Lovettsville’s Isaac Slater:  From Hangman’s Noose to Capitol Hill

By Edward Spannaus

Isaac Cooper Slater was born and raised in the Lovettsville area, but spent most of his adult life in Washington, D.C., as did his second cousin, Luther Slater, who has been featured in articles and a lecture presented by the Lovettsville Historical Society (LHS).

A friend of the LHS[i] recently drew our attention to an In Memoriam funeral booklet held by the Library of Congress, which contains remarks and eulogies delivered at Isaac Slater’s funeral in 1907, held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill in Washington City.  The booklet is of interest in providing a window into Isaac’s life and career history, but also in demonstrating the high respect in which Isaac Slater was held by his friends and colleagues.

Isaac was born in Lovettsville on February 25, 1843, and was baptized on August 6, 1843 at New Jerusalem Lutheran Church.   He was about a year and one-half younger than cousin Luther W. Slater, who was born in October 1841.

Isaac’s parents were William Slater and Margaret Cooper Slater, who are both buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.   His line of descent goes back to Johannes Jacob Schloetzer (1709-1770) who emigrated from Germany in 1754 and arrived at the port of Philadelphia on 7 November 1754, and Johannes Jacob Schloetzer, Jr. (1729-1815), who came from Germany with his parents.  Johannes Jacob Schloetzer, Jr. was the common great-grandfather of both Luther and Isaac.

When Isaac was about 13 or 14 years old, he went to live with, and work for, J.C. Stoneburner, who operated a store in the town of Lovettsville. Stoneburner owned the house at 32 East Broad Way in Lovettsville at the time, and this is likely where his store was, since the property had a store house and warehouse on the lot. 

Civil War and Prison

In the Spring of 1861, as Virginia was rapidly moving toward secession, and young men of Isaac’s age – he was 18 at that time – feared conscription into the Confederate ranks,  Isaac left Lovettsville and went to Washington, D.C. to live with his father.[ii]  Isaac left Lovettsville on April 19, 1861, a week after the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and same day that Virginia’s military forces moved to seize the federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry.

Isaac later said that he had been sending money from his earnings to his father who was not well-to-do, and that he was worried about him.  Isaac stayed with his father in Washington until August 14, 1861, when he came back to Berlin (now Brunswick), and went to work as a clerk for Hoffman & Howell, and then for C.F. Wenner who operated a large warehouse by the canal.

Across the river in Loudoun County, a change in command of the Confederate forces on December 9  heralded a harsher regime for the Unionists in the northern part of the county. The new Confederate commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel Hill, noted in a letter the kindness of Leesburg’s residents toward his troops, but complained that there was “a good deal of toryism” in other parts of the county.

Under a flag of truce, Hill initiated a correspondence with the Union commander across the river, Brig. Gen. Charles Stone, which included letters written by Loudoun citizens complaining of alleged depredations by federal troops and their exile scouts.  Later, according to Between Reb & Yank, Hill told Gen Beauregard that the real purpose of his correspondence with Stone was to include the warning that “I will hang these villains unless forbidden by my immediate superior.” (Eventually, the Confederate command advised Hill that he could not summarily hang Union soldiers, but that civilian traitors could be executed for murder, robbery, and treason.)[iii]

Doubtless unaware of Hill’s threats, a few days later Isaac Slater and three friends – Emanuel Ruse, Armistead Magaha, and Slater’s cousin William H. Smith – crossed the Potomac in a small boat to visit family and friends in Lovettsville.  As the four were returning to their boat on the morning of December 15, they stumbled into a firefight, in which rebel troops had ambushed a party of Union soldiers who had crossed the river from Berlin. Six Union soldiers were killed, and two captured. The two soldiers and the four civilians were marched to Leesburg, where the Confederate Brig. Gen.  Griffith, then commanding the Mississippi brigade in Loudoun, wanted to execute them.

In a letter to his wife written on December 17, Griffith described the ambush of enemy troops on the 15th, and continued: “Encountering a thieving party of not less than fifteen, they captured six of them, and killed and drowned the balance. The six are now in jail here – two of them genuine Yankee soldiers, and the other four Virginia Tories. We want to hang them all….”[iv]

The hangings were not approved by the Confederate command, and instead those captured were sent to Libby prison in Richmond,  converted from the Libby Tobacco, where the civilians, accused of spying, were held until into at least of summer of 1862, and longer for some of them.

The four civilians were the subject of a campaign of political pressure being put on the U.S. War Department to win their release.   Meanwhile Slater, the youngest of the group, was assigned to work in the prison hospital as a drug clerk.

Two handwritten letters sent by just-released Union officer prisoners to Isaac’s father in Washington, D.C. still exist.[v] One, dated June 12, 1862, states: “I left the prison hospital in Richmond on Saturday morning last and left in It a young man by the name of Slater who has been acting for some time back as Drug Clerk in the prison Hospital. He desired me to notify you where he was—that he was well, and exceedingly anxious to be released. He desires you if possible to take any steps to effect it and do what ever is in your power.”

A second letter, from a Pennsylvania officer, dated July 31, 1862, says that he was wounded in June and taken prisoner and was confined in the same building as Isaac, the Libby’s Tobacco Ware House. “Your son Isaac C. Slater was a great favorite with all our wounded prisoners, and I feel very much interested in getting him released,” the officer continued. “His health was good when I left him on the 17th —–, but close confinement is hard on one so young.”

