Continued from previous post

Several hours after sunup on Friday, June 13, 1862, John Mosby rode out ahead of Jeb Stuart’s  Confederate cavalry column toward Hanover Court House. Mosby and his men soon bumped into a Federal patrol at the edge of the village.

Meanwhile, the main Confederate body had received word of the same 6th U.S. Cavalry patrol and had halted behind a wooded hill near the white-frame St. Paul’s Episcopal Church built in the 1840’s. This Union patrol realized they were outnumbered and soon left a trail of dust in their wake.

Stuart’s men continued on into town and about a mile south of Hanover Court House they came to an intersection with the Hanovertown or River road. Probably near this point, Stuart’s lead element bumped into the advance guard from another Federal patrol led by the 5th U. S. Cavalry’s lieutenant Edward H. Leib. A few scattered shots rang out as Leib saw he was outmanned and he reversed his company “by fours” and raced back southeast along this road.

Jeb Stuart elected not to chase this enemy patrol either. He nodded to Lieutenant William Robins to continue on to Dr. Kinney’s house less than three miles south of the court house. As Robins led the rebel vanguard onward the only reminder of the recent enemy encounter was a gritty dusty taste on the tongues of the Confederate cavalrymen. The Kinney place stood just right of the road, a two story white frame house flanked by brick chimneys at each end. There the rebels turned left toward Taliaferro’s Mill. Thick woods soon surrounded this road too as it snaked and dropped toward Crump’s Creek and Taliaferro’s Mill, another potential ambush spot. The throaty bark of frogs rose up from the swamp. The overarching tree limbs provided welcome shade as the temperature approached ninety degrees.

Robins and his 9th Virginians, eyes wide and guns ready, approached the creek bridge. A company from Captain Samuel Swann’s squadron dismounted as skirmishers and fanned out into the woods on each side of the road. Once across the bridge the area seemed clear and Robins rode past the wooden mill on the left. He sent a rider back to bring the rest of the column forward.

Lieutenant Robins led the Confederate advance guard toward Hawes Shop at a gallop, well ahead of the main body. Robins and his handful of men raced into the village intersection scattering Union pickets like quail. Somehow despite an earlier warning from Lieutenant Leib, these Union horsemen had been surprised without a shot being fired. A handful of fugitives bolted away amidst a clatter of hooves and dust. The rest of Rooney Lee’s 9th Virginia cavalrymen soon arrived and helped to disarm the prisoners and then turn them over to a provost guard.

A running fight then continued for several miles to the Totopotomoy Creek bridge. There, the gray-clad pursuers realized that Leib’s men had formed a defensive position with Lieutenant William McLean’s troopers on the far side of the creek. These Federal cavalrymen held the bridge for a short time, but they soon saw dismounted rebels wading the creek “above and below the bridge.” Leib ordered his men to fall back again and they probably followed McLean’s soldiers up the hill toward Old Church. He believed that his men fell back about two miles disputing ground until the enemy pressure disappeared. The road leveled out with fields on both sides. Near an intersection with the road that heads southwest toward Richmond, Leib decided to “to hold my position at all hazard, deeming it certain re-enforcements must soon come up.” Locals knew the spot as Linney’s Corner. A half hour later the 5th U. S. Cavalry’s captain William Royall finally showed up with reinforcements and a relieved Leib turned command of the force over to him.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Robins crossed Totopotomoy Creek and found the enemy gone. He sent a rider back to inform Stuart that the enemy had disappeared. Lieutenant John E. Cooke expressed surprise that “the stream was entirely undefended by works” and “the enemy’s right wing was unprotected.” The discovery of this information was precisely the reason that General Lee had sent Stuart and his men on their expedition.

At the road intersection, Lieutenant Leib told Captain Royall of the large number of Confederate troopers swarming across the Totopotomoy Creek and certain to be headed their way. Royall sent Lieutenant Louis D. Watkins to Cavalry Reserve headquarters at Old Cold Harbor to inform Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke of the “enemy in force” on the right flank. Amazingly, Watkins appears to be the first rider sent to alert any senior Union commander to the presence of Confederate raiders miles behind the front line. John Mosby later defended Royall’s slow response: “He [Royall] had no cause to suspect the numbers he was meeting, for McClellan had never even considered the possibility of a force breaking through his lines and passing around him.”

