On March 17, 1863 — St. Patrick’s Day — Capt. John Singleton Mosby made a raid on a Union outpost near the Herndon train station on the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad. This raid involved a very frightened resident of the village of Herndon.
A Union picket post had been deployed near the station comprising 25 men under Lt. Alexander G. Watson, Company L of the 1st Vermont Cavalry. At noon, from out of the woods, Mosby approached the station with 40 men and came upon the pickets who were stationed around a sawmill.
Watson’s men saw Mosby coming, but having been on picket duty for the past 48 hours, thought this was a relief party. Mosby’s men were wearing blue overcoats over their gray uniforms, which confirmed their belief. The Union soldiers did not realize their mistake until Mosby’s men made their charge and quickly captured most of them, the rest electing to surrender.
As the Confederates were leaving the sawmill, they noticed four horses tied in front of the residence of Nathaniel (Nat) Hanna, who was a known Union man.
The horses belonged to Maj. William I. Wells, Capt. Robert Schofield, Lt. C.J. Cheney, and Lt. Watson, all of the 1st Vermont. Wells, Schofield, and Cheney had ridden to Herndon Station earlier that day to investigate charges that the pickets had been stealing from the local citizens, a typical pursuit for Yankee soldiers.
The four officers had been inside eating a meal provided by Hanna’s wife, Kitty Kitchen Hanna, a loyal Southerner, when they noticed Mosby’s men in front of the residence. Cheney and Watson rushed out only to be captured. Wells and Schofield tried to hide in the attic.
One of Mosby’s rangers fired a shot through the ceiling calling for their surrender, causing Maj. Wells to fall through the ceiling directly into the hands of his captors. After the war, Wells and Schofield actually returned to reclaim their guns, which they had left hidden in the walls.
Kitty Hanna later recounted the terrifying story of what happened inside her house that day, which began with her brother-in-law informing her that she was having a guest for dinner. “Kitty,” he said, “Watson’s on duty here today; he’ll be comin’ here for dinner mos’ likely, as he’s a friend of Nat’s.”
Lt. Watson came to the house not knowing Nat Hanna was away at the time, and was later joined by the three other officers. “After they’d sat down to eat, layin’ aside their sabres,” Kitty sent for two pies from her aunt’s house to feed her larger-than-expected number of guests. Her account of what happened next is as follows:
“Never shall I forget that St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1863, or them pies. As I turned from servin’ the pies, I cast my eyes out’n the window, an’ I saw comin’ a squad of grays! The rebel yell was no louder than my scream, ‘the Southerns!’ as they came tearin’ down the hill, an’ everyman at the table ran to [the] front door, the wors’ thing to do, to show theyselves!, an’ then the bullets jes’ rained on our house. The Yankees ran inside an’ I thought they was goin’ to fight it out, but they buckled on sabres, they followed my brother-in-law up the stairway, till I cried out in terror.
“ ’Gentlemen, go outside, or I’ll be murdered in my own house!’ Watson couldn’t stand that, so he rushed out, firin’ all the time, an so did Lieutenant Chiny; an I never saw either one on’em again, but I knew they’d been caught. Watson was a Vermonter, who was never more seen in these parts. The other two officers followed my brother-in-law to the garret (attic), which was floored all over an’ had a big brick chimney runnin’ through the roof; an’ behin’ that chimney was a dark cuddy protected by a closet on one side, with only three boards for floorin.’ The three men crawled in there, an’ while they was hidin’, Mother an’ me ran over to Betsy Allen’s.
“I looked down toward [the] mill an’ saw the line of boys in blue standin’ with their sabres up, an’ I felt sure they would all be kilt, so I turned my back not to see it, leavin’ those men hidin’ in the attic. We could hear the Southerns rush in the house shootin’ and bangin’, an’ I felt certain no one would be lef’ alive.
“What did happen, my brother-in-law told me afterwards. Mosby’s men rushed upstairs callin’ them to surrender, which as the bullets whizzed ‘round, they decided to do, an’ they was taken prisoners of war. Nat’s brother was lef’ there, he not bein’ in army, an’ also known to Mosby’s men, who took off with the Yankee officers an’ [their] beautiful horses to someplace beyond the Union lines. I went creepin’ home, expectin’ to see dead men at every step, but I found none.”
Within a couple of weeks, Mosby’s men rode by again, stopping at the Herndon Station across the street from Kitty Hanna’s house, “but the leader rode into our yard an’ lef’ his horse standin’ an’ knocked at the front door. ‘Madam,’ he says, ‘I come to apologize to you for my men shootin’ at your house a week or so back.’ ‘So they did,’ I replied, but said no more. ‘Can you let me have a newspaper to read, Madam?’ (There was a pile inside but I answered) ‘No, sir, I can’t.’ Mosby was too polite to insist, an’ he turned an’ walked away.
“I never saw him after, but in his book he called me a ‘Union woman’; he little knew how my heart was torn to pieces. I wished harm to nobody, an’ cared for many a soldier, Northern an’ Southern alike. I grew nervous seein’ scouts at all hours, an’ soldiers rushin’ by with bayonets pointed at my home. But let that pass, an’ bygones be bygones.”
Kitty Hanna survived long after the war, granting an interview between 1905 and 1906 on the story of her life in Herndon. There is no doubt that every St. Patrick’s Day she had a special story to tell about John Singleton Mosby and her pies.
Chuck Mauro is the author of “Herndon: A Town and Its History” and “Herndon: A History in Images.”