Ohio’s Impact on the War Series: Saving Dayton

By arohmiller, posted on August 12th, 2013.
Filed under: News
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Written by Mark D. Okey

On the evening of October 3,1864 Lt. John Rodgers Miegs along with two orderlies was on scout in the vicinity of the town of Dayton, Virginia. Passing down the old Swift Run Gap Road they encountered three riders.  As the parties met in the roadway Lt. Meigs realized that the riders were Rebel cavalrymen. In an instant pistols were drawn and shots fired. The young officer toppled from his mount and his lifeless body sprawled on the ground.

Meigs was no ordinary Union officer. He was a favorite on the staff of Gen. Phillip Sheridan and he was the oldest son of Maj. Gen. Montgomery Meigs. The Lieutenant’s “murder” soon became national news.

One of the orderlies managed to escape the gunfight and reported the incident to Gen. Sheridan.  The enlisted man told his commander that Lt. Meigs had been gunned down in cold blood by bushwackers. The news infuriated Gen. Sheridan who impulsively ordered the burning of Dayton.

Lt. Col. Thomas Wildes, 116th OVI

Lt. Col. Thomas Wildes, 116th OVI

Sheridan’s order was received by Lt. Col. Thomas F. Wildes, whose 116th Ohio Regiment was camped in Dayton. The directive shocked Wildes and the town. Wildes knew the citizens of Dayton were non-combatants and were by faith pacifists. Wildes instructed his regiment to prepare the town for the torch. Officers and enlisted men sadly began to assist the town’s residents in removing personal belongings from their homes. Meanwhile, Wildes was determined to personally meet with Gen. Sheridan and challenge the order.

Wildes was a newspaperman by profession so he was probably not at a loss for words when he confronted Gen. Sheridan. Wildes must have called upon all of his powers of persuasion in defense of Dayton. Gen. Sheridan was not in a compassionate mood and was still mourning the loss of his valued subordinate.  Reluctantly, Gen. Sheridan rescinded his order.

Wildes returned to Dayton with the welcome news. Years later, the townsfolk would commission a marker in memory of Lt. Col. Wildes. The marker reads;

                                                          In Memory Of

                                            LT. COL. THOMAS F. WILDES

                                                116th Ohio Regiment

                         Who when ordered by Gen. Sheridan to burn

                             the town of Dayton,Va. in retaliation for the

                             death of a Union officer, refused to obey that

                             order, risking court-martial and disgrace.

                             His refusal and plea to Gen. Sheridan resulted

                             in a countermand to the order and saved

                                    this town from total destruction.

This is the only marker dedicated to a Union officer in the State of Viginia.

Lt. Col. Wildes’ actions may have surprised the inhabitants of Dayton but his regiment knew of his character and sense of honor. The enlisted men thought so much of Wildes that they presented him with an inscribed sword. That inscription reads;

                                                Presented To

                             LIEUT. COL. THOS. FRANCIS WILDES

                            By the Enlisted Men of the 116th OVI

                            as a testimonial of their appreciation of

                            his courage ,zeal and kindness.

                                                            April 1, 1863

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