Next, Royall sent another rider back to bring Lieutenant Richard Byrnes forward with the rest of the 5th U. S. Cavalry’s Company C. When Byrnes received the order he sent a man back to the Old Church camp to make sure the teamsters had loaded the wagons with supplies and were ready to make their escape. He then led his men at a gallop toward Royall’s position just over a mile west from Old Church. The Federal reinforcements soon reached Captain Royall, but they only increased his small force to about 100 troopers to try and slow Stuart’s gray 1,200 member juggernaut that now clattered across the Totopotomoy Creek bridge headed their way.

Lieutenant Robins’ men rode ahead as the road climbed up from the creek bottom. As the ground flattened out Robins saw open fields ahead and his men dismounted and crept through the woods. Moments later, Robins observed “a force of Federal cavalry drawn up in column of fours, ready to charge.” He ordered his men to drop back and he sent a man back downhill to notify General Stuart.

This scout reached Jeb Stuart and Rooney Lee near the creek bridge and passed the word of the enemy stand. Captain William Latane, the twenty-nine-year-old prewar doctor, then received an order “to move forward and clear the road.” Jeb Stuart did not know the strength of the force that lay ahead, but he “preferred to oppose the enemy with one squadron at a time, remembering that he who brings on the field the last cavalry reserve wins the day.” He then urged Fitzhugh Lee’s 1st Virginia Cavalry to follow up Latane’s men while Captain Swann’s skirmishers remounted. The 9th Virginia Cavalry’s company E from Spotsylvania County, known as the Mercer Cavalry, trotted up the hill followed by Company F’s Essex Light Dragoons.

Meanwhile, just west of Old Church, Captain Royall’s curiosity had taken over as he waited near the Richmond and Hanover Court House crossroads. He had not seen any rebel cavalry, yet Lieutenant Leib said they were coming. “Wishing to satisfy myself from personal observation as to the strength and character of the enemy,” Royall led Lieutenant McLean’s men forward followed by Leib and Byrnes. After riding about three-quarters-of-a-mile he spied Lieutenant Robins’ handful of dismounted scouts. Royall bellowed out the order “to draw saber” and led his column ahead which sent the Confederates tumbling back downhill through the woods to their horses.

Royall wisely elected not to follow Robins’ dismounted vanguard very far. The Union cavalry captain believed a “few minutes” passed when he heard an unpleasant noise – the sounds of many horses headed his way from the Totopotomoy Creek bottom. He knew they could not be friendly.
The time was about 3 p.m. as Captain Latane led his squadron over the hilltop into the bright daylight. A large field stood on the road’s left and on the right lay a thin tree line and a smaller field.  When Latane saw Royall’s blue-clad troopers ahead he ordered a charge. Astride his half-Arabian horse, the Colonel, William Latane shot ahead of his men. An excited Lieutenant Robins and some of his scouts jumped back on their mounts to join the clash. However, Latane failed to notice a Union skirmish line that waited in the woods to the west of the road.

The terrain and trees hid most of the approaching rebels from Royall’s view, thus he did not realize that he was heavily outnumbered. Despite what his ears must have told him, he ordered a charge too. Bugles blared and guideons snapped as the columns galloped toward a head-on collision. He spurred his horse directly toward the man leading the rebel charge – Captain Latane. However, Royall soon saw he had a real problem as large numbers of enemy riders flared into the fields, their horses straining to flank his men on both sides. He believed that he faced about “six or seven squadrons of cavalry.”

Only a short distance separated the heads of the charging columns. Latane probably did not see the danger on his right flank as he waved his saber toward the threat ahead in the road. Suddenly from the woods to the right of the road, the Union skirmishers stampeded by other rebels in the woods, side-swiped into the midst of Latane’s group. A wild melee of sabers, pistols and fists ensued and then the front end of Royall’s column piled into the mess.

Latane swung his saber at Captain Royall and struck flesh. Royall’s hat, sliced in half, fell to the ground. Royall tried to maintain his balance in the saddle as he leveled his revolver and fired point blank into Latane’s torso. The momentum of the Confederate officer’s horse carried him past Royall. Neighing and swirling horses mixed with the growing dust cloud. Men yelled, first to bolster their courage and then from wounds. Lieutenant Robins rode close to Latane and saw him fall from his horse the target of multiple gunshots as he “rode some paces in front of his men.”

