BUCKHANNON — This series of regular articles explores aspects of Upshur County’s history, culture or people honored by the West Virginia Highway Historical Marker Program. The state register lists 20 of these iconic white plaques in Upshur County, and each article will present as much information on the subject as can be found. This ninth installment will discuss George R. Latham: lawyer, veteran and West Virginia founding statesman.
George Robert Latham was born March 9, 1832, near Haymarket, Virginia; details of his early life are sparse, though it is known he attended common schools as a child before eventually studying law and being admitted to the bar in 1859. He began his legal practice in Grafton and, in 1860, began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Western Virginian, which devoted itself to “the Constitution, the Union, and the Enforcement of the Laws.”
Soon after moving to Taylor County, Latham came into the command of the local militia, the Grafton Guards. However, life would not remain simple for long; on April 17, 1861, the state of Virginia voted to secede from the Union, and various Virginia militia units seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry; the Grafton Guards were ordered to protect the railroads serving their city. Prior to secession, on May 13, the Clarksburg Resolution called for western Virginians to meet at Wheeling and discuss the future of Virginia’s western counties; Latham served as one of Taylor County’s delegates for this First Wheeling Convention. After Virginia’s vote for secession passed, the Grafton Guards took the train to Wheeling where they became Company B of the 2nd West Virginia Infantry Regiment, with Latham appointed as their captain.
In 1864, the 2nd West Virginia Infantry was reorganized into the 5th West Virginia Cavalry Regiment (and later, combined with the 3rd West Virginia Infantry to form the 6th West Virginia Cavalry) and Latham was promoted to colonel. The 5th West Virginia served in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain and the Battle of Lynchburg in May and June 1864; though no records could be found to confirm, it is likely that Latham was present with his men. However, later that year, in November, Latham was court-martialed for neglect of duty after allowing the B&O Railroad’s New Creek Station in modern-day Keyser to be captured by Confederate forces with almost no resistance. Though he was convicted and sentenced to be dismissed from service, Latham nonetheless returned to duty and, weeks before the end of the war, was brevetted brigadier general, his court martial conviction was overturned, and he was honorably discharged.
Latham was elected to represent the state he helped form in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1864, serving with the Unconditional Unionist party. He served one term from 1865 to 1867 and did not seek re-election, instead accepting an appointment as consul to Melbourne, Australia, where he stayed until 1870. He lived briefly with his relatives in Taylor County before moving to Buckhannon, where he farmed and served as school superintendent from 1875 to 1877 and supervised a U.S. Census district for the 10th census, the first division for West Virginia.
In his personal life, Latham married Caroline Thayer of Marion County, the daughter of a blacksmith and great-granddaughter of a Revolutionary War veteran, in 1857. By 1860, they had moved to Grafton and would go on to have eight children: Charles, Juliet, Annie, Harriett, John, Elizabeth, George Jr. and William. After an honorable service in the military and an eventful life as a public servant, George R. Latham died in Buckhannon on December 16, 1917, at the age of 85, and was interred in Heavner Cemetery.