Sunday, May 13, 2007

Big John Riffle

"John [William Riffle] died in 1861 during the Civil War
when Federals captured him in Weston
and tied him to the back of their wagon
making him walk as they travelled.
Eventually they shot and killed him and
left him for dead by the side of the road.
His body was moved more than once
before he was finally at rest." -Ron Skinner

From the information above we have long known that John, like his friends and family, was a "secessionist," an active supporter of the Confederate States of America, and that he was killed by Union soldiers while he was their prisoner. Two original documents tell us more about Big John Riffle's story. The first, found by Ohio Civil War researcher Jerry Twohig, is a journal kept by a young soldier from Mahoning County, Ohio, Private Andrew Duncan of Co. E of the Regular Ohio 3rd Brigade. Private Duncan describes some of the circumstances around John's death and two burials. The second, recommended by historian and author Beth Marie Mollohan, is a mention of Riffle's death and a description of him from the Civil War era journal of a young Rutherford B. Hayes, who would serve as President of the U.S. from 1887 to 1891.


Following is the story in brief taken from these two sources. After that there is a little more About John William Riffle. To read the comments by R. B. Hayes, see the online transcription of Hayes' journal. At the bottom of the entry is a transcription of the relevant pages in Duncan's journal.

The Story In Brief

Union soldiers were having a difficult time with a band of guerrillas who were operating along the turnpike in the Bulltown area.
In the days just before John Riffle was shot Private Andrew Duncan began recording in his journal some events around Big John's death. The Private's unit marched with the 10th from Bulltown to Jacksonville on August 8 or 9, 1861. Private Duncan wrote,
.
"They have two prisoners taken near their affray near Bulltown . . . One of them, called 'big John Riffle they especially bear a hatred against and swear [these men] shall never escape. They make [the prisoners] travel out behind, guarded.
.
"It is also reported [the soldiers of the 10th] shot another one last evening who came in to intercede for the prisoners. The Col. gave [to the secessionist who came to intercede] a guard out and fifteen minutes to leave in. I saw some of [the soldiers] loading their guns. [The soldiers] swore they were going to follow after him. Others saw [the soldiers] going over the hills after him and it is reported they shot him and left him lying in the road. –War is the greatest curse that can fall upon a nation."

At the Weston Police Station on Monday, August 12, 1861, "a Capt came in very much frustrated and excited and inquired of us if we could get some shovels and picks as he had a - - - secessionist they had shot about 4 or 5 o’clock that evening. [The Captain] stated he belonged to the 10th Reg and it occurred to me immediately it was the large one [Big John Riffle] I spoke of their having taken prisoner. .

"[The Captain] stated that he [John Riffle] got so obstreperous they had to shoot him – that he was shot about 10 miles back 2 trying to escape. [The Captain] seemed very much alarmed and anxious to have him put out of the way, as soon as possible.

"We went up and brought down some of picks and shovels. . . . They laid him in an old two horse wagon and jolting over the rocks and ditches we wound our way down the river about a quarter of a mile and under the the brow of a steep hill and without a coffin laid him down to sleep till eternity shall begin and end under the same hills that had reared and nurtured him for 50 years."

The next day "a squad . . . was detached to disinter the man buried last night. A box was made and he was interred in the village graveyard in his everyday clothes a white shirt and white pants without shoes."
To the right is a Union wagon train in the town of Weston, Lewis County, WV.

Hayes' comments for April 12, 1861 were: "During Monday night a squad of the Tenth Regiment returned from the Buckhannon road with the body of one of the wild men of the mountains found in this country. He followed their regiment, shooting at them from the hills. They took him in the Bulltown region. He wore neither hat nor shoes, was of gigantic size--weighing two hundred and thirty pounds; had long hooked toes, fitted to climb--a very monster. They probably killed him after taking him prisoner in cold blood--perhaps after a sort of trial. They say he was attempting to escape."

