Sunday, February 5, 2017

Beyond Gettysburg: The Death of Corporal Rihl


Grave of Corporal Rihl
Along Route 11, north of Greencastle
Along Route 11, on the northern side of Greencastle, stands a familiar blue Pennsylvania State Historical Marker. Like many of them in the Cumberland Valley and Gettysburg region, the title of it states "Gettysburg Campaign." While many are tempted not to look at them, thinking that they all state the same thing, each marker tells a different part of the Civil War in Pennsylvania.

I slowed as the marker came into view and pulled off the edge of the road. Braving the traffic, I crossed Route 11 to take a better look at the information presented about the importance of the spot.

"Here on June 22, 1863, the First
N.Y. Cavalry attacked the Southern
advance force of cavalry under
Gen. A.G. Jenkins. Here died the
first Union soldier killed in
action in Pennsylvania, Corporal
William H. Rihl of Philadelphia,
serving in a Pennsylvania unit
assigned to the New York Regiment."

Reflecting on the words for a moment, I turned to see another monument located only a couple yards in front of where I had parked. Hidden by trees was a large granite marker and the name etched in the front was clearly visible: Rihl.

I made my way quickly back across the Carlisle Pike and up the small set of steps to the marker. This was not just a memorial to a fallen hero, but as I read the granite shaft I instantly recognized this marker was a gravestone, something I had not realized when I was planning my visit to the area. I took a deep breath as I realized I was treading on sacred ground.

The year 1863 would eventually become the turning point of the Civil War with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. The spring of that year saw the morale of the Confederate army strengthened with a victory at Chancellorsville; and, with their victory at the Second Battle of Winchester, the path was opened to a northern invasion.

While the Confederacy had suffered a devastating blow with the loss of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, the Union army was in a vast array of confusion. General Hooker's lack of motivation had allowed the Confederates to safely retreat time after time. General Hooker's plans of attacking Richmond were changed with the Confederate victory at Winchester and he was forced to abandon his plans and slowly and very reluctantly followed the Confederate army northward.

On June 28, he resigned his position and General Meade was appointed the head of the Union army and started after the Confederate army.

As the Confederate army moved into the fertile lands of the Cumberland Valley, actions were being taken all over the state to prepare for the attack. More information about the defense of the Keystone state can be found here:Fort Couch and also here: Bedford County Entrenchments.

One of the faces of the memorial
On June 23, 1863, an advance cavalry unit under the command of Confederate General A.G. Jenkins, arrived in Greencastle. However they were not the only ones scouting the area as the First New York Cavalry also arrived in the region. Attached to this cavalry was a unit from Philadelphia, which included Corporal William H. Rihl. A mere twenty years old in the early summer of 1863, Rihl would sadly take his place in the history books as the first Union soldier to die in the Gettysburg Campaign.

William Rihl was born and raised in Philadelphia and would be mustered into service with Company C on July 19, 1862. Their unit was assigned a place with the First New York Cavalry. The First New York was also known as The Lincoln Cavalry because it was the first volunteer cavalry force raised in the war. See the note below for more information about the First New York Cavalry.

Company C was led by Captain William H. Boyd and on June 14, they were assigned to guard a wagon train. As the wagons made their way up the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys, they were constantly being harassed by members of General Jenkins' cavalry. On the 17th of June, the wagon train arrived in Harrisburg, and, deciding that the supply train did not need their help anymore, Captain Boyd turned his attention towards the Confederate cavalry.

Not wishing to waste any time Captain Boyd had his men immediately head towards Chambersburg in hopes of finding General Jenkins' men. Arriving there, he found that they had left the city, so his men rode to Mercersburg in search of the Confederate cavalry. Again they failed to find any Confederates there, so they headed towards Greencastle.

A group of the southern cavalry, led by Captain J. A. Wilson, spotted Company C as they approached Greencastle. Captain Wilson was commanded to fall back if his men encountered the Union Cavalry and draw them into a trap. Captain Wilson took position along the Carlisle Pike, hiding in a wheat field near the Fleming Farm.

Captain Boyd and his men came to a rest to the northwest of the barn on the Fleming Farm. Worried that the Confederates were hiding somewhere nearby, he sent two men out to scout for them while the remainder of the unit rested.

The two men selected for scouting duty were Sergeant Milton Cafferty and Corporal  William Rihl.

As the two men came around the house, they were instantly fired upon by the hidden Confederates. Corporal Rihl was struck in the face and killed instantly. Sergeant Cafferty was shot in the leg and taken prisoner. He was placed in the home of Mr. Card to recover from his wounds with instructions to stay there until his captors returned for him, which they never did.

At the sound of the gunfire, the remaining thirty-three men remounted and fled for safety, leaving the two young men where they fell. A number of Jenkins' men buried him in a shallow grave. A couple days later, local residents dug up his body and had it properly buried in the nearby Lutheran Cemetery on Washington Street in Greencastle.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker for the skirmish
On opposite side o Route 11 from Rihl's grave
Twenty-three years later, the young man's eternal slumber would once again be broken. In 1886, his body was removed from the cemetery and reburied at the location where he was killed. On top of the grave was placed a large monument remembering his sacrifice.

Walking slowly around the monument, I paused on each side to allow the history recorded on the Rihl Memorial to fully sink in.

"To the memory of Corporal William H. Rihl, Co. C First N.Y. Lincoln Cavalry, who was killed on this spot,  June 22, 1863"

"The first Union soldier killed in action in Pennsylvania"

"An humble but brave defender of the Union"

"Erected by Corporal Rihl Post, G.A.R., of Greencastle, Pa"

As I stood there taking in the history of this spot, I could not help but be overcome with sadness at the fact this young men was cut down at such a young age. Yet at the same time felt a strange sense of pride as I realized he was willing to serve to preserve the Union.

After paying my respects I left this small piece of Civil War history, a place passed by many and forgotten by most, to stand in silence beside the busy traffic of Route 11.

Please, please, please use caution if you cross Route 11 – all the times I’ve stopped here the traffic has been heavy. The steps going up the hill are not evenly spaced, so please be careful going up and down them. As always, if you choose to visit, please do so with the respect the honored dead buried here deserves.

Some notes about the First New York Cavalry: There are a number of versions of the encounter at Greencastle. I used Beach's “The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry from April 19, 1861, to July 7, 1865.” This account differs from the popular version that records the death of Corporal Rihl as occurring during a skirmish where Boyd's men charged wildly into the southern cavalry. Beach fought with the First New York and used his recollections, insights of others, and various letters and correspondences to compile the history of the unit he fought with.

The First New York also had a number of other firsts. On August 7, 1861, they were the first volunteer cavalry to enter the war. On August 18 of that year, Private Jacob Erwin was killed during a skirmish at Pohick Church near Lorton, Virginia, becoming the first volunteer cavalryman to be killed in the war. On March 9, 1862 Lieutenant Henry Hidden became the first cavalry officer killed in action while preparing a charge at Sangster's Station, Virginia. Another first, though a sad one, involved Private William Johnson, who on December 13, 1861, was the first Union soldier to be executed for attempted desertion to the enemy.

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