This is the eighth in a 10-part series that began on July 2 and takes a closer look at Richland County’s eight Medal of Honor winners. Coming Monday: Mansfield native David Winder gave his life trying to save others during a battle in Vietnam on May 13, 1970.
This series is supported by Mansfield Cemetery Association.
MANSFIELD — 2nd Lt. Matthias Walter Day was nearly court-martialed for disobeying an order to retreat in 1879.
Instead, the Mansfield native was later awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for instead choosing to carry off on his back one of his wounded soldiers during merciless enemy fire from canyon walls above.
The 26-year-old West Point Military Academy graduate became the seventh Richland County native to earn the nation’s highest military honor for his heroic actions at the Battle of Las Animas Canyon in New Mexico during the Indian Campaigns.
The honor was the high point of a military career that spanned more than three decades and included the Philippine-American War from February 1899 to July 1902.
Day was born the second of seven children to businessman Matthias D. Day (the founder of Daytona Beach, Fla.) and Mary Blymyer, both from Mansfield.
Born: August 8, 1853, Mansfield, Ohio
Died Sept. 12, 1927, at age 74 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Buried: San Francisco National Cemetery
Military service: U.S. Army Cavalry
Years of service: 1878–1912
Highest Rank: Colonel
Units: 9th Cavalry Regiment; 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment
Battles/wars: American Indian Wars; Philippine–American War
Awarded Medal of Honor on May 7, 1890
Citation: For bravery in action against hostile Apache Indians at Las Animas Cañon, N. M., Sept. 18, 1879, in singly advancing into the enemy’s line and carrying a wounded soldier of his command on his back down a rocky trail under a hot fire, after he had been ordered to retreat; while serving as 2d Lieutenant, 9th Cavalry.
He was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1873. He graduated in 1877, alongside Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African-American to graduate from West Point.
Day was popular with his classmates, but was ranked close enough to the bottom of his class to be assigned to one of the four new Black regiments Congress authorized in 1866 to deploy west to fight the Indians during westward expansion.
Day was not assigned to the 9th Cavalry Regiment until August 1878, when he was ordered to El Paso, Texas, taking command of “A Troop” in the regiment.
In 1879, Day and his troop were transferred west to New Mexico where they joined the rest of the regiment.
He earned his MOH at the Battle of Las Animas Canyon in southwest New Mexico on Sept. 18, 1879.
But that battle between the U.S. Cavalry and forces led by Apache chief Victorio had much older tentacles, most stemming from broken treaties and promises between the U.S. government and the Native Americans.
Until 1872, the Tchine, the Red Paint People of the Apache, made their home around Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, according to historians. Prior to 1872, there was a reservation at Ojo Caliente for the Tchine.
(Click above to listen to today’s accompanying podcast. You may also listen to the first seven episodes of this podcast series.)
By 1872, miners and ranchers had come, and the Apache were moved.
They were shifted from reservation to reservation until 1876, when Victorio and the rest of the Tchine left the reservation and went to Ojo Caliente. That winter, they surrendered and were taken to the Mescalero reservation near present-day Ruidoso. They stayed there until August 1878.
The conditions on the reservation became unbearable for the proud leader and his people. He took the entire Tchine nation, almost 600 people, and left the Mescalero reservation and headed home to Ojo Caliente.
At Ojo Caliente, Victorio ran into Company E of the U.S. 9th Cavalry, responsible for the area.
In minutes, historians said, his warriors turned the company into infantry, killing 11 people, including three civilians. He captured 68 horses and mules and continued on his way.
Leading his people, Victorio moved south toward Silver City, N.M., raiding a couple of small sites along the way for food and ammunition. He also encountered a militia of gold miners while traveling, killing 10 men and capturing another 50 horses.
The entire 9th Cavalry mobilized to pursue the Indian leader.
(The video above describes the efforts of Buffalo Soldiers in New Mexico, including a detailed description of the battle of Las Animas Canyon.)
On the morning of Sept. 18, Buffalo Soldiers serving with Companies B and E of the 9th U.S. Cavalry were ambushed and pinned down by Victorio and approximately 60 of his warriors from the Warm Springs band of Chiricahua Apache.