Young Slater seems to have made a favorable impression on his interrogator, who found no evidence that he was a spy, but Slater continued to be held at Libby prison under pressure from the Confederate command.  “I think favorably of this young man’s deportment and apparent candor on his trial,” he wrote. “If I could see how with propriety he could be discharged from prison I would suggest it; but although my sympathy for him is strong no mode of extending mercy to him occurs to me. I must suggest that he be held as a prisoner.”

Sometime in the late summer of 1862, Slater was released from Libby prison.  As one of the eulogies in the funeral booklet notes, his health was seriously impaired by his time in prison, and he felt the effects for many years.

Isaac returned to Washington City after his release. Shortly after the end the Civil War, he entered into the employ of the Post Office Department, where he worked for almost 20 years. This must have been soon after his cousin Luther Slater was appointed Postmaster in Lovettsville in July 1865.

Isaac’s rise through the ranks in the Post Office Department is described in the funeral eulogies. By the time he resigned from the Department at the end of 1884, he was chief of the Post Office’s Railway Adjustment Division, which set the rates to be paid to railroads for transporting the mails. He then went into private practice as an attorney representing railroad companies.  He was also a member of a federal Commission in the early 1880s to examine the subject of the carrying of mails by the railroads and to devise a fair system of compensation. This was probably a precursor of the Interstate Commerce Commission, established in 1887.

Isaac Slater married Edith Harris on September 4, 1871. They had two known children:  Harris W. Slater, (1875-1933), and Helen C. Slater (1878-1965).  Helen was born in Washington D.C. and lived there for 35 years, marrying Dr. William J. Mallory.  Dr. and Mrs. Mallory were well-known in the Lovettsville area; after Dr. Mallory’s retirement, they moved to what has been called Helen’s ancestral home, Pomona, west of Lovettsville. Isaac purchased the property from the Kalbs in 1892.[vi]

During the period of Isaac’s ownership, Luther Hickman’s family lived in the other half of the two-family house. After Isaac’s death, when the Mallory’s owned it, the Flemings lived in the other half.  The house was demolished a few years ago, and the property – where Irish Corner Road becomes Mountain Road – has now been developed as “Caskey Farm.”

Isaac’s Later Life and Death

Isaac’s first church affiliation was with St. Paul’s English Lutheran Church in Washington, but he was associated with the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill from its founding, in which Luther Slater was instrumental. During the war Isaac’s father William lived on New Jersey Avenue, south of what are now the House Office Buildings;  In the 1880, Isaac and Luther built houses on adjoining lots at 440 and 442 New Jersey Avenue.  (After the death of his first wife Molly in 1871, Luther married a second time, to his second cousin and Isaac’s sister, Margaret Prentiss Slater.)

At the Reformation church, Isaac and Luther were closely associated. During the late 1880s, Luther was the church Treasurer and Isaac was financial Secretary.  Both served as Sunday School Superintendent. And both were Elders and Trustees. (Other Lovettsville families represented at this church were the Hickmans, Downey’s, and Kalbs.)

Isaac died suddenly on April 8, 1907, while visiting at his county home at Pomona, near Lovettsville. He was buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, with his wife Edith who had died in 1903.

After Isaac’s death, a brass pulpit was dedicated at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in memory of Isaac Slater.  About ten years ago, portraits of Isaac Slater and Luther Slater were located at the church, and now are displayed side by side in the church library.

As you will see, the funeral booklet contains many eulogies to Isaac, presented by his church and business colleagues.  These contain much information on Isaac’s life and character. Among those speaking were the Rev. Dr. John Weidley (who also presented a posthumous address by Luther Slater at the 50th Anniversary Reunion of the Loudoun Rangers held at Taylorstown in 1912), the Rev. Dr. J.G. Butler[vii] (founder of Reformation Church), Isaac’s nephew Walter McFarland, Dickerson N. Hoover (older brother of J. Edgar Hoover), and a number of senior Post Office officials.

[i] Our thanks to Melani Carty for alerting us to the existence of the Isaac Slater funeral booklet.

[ii] This description of Isaac Slater’s movements in 1861 comes from a report to Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, dated Jan. 19, 1862, concerning interrogation of prisoners of war being held at Libby Prison in Richmond. The report is contained in documentation files used in the preparation of the book Between Reb and Yank, by Taylor Chamberlin and John Souders (McFarland & Co., 2011).  The documentation files are maintained at the Lovettsville Historical Society Museum.

[iii] Between Reb and Yank, p. 76.

[iv] Quoted in Between Reb and Yank, pp. 76-77.

[v] The original letters were in the possession of Mrs. Parson Hickman of Lovettsville, and were transcribed by Dottie Gladstone. Copies are at the Lovettsville Museum.

[vi] “Pomona,” in Eugene Scheel, Loudoun Discovered, Vol. V, pp. 108-112.

[vii] Dr. Butler was also a founder of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, which was dedicated in 1874 as a “memorial to the goodness of God in bringing peace to the nation and freedom to the enslaved.”  He also taught in the Theological Department of Howard University.