‘A Sum of Destruction that Baffles the Pen’ – Sheridan Unleashes Custer

October 3, 1864 (Monday)

Toward dusk, Lt. John R. Meigs, son of the Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs, was riding with two fellow topographers to plot out of the land near the Federal position in the Shenandoah Valley. They rode near the village of Dayton, a few miles southwest of Harrisonburg, and were still very much within Federal lines, the Rebels having been backed up to Brown’s Gap, ten or so miles southeast.

John Meigs, taken in 1863.
John Meigs, taken in 1863.

While riding and making notes for a geographical survey, they came upon three Confederate scouts. By some accounts, Meigs and his fellows supposed them to be comrades since they were so far behind the lines. By others, it was clear from the start that the men were Rebels. Some tell that the Confederates demanded of the three Federals to surrender, while others say the turn was without warning. In some tellings, Meigs drew his pistol, but in others, he never had the chance.

However it happened, how it ended was with the death of Meigs and one other topographer. The third managed to escape, and it was this man who changed the course of Philip Sheridan’s campaign.

Sheridan had grown incredibly fond of young Meigs, a West Point graduate from the previous year. And it was with understandable sadness and anger that he received the news of his killing. It’s even understandable that he immediately viewed it as murder. In Sheridan’s mind (and in his telling), the Rebels rode with Meigs for some time, hiding their intentions. And when it came time to kill, they did little more than call for him to surrender before firing the shot that ended his life.

“The fact that the murder had been committed inside our lines,” leveled Sheridan in his Memoirs years later, “was evidence that the perpetrators of the crime, having their homes in the vicinity, had been clandestinely visited them, and been secretly harbored by some of the neighboring residents.”

This was, of course, possible. Many of John Mosby’s men were “garrisoned” in their own homes and left to join their commander when needed. These were not Mosby’s men, but, thought Sheridan, men perhaps returning from leave or the like. But whomever they were, it was too late to catch them and string them up. It was not, however, too late for reprisals. There was, in fact, no better time for such things.

“Determining to teach a less to these abettors of the foul deed – a lesson they would never forget – I ordered all the houses within an area of five miles to be burned.” For the task, Sheridan selected General George Armstrong Custer. A more fitting tool could hardly be found.

Though Sheridan wrote that the burning started the next day, it actually began that night. A barn belonging to Noah Wenger, near where Meigs’ body was recovered, was put to the torch and in a few short moments was gone.

The right tool for the job.
The right tool for the job.

The next day, the 4th, the conflagration would begin and it would continue for forty-eight hours until Sheridan began to slip his army northward.

The village of Dayton fell squarely within those orders. It too was to be leveled with every house burned. Custer gleefully went about his work, assigning Lt. Col. Thomas Wildes of 116th Ohio to the task of dealing with Dayton.

But Wildes knew Dayton well. He knew that the vast majority of its citizens were loyal to the cause of Union. He immediately sent a messenger to Sheridan with a plea to hand to him in person.

“The messenger followed his instructions strictly,” wrote Wildes after the war, “though he had hard work at headquarters to pass by staff officers and guards to General Sheridan’s private quarters, and probably would not have succeeded, had not the General overheard the wrangle his persistency created. The General read the note and swore, read it again and swore, examined and cross examined the messenger.”

As the people of Dayton waited upon their fate, the burning around their town went on unabated. These were mostly farms, and a good many of them owned by Mennonites, who, being mostly pacifists, had joined neither side.

And it wasn’t just houses, but barns, mills, stores – any building. It was, as a Mennonite witness later described, a “holocaust of fire,” “a sum of destruction that baffles the pen to describe.” Nobody questioned the loyalty of those whose lives were burning before them. In all, by official count, seventeen homes and five barns were burned, though the number is likely higher.

In Dayton, as the smoke around the town rose, the people had been informed of the order to level their town, and were given time by the 116th Ohio to remove their belongings. Many of the men from the regiment actually helped the townspeople in carrying out family heirlooms, furniture, kitchen supplies and the like. “Every house was now emptied,” wrote Lt. Col. Wilde, “and the poor people sat among their little piles of household effects, the very picture of despair, awaiting the hour when their houses should be given up to the flames.”

Photo of four of Montgomery Meigs' children, John included. Taken in 1850.
Photo of four of Montgomery Meigs’ children, John included. Taken in 1850.

“Such weeping and wailing as went up from the poor women and children of that town we hope never to hear again. The burning of the place was put off as long as it was possible to do so under the order, and so was fixed for noon. […] In the country all about them, the sense smoke now arising in all directions showed them that the vengeful order was being executed.”

And it was near noon when the messenger returned, carrying with him the order from Sheridan to spare the town of Dayton.

“Officers and men went out among the people to announce the good news to them and to help them carry back their goods. When they saw them coming, they thought it was to apply the torch, and the screams of women and children were perfectly heart rending.

“But the joy that succeeded as soon as their mission was understood, was so sudden and overcoming that many of the poor women fainted, and the clapping of hands and shouts of gladness of the little children over the good news was too much for even the grim and sturdy old soldiers. The sleeve of many a blouse was wet with their tears.

“All hands turned to and helped to carry everything back to the houses, and the people of Dayton anyhow, if of no other place in the South, believed there were at least some Yankees who had some humanity in them. There was not a man in the regiment who would not have faced death in a dozen battles rather than to have burned that village in the presence of those
weeping, imploring and helpless women and children.”

Grave of John Meigs, Arlington Cemetery.
Grave of John Meigs, Arlington Cemetery.

Additionally, Sheridan had vowed to kill two Confederate prisoners for each Union soldier killed by bushwackers. This sentence he also carried out, killing two guerrillas held captive by his men.

General Sheridan had blamed the killing of Meigs upon Rebel bushwackers, and for quite a long time all believed this to be true. But in reality, the three were from Williams C. Wickham’s Brigade – part of Jubal Early’s cavalry. They had not been harbored by the citizens nearby, but been with the army. They were, it seems, on a spying missing. One of their number, Frank Shavers, was a known spy. But even so, all three men were Confederate soldiers, and not bushwackers as Sheridan believed.1

For more information on Frank Shavers, see this article written in 1925.

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 2, Page 274; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Record of the 116th Ohio by Thomas Wildes; Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War by James O. Lehman; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. []
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