Author Topic: Heritage: Doctor John Riker (July - August, 2013)  (Read 2112 times)

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Heritage: Doctor John Riker (July - August, 2013)
« on: July 02, 2013, 05:20:05 PM »
John Riker was born in New York in 1738, from an old Dutch family that lived on Riker's Island, which was named for them. Riker trained in medicine at the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton University. After graduating he married a younger woman, Susannah Fish, from his New York home, and they settled near a small town called Pennington, near the road from Princeton to Trenton, New Jersey.

Riker set up his medical practice, and he and his wife began to raise a family. His second son was only two days old on April 19th, 1775, when the Revolutionary War broke out in Massachusetts. At first, the war was far away in Boston, where the British were besieged, first by the militia and then by George Washington's Continental Army. In the spring of 1776, Washington drove the Redcoats out of Boston, and they and many Tories sailed away for Halifax. The Americans rejoiced, but Washington knew that the British had not given up. He guessed they would attack New York next. He was right.

Half the British fleet, and 30,000 soldiers and Marines arrived off New York harbor in June, 1776. They invaded Long Island, and Washington's army was routed and driven off the island. Riker's family and his wife's were now under British military rule, and would remain so for the rest of the war.

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The ensuing New York campaign was a disaster for the Americans. The Continental Army was routed and driven off Manhattan, and lost many thousands of men who were killed, wounded or captured. By the late fall, Washington's main force had dwindled to 3,000 men through battle losses, disease, and desertions, and they were in full retreat across New Jersey. British General Howe sent out an expedition, led by General Charles Cornwallis, to drive the Continental Army to destruction, while he stayed in New York. As they chased the Americans across New Jersey, the Redcoats and their mercenary allies committed robberies, rapes and destruction on the colonists. This caused many who might have given up on the Revolution to flee their homes and join the militias.

The British chased Washington's tattered remnants across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, and then settled into winter camps. Several regiments of Redcoats occupied Princeton, and three regiments of Hessians--hired German mercenaries--seized control of Trenton along the river.  The British and mercenary garrisons sent out frequent patrols to forage for supplies, who were harassed and ambushed by the resurgent militia in the area. Soon the Hessian commander in Trenton, Colonel Rall, had to send 100 men to get a message to Princeton safely. Halfway between those towns, Doctor Riker and his family were civilians caught in no-man's-land between the Hessians and Redcoats on one side, and the Patriot guerillas on the other.

These were desperate days for the Revolution. For eight months there had been nothing but defeat, the enlistments of most of Washington's army would soon expire, and Congress had fled from Philadelphia.

Late on the stormy night of Christmas, 1776, Riker was awakened by sounds of troops setting up a roadblock near his home. Perhaps irritated beyond endurance by the strains of the war, he rushed out into the dark and snow and wind. According to one of the soldiers, he was "violent and determined in his manner, and very profane." After cursing what he thought were Hessian troops, he ordered them off his property.

When he was answered in England by a young lieutenant, Riker was surprised to find that these were actually George Washington's troops, who had crossed the Delaware River to stage a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. He offered them shelter and food. When told they must march on soon, he not only brought out food, but left his wife and young family to join the lieutenant's company as a volunteer medic. "I may be of help to some poor fellow," Riker said, and marched off into the storm with the Continentals.

Washington had hoped for a pre-dawn surprise attack on Trenton, but he was hours behind schedule. It was daylight by the time the Americans reached the outskirts of town. Fortunately, the swirling snow kept the Hessian sentinels indoors, and hid the Americans as they approached. Riker had joined a brigade led by George's brother, William Washington, and they led the charge to drive the Hessian outposts back into town. Having joined in an armed action, Riker was now a traitor to the Crown, and he and his family would share the fate of the Revolution.

Washington's brigade then took a hill overlooking Trenton from the North, and helped establish a battery of cannon there. The Hessians rolled out two of their own cannon and started an artillery duel that they lost, with their artillerymen fleeing. But the Hessian commander, Colonel Rall, led a desperate charge into the American fire and reclaimed their cannon.

Now George Washington ordered his brother's brigade, including Riker and the young lieutenant, to attack into the town. They were to recapture the Hessian cannon and drive off their infantry. In the street fighting that followed, William Washington fell wounded, and the young lieutenant took over command. Then he too was hit, shot in the shoulder. He went down in shock and started to bleed out from a severed artery. His men carried him to Doctor Riker, who clamped the artery and saved his life.

The young lieutenant's name was James Monroe. He later became our fifth president, and author of the Monroe Doctrine. John Riker's decision to step forward, in spite of the risks to himself and his family, had changed the course of history.

The Battle of Trenton was also a turning point for the Revolution, as Washington's army rallied from defeat and demoralization to achieve a surprise victory. Washington would go on to win the battle of Princeton, and drive the British from most of New Jersey that winter.

After the Battle of Trenton, Riker stayed with the army. He left his family behind and accepted a commission as surgeon in February, 1777. He served with the army for two years, including the terrible winter of Valley Forge. After he had left the army, he was captured and held prisoner by the British. The American army exchanged a captured British doctor for his freedom, even though he was technically no longer in service, so they must have thought well of him.

After the war, Riker and his family moved back to Long Island, where he practiced medicine for the rest of his life. He passed in 1794, having lived to see the war won, and the new Constitution established.  His wife was granted a soldier's widow's pension, and lived until 1836.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License by Tim Oren.
« Last Edit: March 17, 2015, 05:31:47 PM by Nero »