A third piece of information was written on August 20th, 1861, a week and a half after John Riffle was shot. It doesn't mention John Riffle sepcifically, but Major Burke of the 10th Ohio, discussing the probem of dealing with secessionists a in reporting to his superior, reported that "assassins" had been causing trouble. He mentioned the names Alkyier, Imbodin, Snyder and McInna. He went on to declare the only way to stop the attacks was to shoot the secessionists when they were caught and also to burn the homes where the congregated.

More About John William Riffle2
John Wiiliam Riffle (1810-1861) was the son and grandson of pioneers. His grandparents Jacob and Dorothy Riffle, along with Jacob's brother Francis and his family, were original settlers in the Tygart Valley in the 1790s. After one of the last conflicts between the Europeans and Native Americans, in which John's great-uncle Francis was killed, the entire Riffle family moved. This was about the time John was born. Some of the family went to Kentucky, but most moved the short distance to newly opening lands in Braxton and southern Lewis Counties. They were among the very earliest settlers there.
Edward C. Smith notes2 that "John Riffle was on lower Oil Creek by 1827. He established the first mill some time prior to 1853, and he had the honor in that year to kill the last panther seen in Lewis County." 3

John married Polly Plyman. We know of nine children they had. The first, Peter, was born in 1838, when Polly was about 23 and John was about 28. It is probable that John was married before, but we have no information on this.

The 1850 census finds John W. and Mary (Plyman) Riffle living two farms over from Alexander and Phoebe (Conrad) Skinner, in Lewis County, at the heart of what will become Orlando. The census states that Mary can read but John is illiterate. It also shows that the Riffle kids are not being schooled, although some of the neighbor children are.

By the 1860 census, John and Mary (Plyman) Riffle have moved to the Bulltown area. In the 1860 census of the six households immediately around them, five belong to their families: John's father 1. Isaac, John's brother 2. Isaac and two sisters 3. Esther and 4. Catherine and John and Mary's olderst son 5. Peter.

This is the order in which the census has their households listed:
. . . . Isaac Riffle ( John's 70 year old father.)
. . . . Williams and Agnes Cutlip (Not related. Had a mill “about four miles up the Little Kanawha from Burnsville”, which would be in the Bulltown area.)
. . . . George and Esther (Riffle) Plyman (Esther was John William's sister. Mary's relationship to George is unidentified, but they were likely siblings.)
. . . . John William and Mary (Plyman) Riffle
. . . . Peter and Margaret Riffle, (Peter was their son.)
. . . . Jacob and Susannah (Riffle) Heater, (Susan was the sister of John William.)
. . . . Isaac and Catherine Riffle. (Isaac was John’s brother.)

It is unlikely that any Riffle in Orlando is not related to John William Riffle. At least one of John and Mary's children, Mahala, lived and raised her children in Orlando and their other children didn't move far. They certainly have many, many nieces and nephews. For example, John William Riffle is my 3g uncle: Donna (Witzgall) Gloff, Mary (Stutler) Witzgall, Oras Stutler, Ennie (Riffle) Stutler, John Scott Riffle, Jacob Isaac Riffle who was the brother of John William Riffle.

See also the May '07 entry Orlando in the Civil War

Footnotes
1.
"Ten miles back" would have been around Roanoke.

2. There were several John Riffles in the region, but only one who was about 50 years old at the time Big John was killed, and Private Andrew Duncan mentions in his journal that Big John Riffle was buried "under the same hills that had reared and nurtured him for 50 years." John William Riffle, b. 1810, is missing from censuses after 1860. His wife Mary appears in the 1870 census as head of household, with their three youngest children still at home. Also, John and Mary (Plyman) Riffle lived in a hotbed of Confederate partisan activity.

3. Smith, Edward Conrad. A History of Lewis County, West Virginia, published 1920. pgs 204-5

. . . . . . .

The hatred between the North (Yankees) and the South (Rebs or Seseches) is difficult to imagine today. This gristly cartoon, " Some Specimens of "Secesh" Industry," was published in Harper's Weekly June 7, 1862. -


Pages 26 through 33 of the Journal of Andrew Duncan

Private Poland Guards, Co E Reg Ohio 3 Brigade.

The journal is owned by the
William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan
Schoff Civil War Collection



pg 26
Trip to Sutton & Back
We rested at Bulltown untill the next morning when we took the knapsacks of the 10th and came with them as far as Jacksonville. They have two prisoners taken near their affray near Bulltown. They were found working near those places where they were fired upon and as they ran a very bad name. They suppose they are implicated in it. One of them, Called big John Riffle they especially bear a hatred against and swear they shall never escape. They make them travel out behind guarded. It is also reported that they shot another one last evening who


pg 27

came in to intercede for the prisoners. The Col. gave him a guard out and fifteen minutes to leave in. I saw some of them loading their guns and who swore they were going to follow after him. Others saw them going over the hills after him and it is reported they shot him and left him lying in the road. –War is the greatest curse that can fall upon a nation. We left the 10th at Jacksonville and reached Weston about 8 O’Clock PM Saturday eve.


Sunday, Aug 11th /61
. . . Excused from guard to day but volunteered to guard a prisoner for a short


pg 28
Weston Va
time. His name is Bland [?Blund?] and lives in town. He is a regular ? and seams very much attached to his native state and will link his fortunes with her, and the U.S. may go and do as they please.
Monday, Aug 12th, 1861
Went on Patrole guard to town Found nothing worthy of interest until about 11 O’Clock. I was down at the police station and a Capt came in very much frustrated and excited and inquired of us if we could get some shovels and picks as he had a - - - secessionist they had shot about 4 or 5 O’Clock that evening. He stated he belonged to the ?10th Reg?
And it occurred to me immdediately it was the large one I spoke of their having taken prisoner and stated that he got so obstrepherous they had to shoot him – that he was shot about 10 miles back trying to escape. He seamed very much alarmed and anxious to have him put out of the way, as soon as possible We went up and brought down some of picks and shovels the officer of the day came down also and questioned him about it here. They laid him in and old two horse waggon and jolting over the rocks and ditches we wound our way down the river about a quarter of a mile and under the


pg 30
Weston, WVa
brow of a steep hill and without a coffin laid him down to sleep till eternity shall begin and end under the same hills that had reared and nurtured him for 50 years. Such is the summary penalties of treason and the consequences of war.

There is some mystery enveloped in the above I think that he was sent back here to be delivered up to headquarters and Capt. Himself shot him himself ??? his embarrassment.
Tuesday, Aug 13, 1861
Came up from town before revillie A squad this moring was detached to disenter the man buried last night. A box was made and he was intered in the village graveyard in his everyday clothes a white shirt and white pants witout shoes. I was this moring called upon by Capt. Drake to state a few facts in regard to the affair. The following points I corrobberated stated by ?Ins? Cracraft That he was very much frustrated. That he stated he was a Capt. In the 10th That they were obliged to shoot him as he became “obstrephorous” That he said d- it there was no use in carrying usless Baggage. That it was about 10 miles from Weston. That he tried to escape and was shot and rolled down a very high


pg 32
hill to the bottom. That I asked him if said anything and he said thet aid not give him time to say anything. That the Capt. was very much excited and embarrassed.

It rained nearly all day and our tents became so mudy we were obliged to put a floor in which makes it very comfortable.

Wednesday Aug 12, 1861
The sun is fast dispelling the clouds promising a beautiful day. I received a pass to town with ?Inc? Cracraft We visited the hospital and talked with one of the 10th Who was wounded Also with the Fayette ??9th?? Cavlary company. We


pg 33
had one of their company killed and three or four wounded.
Today ?Inc? Cracraft and I took dinner at the “Bailey House” and enjoyed once more the luxurious civil life. Was informed today of the particular part some of our boys of the 19th took at rich mountain. Emery Stottard was unwell lying in his tent Walls and Luber “dito” Our orderly was sick again tonight.

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