With Lieutenant Rivers “on point”

Posted on September 25, 2013 by


Craig has a post up today that caught my eye… quickly. Just the mention of Mosby and Rector’s Crossroads brought to mind… Cole’s Cavalry… a favorite unit of mine. Anyway, he writes about the September 1863 scrap, between Mosby’s men and Cole’s Cavalry, at Rector’s Crossroads.

The officer “on point” that day, for Cole’s Cavalry, was 2nd Lt. Jonathan L. Rivers. Though he was a Pennsylvanian by birth and a Baltimore resident at the opening of the war (and, therefore, not falling under my definition of “Southern Unionist”… though he served in a unit in which there were many), he served for the first couple of years with Company B of Cole’s Cavalry… in which served a few of “my people” who wore blue, from the Clear Spring, Maryland area. There’s more than one occasion in which Rivers gets attention, but I think C. Armour Newcomer sets the stage for Rivers’ daring, in Chapter IX of Cole’s Cavalry; Or Three Years in the Saddle in the Shenandoah Valley.

The Battalion left camp at Harper’s Ferry, went through Charlestown and captured a few men at Berryville. it is proper perhaps to state that Lieutenant John Rivers, of Company B, had his accustomed place with the usual detail of six men from each of the four Companies as an advance guard, a position Lieutenant Rivers always took when the command was on one of their many raids. The command of the advance was given the Lieutenant because of his daring and courageous action in many a bloody encounter. The writer was fortunate in being one from his company who was detailed to make up Lieutenant Rivers’ squad. When I remark fortunate, I mean the men in the advance had a better opportunity of capturing prisoners, and as Cole’s men usually retained the revolvers and good horses taken from those captured, the advance was a place sought for.

Postwar documentation in Rivers' service record, mentioning his being wounded at Loudoun Heights. Note that they had to correct this, having entered his brother, Samuel, on the sheet initially.

Postwar documentation in Rivers’ service record, mentioning his being wounded at Loudoun Heights. Note that they had to correct this, having initially entered his brother, Samuel, on the sheet.

Rivers story is mostly obscured by history… but Newcomer, with his snapshot of Rivers, left us a small morsel to consider. In fact, in addition to this fight at Rector’s Crossroads, Rivers had several other opportunities to clash with Mosby’s Rangers. In one of those fights, on January 10, 1864… the night fight in the snow, at Loudoun Heights… Jonathan and his older brother, Samuel (also in Company B), were wounded; John in the foot, and Sam, more severely, in the thigh.

Oddly enough, his worst “handling” appears not to have been at the hands of Confederates. Despite being noted for his courage in action, there is one incident in his service records that reveals an incident which showed that the esteem in which he was held did not reach outside specific circles. Rivers’ letter of August 20th, 1864, provides the particulars…

I have the honor to state that on the evening of the 19th inst., while in the discharge of my duty at the house of Wm. Donovan, in Charlestown, whither I had gone to get information about the enemy, I was violently seized by a party of eight enlisted men of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, a part of the Provost Guard, commanded by Capt. Crowinshield, of Gen. Sheridan’s Staff, under the following circumstances:

On entering the house four of these men were eating at the table, considerably under the influence of liquor, as their conduct and obscene language plainly indicated. After sitting a few moments, I went out of the room, leaving my pistol upon the side table, returning after a short time. Soon after my return to the room four more men came in, one of whim appeared to be a Sergeant. These men also seemed intoxicated more or less. Becoming disgusted with their actions and language, I arose to leave the house with the intention of returning to my quarters, when four of the party sprang upon me, seized and disarmed me, with the words… “You damned rebel son of a bitch, we’ve got you now!” On my enquiring who there were, and by what authority they seized me, they replied that it was none of my business, with other abusive language, holding a cocked pistol to my head and throwing me to the floor. I told them I was a U.S. Officer, and that they had better take care what they did, upon which they called me a “damned liar”, and forced me into the street with their pistols at my head, one of them hitting me on the neck with the handle of his pistol as I was being led through the door, knocking me down.

I was led through the streets in this manner, the Sergeant ordering the men to shoot me if I made a misstep. While going through the street they robbed me of what money I had on my person. On arriving at Genl. Hdqtrs., the Sergeant took me to a tent and calling for an officer, some one came out of the tent; and upon the Sergeant telling him that he had in custody a “damned rebel”, he questioned me as to who I was, when I told him my name and rank, and desired him to send to Col. Tibbitt’s (Comm. Of the 1st brig., 1st Cav. Div.) Headquarters, and settle the matter, which he refused to do, saying that he “believed I was a damned rebel”, reordered me under guard, where I was kept in company with a number of rebel prisoners until morning, the guard being ordered in my hearing to shoot me dead if I stirred.

A portion of the letter written by Rivers, detailing the events of August 19, 1864.

A portion of the letter written by Rivers, detailing the events of August 19, 1864.

In the morning, I asked the Sergeant to allow me to send word to Col. Tibbits of my situation when he told me he would not do it, adding, “that he didn’t believe I knew where I belonged,’ or words to that effect.

A sergeant of a Connecticut Regiment, seeing me under guard, and recognizing me, volunteered to go to Headquarters and inform the Colonel about me, which he did, and two officers of the Staff coming down and identifying me to Capt. Crowinshield, I was released without apology or explanation.

Deeming it for the good of the service, and naturally desiring reparation for the shameful indignation put upon me – a commissioned officer of the army – I would respectfully submit the above statement for your consideration.

Rivers survived the war, and though he did not receive a medal of honor for any of his feats, and his name did not rate the attention of historians over the years, his part, I believe, in Col. Henry Cole’s regular scraps with Mosby’s Rangers, merits attention. As such, I’ve been intrigued by what little I could find about Rivers, even beyond his years of service in blue.

It might be that he was done at least some justice in his obituary, which appeared in the January 28, 1896 issue of the Washington Post:


Death of Capt. Rivers Who Fought Mosbys Guerrillas in Virginia.

Capt. John L. Rivers, a famous Maryland soldier during the war, and for twenty-seven years a resident of Washington, died Sunday evening at his residence, 2229 Tenth street northwest. Standing over six feet in his stockings, a man of undaunted bravery, he was the dashing commander of Company B, First Maryland Cavalry, and participated in many bloody combats in the Valley of Virginia, especially against Mosby’s Guerrillas.

Born in Somerset County, Pa., sixty-three years ago, Capt. Rivers went to Baltimore when a young man and enlisted as a private when the war broke out. He won his promotions gradually, and enlisted a second time when his first term had expired. At one time he was an aide-de-camp on the staff of Gen. Tibbetts. He was offered a Colonelcy for his gallant conduct under fire, but refused this, preferring to fight with his old command. He received several grievous wounds, which made him an invalid for several years just past, although his death was hastened by an attack of bronchitis.

Since the war Capt. Rivers had been engaged in various enterprises, and had at times been worth considerable property. He conducted a livery business for a considerable while, and was also engaged in the management of farms in Montgomery County. Capt. Rivers was twice married. He leaves a widow and four sons, the eldest of whom by his first wife is Charles W. Rivers, of this city. The other sons are John L. Rivers, George W. Rivers, C. T. Rivers, and Hugh Rivers. There is also one daughter. The funeral ceremonies will be held at Arlington Heights to-morrow at 10 o’ clock, under the auspices of Kit Carson Post, of which the deceased was a member.

As the obituary states, Rivers was buried in Arlington. His simple headstone, devoid of great detail, makes me think of the details he left, about his deeds as a junior officer under Cole… sadly, scant few.