As the soldiers pursued Victorio into the mouth of Massacre Canyon (named after this incident) where it joins Las Animas Creek, soldiers quickly became trapped and forced afoot as their horses were shot from under them by Apache warriors camouflaged and holding positions high above in the steep, rocky canyon walls.
The 1st Battalion, commanded by Capt. Byron Dawson, came upon either an Indian woman down by the creek or a couple of Apache warriors who fired at the approaching soldiers, depending upon which historian is consulted.
Ignoring their Navajo scouts’ warnings not to follow, the cavalry chased the Indian woman — or the two warriors — across this clearing about a quarter mile and into what has become known as Massacre Canyon.
The canyon entrance is about 30 yards wide with spires of rock on either side. The trail makes an S-curve through the canyon with a rock outcropping that is about 16 yards wide and three yards deep.
The 1st Battalion, 25 men from Companies A and B of the Ninth Cavalry and perhaps 50 from Company E, remounted and came through the entrance in single file.
Victorio had planned his ambush well. With the 75 federal troops well inside the canyon, he and his 61 Tchine warriors opened fired from above with rifles.
The federal troops were subsequently reinforced by two companies led by Captain Charles Beyer, which made contact with them but were unable to drive the Apaches from their positions.
By the end of the day, the trapped troopers were running low on ammo. His own ammunition supply running short, Beyer ordered a withdrawal and had Dawson withdraw his men under covering fire to avoid encirclement.
Troops down on the canyon floor were down to two or three rounds per man.
Day, however, noticed two wounded Buffalo Soldiers caught out in the open some distance from their position, exposed to enemy fire and unable to move.
Assisted by Sgt. John Denny from New York, who helped support one man, Day carried the other on his back through “a hail of bullets so thick it seemed ‘no one could pass this open rocky space alive’ ” to safety, survivors later said.
All of the remaining 9th Cavalry soldiers escaped under cover of darkness. Victorio, who would be killed a year later in a battle with the Mexican Army, safely withdrew from the canyon that same evening.
Official military reports of the event vary, but list either five or six troopers killed, two or three Navajo scouts killed, one civilian killed, and 32 horses killed in the battle. No Apache were believed killed.
Oddly, none of the reports seems to directly correlate with the 32-plus actual graves at the monument site.
Beyer, despite Day’s heroism, was furious with his subordinate for disobeying orders. Along with his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Nathan Dudley, Beyer wanted to court-martial the Mansfield native.
However, Day was later cleared by a board of inquiry and subsequently received the Medal of Honor on May 7, 1890.
Denny and 2nd Lieutenant Robert Temple Emmet, who like Day had graduated from West Point in 1877, also received the Medal of Honor for their actions at Las Animas Canyon.
After Las Animas Canyon, the 9th Cavalry continued its pursuit of Victorio, but he was able to escape across the Mexican border.
Daytona Beach was founded in 1870 and officially became a city when it was incorporated in 1876.
Most sources agree that it received its name from its founder Matthias D. Day, a business tycoon from Mansfield, Ohio, and the father of Mathias W. Day, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
With the end of the Civil War came the northern pioneers, drawn to the ocean and access to the riverfront through Ponce Inlet.
Matthias D. Day from Mansfield — who made his living selling sugar mill machinery and farm tools — arrived in 1871 and purchased 2,145 acres of the former Samuel Williams Plantation for $8,000.
Day brought in 14 workers, including his cousin, Calvin Day, and a sawmill.
They built the frame of a two-story hotel. Day called it the Colony House, but they didn’t have roofing shingles due to a delivery glitch. Instead they temporarily covered the building with palmetto fronds and named it Palmetto House.
Twenty homes were built by 1873, along with a general store established by William Jackson, and a post office.
Day, however, fell short of achieving his dream. Sales of his home lots were slow, he defaulted on his mortgage, and returned to Ohio. The land was repossessed and resold to other investors.
In the afternoon heat on July 26, 1876, 25 of the settlement’s earliest residents gathered at Jackson’s store near the corner of Orange Avenue and Beach Street and voted to incorporate a town.
