The Death of Corporal William Rihl

Grave of Corporal William Rihl, Along old Route 11, north of Greencastle

After paying my respects to Enoch Brown and his pupils, who were massacred in 1764, I headed eastward towards another marker in the immediate region. This incident happened almost one hundred years later. Rather than taking me the direct route, the GPS took me along a number of back roads and I ended up much farther north of Greencastle than I had anticipated. I turned southward on old Route 11 and headed towards Greencastle. Note: More about the Enoch Brown Massacre can be found here: Enoch Brown Massacre

I scanned the road, searching for the familiar blue Pennsylvania State Historical Marker that marked this historic location. Like many in the Cumberland Valley and Gettysburg region, the title on it merely states “Gettysburg Campaign.” While many overlook the markers, believing each states the same thing, that is not the case and in this area each one tells of 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.”

Although the historical marker provided information about this site, there was another memorial that brought me to this site. Hidden among the trees a short distance ahead of where I had parked was a large granite marker and the name etched in the front was clearly visible: Rihl.

I made my way quickly back across Route 11 and carefully up the small set of steps to the marker. 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”

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. While the Confederacy 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 and the aftermath of Chancellorsville was no different.

General Hooker’s plans of attacking Richmond were changed with the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Winchester, which opened the northern states for an invasion. General Hooker was forced to abandon his plans and slowly and very reluctantly followed the Confederate army northward. The lack of motivation resulted in General Hooker’s resignation on June 28 and General Meade was appointed the head of the Union army and started after the Confederate army.

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, 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. The unit was assigned a place with the First New York Cavalry, which was also known as The Lincoln Cavalry because on August 7, 1861 it was the first volunteer cavalry force raised in the war. Note: The First New York Cavalry also had a number of other firsts. On August 18, 1861 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.

Company C was led by Captain William H. Boyd and on June 14, they were assigned to guard a wagon train. The wagon train had been harassed by General Jenkins’ Cavalry as it made the journey up the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys. 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.

Captain Boyd had his men immediately head towards Chambersburg in hopes of finding General Jenkins’ men. Arriving there, he discovered the Confederate cavalry had left the city, Boyd led his men to Mercersburg in search of the enemy. Again, they failed to find any Confederates there, so they headed toward 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 on the farm, 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 of Company C remounted and fled for safety, leaving the two young men where they fell. A number of Jenkins’ men buried Rihl 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.

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. A large monument remembering his sacrifice was placed on top of his grave.

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 man 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.

Note: 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.

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