Early on the morning of June 13, 1862, Hampden-Sydney Medical Department alumnus Capt. William Latané was leading an advance guard of Confederate cavalry along a dirt road in Hanover County, Virginia. He was part of J.E.B. Stuart's reconnaissance operation to determine the strength of the Union Army's right flank, a bold mission later known as the "ride around McClellan" for its circumnavigation of the entire Yankee army.
Happening upon a comparable portion of the 5th U.S. Cavalry on the dusty lane, Latané raised his sword over his head, spurred his horse, and charged ahead of his men crying, "On to them boys!" He galloped directly toward his Union counterpart, Capt. William Royall, with a bravado more akin to a fox chase than a cavalry charge. As the two mounted men drew abreast of one another, Latané swung his sword at his Federal foe in a decapitating effort, only to have his blade glance and bloody the side of Royall's skull.
The Union officer turned and unloaded both of his pistols into Latané's unprotected figure. He died almost instantly. Meanwhile Latané's adversary, perhaps distracted by his kill, was himself sabered to death by a Private Ashton, who had ridden directly behind his captain on the charge. After the enemy was dispersed, Latané's brother, John, picked up the sword and cradled his dead sibling.
The body was taken by ox cart to nearby Westwood plantation, home of the Brockenbrough family, well-known Virginia aristocrats. They promised John a decent Christian burial, and with that small comfort he hurried away, carrying his brother's sword as a saintly relic to be revered thereafter by the grieving family. In a highly romanticized nocturnal act, the women and children of the plantation tenderly buried Capt. Latané's body.
Latané's burial scene would be the subject of a famous engraving second only to "The Last Meeting" of Lee and Jackson in embodying The Lost Cause. In 1989 the sword was donated to the College by Raymond Byrd Wallace '60, Latané's great-great nephew. It is an 1840 dragoon-style saber, with a brass hilt and floral decoration. The grips have remains of sharkskin wrapped over copper wire, and its forte is etched with the mysterious inscription, "many defence."
It is on display in the Atkinson Museum.
This story borrows heavily from the Rev. William "Willie" E. Thompson's piece commemorating the donation of the sword to the College in 1989.