They formed a governing council, created a seal and named the town Daytona in honor of its founder.
Day was married on Thanksgiving Day 1879 to Emilia Schultz, a ceremony attended by New Mexico Gov. Lew Wallace.
He resumed campaigning against Victorio in 1880, but apart from two actions in which he was involved in the early part of the year, served as a staff adjutant and later returned to command of A Troop, seeing little action.
In late 1881, the 9th Cavalry was transferred to the Southern Plains. Day was promoted to first lieutenant in 1884 and assigned to I Troop, which was stationed at Fort Reno near present-day Oklahoma City.
The troop was responsible for removing white settlers known as “Boomers” from the Unassigned Lands located in the middle of what is now the state of Oklahoma.
During this time, Day became something of a celebrity through his skill as a marksman by winning the annual rifle marksmanship contest for the U.S. Army’s Division of the Missouri.
He also captained the team which represented the Division of the Missouri in competition against opposing teams from the Divisions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and artillery.
The team won the long-distance target shooting competition and Day himself was acknowledged to be “‘the best skirmisher'” when involved in a competition that involved “shooting at targets under conditions ‘that were an approximation to actual service.’ “
In early 1885, the 9th Cavalry was reposted to Wyoming and Nebraska. Day volunteered for service with the Apache scouts when he learned that the army was in need of officers with desert experience.
He participated in a lengthy pursuit of Geronimo later in the year that engaged the Apache leader twice and nearly captured him once.
Day was eventually reassigned to the 9th Cavalry and served as its regimental quartermaster, a position that he held after the close of the Indian Wars in 1890.
From 1891 to 1895, Day was professor of Military Science and Tactics at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.
After the United States declared war on Spain on April 21, 1898, Captain Day was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of volunteers and assigned to command the 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, which had been reactivated after being mustered out at the end of the American Civil War.
The 1st Ohio was a part of the Second Cavalry Brigade. It included among its regiments the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the “Rough Riders.”
The 1st Ohio reported to Port Tampa, Fla., on July 12, for transportation to Cuba, but its sailing was delayed due to a shortage of transports and as a result, the regiment did not see action in the Spanish–American War.
Day, however, later saw action in the Philippines against the Moros.
After postings to various units, he served as the colonel of his old unit, the 9th Cavalry, for a year before retiring from the Army in 1912.
Day died on Sept. 12, 1927, in Los Angeles, Calif. He is buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery.
(Coming Monday: U.S. Army medic David Winder didn’t carry a gun in Vietnam. But he carried a hero’s heart.)
Previously in this series:
In 1866, an Act of Congress created six, all-black peacetime regiments, later consolidated into four –– the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry –– who became known as “The Buffalo Soldiers.”
There are differing theories regarding the origin of this nickname. One is that the Plains Indians who fought the Buffalo Soldiers thought that their dark, curly hair resembled the fur of the buffalo.
Another is that their bravery and ferocity in battle reminded the Indians of the way buffalo fought.
Whatever the reason, the soldiers considered the name high praise, as buffalo were deeply respected by the Native peoples of the Great Plains.
And eventually, the image of a buffalo became part of the 10th Cavalry’s regimental crest.
Initially, the Buffalo Soldier regiments were commanded by whites, and African-American troops often faced extreme racial prejudice from the Army establishment.
Many officers, including George Armstrong Custer, refused to command black regiments, even though it cost them promotions in rank.
In addition, African Americans could only serve west of the Mississippi River, because many whites didn’t want to see armed black soldiers in or near their communities. And in areas where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed, they sometimes suffered deadly violence at the hands of civilians.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ main duty was to support the nation’s westward expansion by protecting settlers, building roads and other infrastructure, and guarding the U.S. mail.
They served at a variety of posts in the Southwest and Great Plains, taking part in most of the military campaigns during the decades-long Indian Wars –– during which they compiled a distinguished record, with 18 Buffalo Soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor. T
his exceptional performance helped to overcome resistance to the idea of black Army officers, paving the way for the first African-American graduate from West Point Military Academy, Henry O. Flipper.
Source: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture