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John Rodgers Meigs (February 9, 1841 – October 3, 1864) was an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He is most notable for controversy surrounding the circumstances of his death, which led to the burning of a large part of a Virginia town in retaliation.
Meigs was born in Washington, D.C., into a family with an impressive military pedigree. He was the oldest son of Maj. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs and Louisa Rodgers Meigs and the grandson of United States Navy hero Commodore John Rodgers (naval officer, War of 1812).
In 1859, he received an appointment to West Point, where he excelled in science and mathematics. He took a leave of absence to serve as an aide-de-camp to Philip H. Sheridan during the First Battle of Bull Run. After returning to West Point, he graduated first in his class in 1863, becoming a Second Lieutenant of Engineers.
After participating in the pursuit of the Confederate Army following the Battle of Gettysburg, he served on the staff of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Kelley in West Virginia, and he fought at the Battle of New Market and campaigned in Major Generals David Hunter's and Sheridan's operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan appointed him his Chief Engineer in August 1864 and had him brevetted captain and major for gallantry at the battles of Opequon and Fisher's Hill.
On October 3, 1864, a rainy night, Meigs and two Union soldiers were traveling on the Swift Run Gap Road to headquarters in Harrisonburg, Virginia, when they overtook three Confederate cavalrymen. Meigs called them to a halt, and one of the Confederates demanded that Meigs and his men surrender. The men briefly exchanged gunfire, during which Meigs was shot and killed. One enlisted man was taken prisoner and the other escaped and told Sheridan that Meigs, without an opportunity to defend himself, had been killed in cold blood. Furious in his belief that Meigs had been murdered, Sheridan ordered the town of Dayton, Virginia, burned to the ground. However, Sheridan later rescinded the order upon receiving news that it had been a fair fight, but not after having burned nearly thirty houses and barns.
Mainly because he was from a prominent military family, Meigs' death became a source of news and controversy. Believing his son had been murdered, Montgomery Meigs placed a reward of $1,000 on the killer's head. He hired a private detective to investigate, which investigation continued after the conclusion of the war.
Montgomery Meigs initially had his son buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but then had his body removed to Arlington National Cemetery, which he had helped institute. His grave can currently be found in Section Lot 1 Grid N-32.5.
MURDER OF LIEUTENANT MEIGS. 5 I
It was during this period, about dusk on the evening of October 3, that between Harrisonburg and Dayton my engineer officer, Lieutenant John R. Meigs, was murdered within my lines. He had gone out with two topographical assistants to plot the country, and late in the evening, while riding along the public road on his return to camp, he overtook three men dressed in our uniform. From their dress, and also because the party was immediately behind our lines and within a mile and a half of my headquarters, Meigs and his assistants naturally thought that they were joining friends, and wholly unsuspicious of anything to the contrary, rode on with the three men some little distance ; but their perfidy was abruptly discovered by their suddenly turning upon Meigs with a call for his surrender. It has been claimed that, refusing to submit, he fired on the treacherous party, but the statement is not true, for one of the topographers escaped—the other was captured—and reported a few minutes later at my headquarters that Meigs was killed without resistance of any kind whatever, and without even, the chance to give himself up. This man was so cool, and related all the circumstances of the occurrence with such exactness, as to prove the truthfulness of his statement. The fact that the murder had been committed inside our lines was evidence that the perpetrators of the crime, having their homes in the vicinity, had been clandestinely visiting them, and been secretly harbored by some of the neighboring residents. Determining to teach a lesson 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. General Custer, who had succeeded to the command of the Third Cavalry division (General Wilson having been detailed as chief of cavalry to Sherman's army), was charged with this duty, and the next morning proceeded to put the order into execution. The prescribed area included the little village of Dayton, but when a few houses in the immediate neighborhood of the scene of the murder had been burned, Custer was directed to cease his desolating work, but to fetch away all the able-bodied males as prisoners.