Lieutenant Leib heard the collision just ahead. With saber in hand and reins in the other he prepared to charge into the melee. He could not see much amidst the smoke and dust. However, moments later soldiers in blue came bailing out of the chaos both on foot and horseback. Leib stared in horror as a blood covered officer, a death grip on his mount, came at him. It was Captain Royall.

Blood poured down the side of Royall’s face and head from multiple saber slashes. He slowed near Leib and shouted for them “to fall back.” Leib repeated the order and a nearby bugler sounded the alarm. He turned and rode to catch up with Royall. When he looked back he could not see Lieutenant McLean anywhere.

Lieutenant Robins now found himself and about twenty-four other southerners “borne along by the flying Federals” unable to escape from the chaotic momentum of the enemy retreat. He believed that each of his colleagues suffered wounds as “we were pushed by our foes in our rear into the ranks of those in our front.” As the pile of men, beasts and debris moved southeast for at least a quarter-mile, Robins saw an opportunity to escape. “I leaped my horse over the fence into the field and so got away” somehow unscathed.

The 9th Virginia Cavalry’s private William Campbell stood over a wounded enemy officer who turned out to be Lieutenant William McLean. He walked McLean toward the rear when he saw Colonel Rooney Lee. Figuring that McLean would have some valuable information for his regimental commander he steered his prize toward Lee. Then Campbell’s emotions sank as Lee told him of Captain Latane’s death and asked him to hand the prisoner over to a guard and go assist with moving his captain’s body.

Lieutenant John E. Cooke approached as the fighting ended. A field of debris lay all about where the running skirmish had passed. Then he saw the body of Latane on the ground. He observed that “many a bearded face was wet with tears.”

Just to the east, Captain Royall despite his injuries somehow stayed in the saddle on the chaotic retreat. Nobody was happier than Royall as his surviving Federal troopers skidded into Old Church and he noted the rebel pressure diminished during the final mile to the Old Church camp.
Yet, within the hour, Jeb Stuart’s raiders thundered into the Union camp at Old Church and confiscated some much needed Federal supplies. When they departed Old Church, the flames licked up the sides of the Federal tents and Stuart’s raiders unexpectedly continued deeper behind enemy lines.

The 9th Virginia Cavalry’s sergeant George Beale raced up from the Totopotomoy Creek bottom, but sadly noticed that the gunfire had stopped. He came upon several bloody soldiers from Company E headed downhill toward the bridge. Moments later he found “four men, each holding the corner of a blanket.” Beale recognized Captain Latane’s boots sticking out.

One of the men still with the body was Sergeant John Latane, younger brother of the deceased officer. The twenty-three-year-old former University of Virginia student had joined the 9th Virginia the previous year, probably at the suggestion of his medical doctor brother. Because time and men were of the essence, John would soon find himself excused from duty, but alone as he sought a proper burial spot behind Yankee lines.

Captain Latane would later be buried on Summer Hill plantation by a group of Southern woman with the assistance of a faithful servant. Soon after the last spade of dirt was dropped on the fresh grave, the life of Captain William Latane took on mythological significance in the South. The bravado of the young fallen cavalry officer leading his men in a thunderous collision of horses and men begged for remembrance, but a subsequent poem and painting added a romantic flourish to the event.
Southerners seemed enthralled with John R. Thompson’s 1862 poem titled “The Burial of Latane” amidst its wide critical acclaim. Thompson had previously served as the editor at the Southern Literary Messenger. His poem eulogized Latane but it also drew attention to the huge wartime sacrifices rendered by Southern women highlighted by their selflessness as they shed tears wept over the grave of a warrior who was but a stranger to them.

Newspaper stories about the burial and Thompson’s poem no doubt inspired an artist named William D. Washington. The twenty-eight-year-old Clarke County native hired several Richmond women and young girls to serve as models for his rendition of the graveyard scene. He finished the work in late-1864 and it drew further attention to the sacrifices of both soldier and citizen ensuring that by war’s end, the name of Captain William Latane would be known throughout America.

Portions excerpted from Stuart’s Finest Hour: The Ride Around McClellan, June 1862.©2013 by Angle Valley Press