Colonel John Dils, Jr., First Commanding Officer of the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry

Colonel John Dils, Jr. (from William Ely).

John Dils, Jr., in 1876 (from Pike County, Kentucky: A Pictorial History, the original painting is in the possession of Mrs. Nancy Forsyth).


Colonel John Dils, Jr. was born September 15, 1818 in Parkersburg, Wood County, West Virginia. He was the son of John Dils, Senior.

In November 1842, John Dils, Jr., married Ann Ratliff, daughter of General William Ratliff of Pike County. The following year he went into the merchantile business with R.D. Callihan and John N. Richardson, known as the firm of John Dils, Jr. & Co.

In 1846, when the Mexican War broke out, a company of men was raised and he was elected Captain of volunteers. The company was never called into service being too remote for transportation.

In October of 1861, while a private citizen in Pikeville, he was arrested by order of Colonel John S. Williams, who commanded the Confederate forces then encamped around Pikeville. He was sent to Richmond, Virginia, as a prisoner of war. After his release he undertook to raise a regiment of Federal soldiers for the protection of Eastern Kentucky. The first day of recruitment raised about two hundred men and thus began the regiment known as the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry.

According to Judge Stewart, the Colonel was able to raise a regiment with the promise that it would never have to serve far from East Kentucky--a promise which was subsequently broken by later commanders. During the formation of the regiment at Peach Orchard in the Fall of 1862, Dils fed and sheltered his men at his own expense, a point he used in his defense later on. His tannery and store were both cleaned out during the war and he suffered a major financial loss at the hands of a number of local Confederates. Dils did own slaves but was supposedly an ardent abolitionist, a claim which may be a little exaggerated though partly true. In any event, the Colonel did hire freedmen to work in his tannery. At the Battle of Bull Mountain near Prestonsburg, Dils was severly injured after he was unseated and his horse dragged him down a hillside. It was supposed by the Rebels that he did not survive. However, though his hearing was somehow damaged and his side was injured, he was not killed.

Late in 1863, Colonel Dils ran into trouble as commanding officer of the 39th. Accusations of fraud and abuse led to his dismissal from the service on December 10, 1863. Special Order 548 was issued by then Secretary of War Stanton. It read:

Special Order 548

By direction of the President, Colonel John Dils, 39th Mounted Infantry is hereby dishonorably dismissed from the service of the United States for selling captured property and using the proceeds for his own use, using government transportation for private purposes, improper treatment of a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) while the NCO was in the discharge of his duty, and incompetancy.

Secretary of War

In his defense it must be stated that many officers, both Union and Confederate would sell captured property to recoup their expenses in keeping the regiments fed and mounted. Colonel Dils was dismissed without trial and family tradition states that he travelled to Washington after the war to see Lincoln in an attempt to clear his name of the charges. However, before he could meet the President, John Wilkes Booth intervened.

Colonel Dils died on August 11, 1895, and was buried in the Dils-Lower Chloe Cemetery in Pike County (incidentally the first integrated cemetery in East Kentucky).

Information and image from "The Big Sandy Valley" by Ely, the Compiled Service Records from the National Archives, "The Last Statement of Judge John Frew Stewart", Bushwhackers' Paradise by Jeffrey Weaver, The 10th Kentucky Cavalry by John B. Wells and Jim Prichard, and other sources.

Additional information:

After his dismissal from the 39th, it is believed that the Colonel continued serving the Union as a partisan leader or bushwhacker. In this capacity he may have been joined by such desperate men as Alf Killen and Joel Long. Some believe that the Colonel was relieved of duty as a result of a Confederate conspiracy. I think that gives too much credit where it may not be warranted. In early November of 1864, he was captured by Bill Smith and his band of cavalry. Since Dils survived the war, it is assumed that he was able to bargain for his freedom a second time. I wonder what he had to do to secure his liberty. There are even rumors that the Colonel made a special mission of harassing certain Confederate sympathizers in the area who were connected with the James and Younger boys. Bill Williams believes that the Youngers and Jameses chose to rob the bank in Huntington in 1875 because Dils kept his money there. This idea may have some truth to it as Menifee, Moore, and Witcher had planned but never carried out a robbery in Ceredo in 1862. Maybe Dils was their target also. Again, any information about Colonel Dils and his actions after his dismissal is derived from rumor and speculation. After the war, Dils attempted to sue everyone who was connected with the robbery of his store in Pikeville in August of 1862. The paperwork for this case has provided several researchers with a partial roster for the 4th Virginia State Line and the men who served with Menifee, Moore, and Witcher. It is also assumed that there was some "bad blood" which existed before the war between these men and a number of others with which the Colonel battled during the war. Colonel Dils was also instrumental in the establishment of Pikeville College as well as a number of other philanthropic and industrial endeavors following the war. He also had some sort of involvement with the Hatfield-McCoy feud. The information about Colonel Dils is very sparse. He is a very enigmatic individual. There are two very common views of him in his native Pike County, KY: he was either a great hero or the worst sort of scoundrel. I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between. Perhaps new information about the man will soon be released and we can get a better insight into who he was and why he did what he chose to do.

Robert M. Baker

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