the Record and Pension Office, where he assisted with the organization of military records following the war. He was also a founder of the Washington, DC chapter of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

Slater’s gravestone in Lovettsville’s Union Cemetery (FindAGrave/Edward Spannus)

The story of Luther Slater is one of a man committed to service, whether it was to his faith, his community, or his nation. It’s also an example of two men from the same community – Elijah White and Luther Slater – who happened to face off against one another on the eve of the greatest battle of the Civil War.

For more information on Luther Slater, visit the Lovettsville Historical Society!

Class Activity: In your own words, please answer the following questions:

  1. What military units did Luther Slater serve in during the Civil War? How would you describe his military career?
  2. Name three ways that Luther Slater served the public.
  3. Using what you can research about the Civil War in the Heritage Area, why do you think Elijah White and Luther Slater chose to fight on different sides of the war? Visit the Mosby Heritage Area, the Loudoun Museum, and Loudoun History for more information.

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