John Lafayette Riker was born in 1828 into a famous New York family, the second son of James Riker a merchant and landowner. The Rikers traced their lineage from an Abraham Rycker, of Amsterdam, an armorer in the Dutch service, who came to America with Wilhelm Kieft in 1638. The Riker family home was on Delancey Street, Manhattan in an area which today is known as the Lower East Side. The family was without a doubt connected with New York’s wealthy and influential elite, with Riker’s father having once been a member of the City’s Common Council. Riker’s eldest brother James went on to become the foremost genealogist of his day and in the years after the Colonel’s death he continued John Lafayette’s legacy in his patriotic activities with the Anderson Zouaves Veterans Association.
Riker’s early years are not well known and it is not until the 1840’s that he emerges when marries his first cousin Anna E. Elder. Anna was the eldest daughter of John Lafayette’s Aunt, Hannah E. Riker, who was the younger sister of his father, James. Some time in 1848 James Riker Snr, moved his whole family out of Delancey Street and into a new residence in Harlem. At the same time Anna gave birth to her first child, a girl, which, according to Riker custom, was dutifully named after her mother and so became Anna E. Riker. A year or two later she gave birth to her second child, this time a boy, who, following the same tradition, was named John L. Riker Jr.
Life must have seemed good for John Lafayette. At the age of 22 he had a wife and two children and with law being one of the natural habitats of the Riker family he contemplated a career as a lawyer. As a gentleman and a member of a good New York family Riker would have been expected to attend church regularly and to contribute to the common good of the city. And so it was that Riker attended the Harlem Presbyterian Church on 127th Street a couple of blocks from the family home on Fifth Ave and 125th street. He also, it seems, fulfilled his civic duty by volunteering his service to the Mechanics Hook & Ladder Company No 7, which had its headquarters nearby on the corner of Third Ave and 126th Street.
The volunteer fire fighters were a strong political faction associated with the Democratic Party and so, like other members of the Riker family, we can assume that John Lafayette was probably anti-Lincoln and politically opposed to the state legislature, which was dominated by the Republican Party.
In 1851 the life of the young John Lafayette Riker started to fall apart. Firstly, his wife Anna died of the mysterious malady of hysteria. A year later, Riker’s father died. Finally in 1854 his young son, John L. Jnr., died of congestion of the brain. Riker looked to his mother for support and continued to live with her, his daughter, his brother James and his other siblings under the one roof in Harlem for the next five years or so. His mother, a Van Arsdale was also descended from a famous family.
In the late 1850’s Riker started to rebuild his shattered life studying law at the University of the City of New York and in 1860 he was admitted to the bar. No sooner had Riker established a new life for himself, than the firing by the Confederates on Fort Sumter plunged the nation and Riker into new turmoil. As Riker was a member of the volunteer fire service it was only natural that he would enlist, and so on April 19, only three days after the state legislature authorised the governor to put New York’s 30,000 troops at the disposal of the President, John Lafayette Riker enlisted as a Colonel in the volunteer forces of New York. It is no surprise that members of the volunteer fire service were some of the first to enlist for the war. They were fiercely patriotic and there was great competition amongst the various volunteer companies; each racing the others to fires when they erupted, in pursuit of civic glory. There must have been a certain expectation that Riker, as a firefighter and gentleman with a famous name would do something out of the ordinary as a volunteer for the war. And so it was, that in late April 1861 the New York dailies announced the organisation of the Anderson Zouaves.
Riker’s regiment of Zouaves was undoubtedly organised on the same formula as the pre-war militia’s such as Le Gal’s Garde Lafayette and Corcoran’s Irish regiment and it is more than likely the regiment had been in the planning for sometime before the outbreak of hostilities. Riker had no doubt been inspired by the displays of Ellsworth Zouaves, in deciding on how his regiment would be constituted and sought the backing of the richest and most famous people in New York. Riker got what he wanted. The regiment was organised under the auspices of the Hero of Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson. Shepard Knapp, a wealthy banker, whose son was also a volunteer fire fighter, also rallied to the call. Marshall Roberts, the owner of the steamer Illinois which had attempted to resupply Fort Sumter also assisted. Don Alonso Cushman and A. V. Stout, another two bankers also lent their support. In addition there was popular support for the regiment with no less than six New York churches and the “Astor Ladies” making clothes for Riker’s men. In fact the contribution of J. J. Astor was considered by Riker to be so significant that the camp of the Anderson Zouaves on Riker’s Island was named Camp Astor in his honour.
The status of the Anderson Zouaves was made clear when on August 18 three days before the regiment left Riker’s Island for the seat of war, Company A, in its colourful new uniform, under the command of Lieutenant Knight, escorted General Wool to through New York City on his way to Fort Monroe. Upon arriving in Washington the “pet regiment of New York” was brigaded with three regiments, two of which had been important pre-war militias and given the task of guarding the strategically important northern approaches to Washington and the famous Chain Bridge.
Having already lost his wife and his son, Riker could not bear to be parted from his 14 year old daughter, Anna, and so she accompanied him and his regiment to their camp at Tennallytown, north of Washington. Here the gods, or perhaps even Riker’s own officers, conspired against him and once again Riker’s life was thrown into chaos, with Riker having to suffer the indignity of a court martial. Riker was found to be innocent of the charges but a cloud had settled over the Colonel, which he would never shake off despite the support and loyalty of his rank and file. Peck, the brigade commander, thought the Anderson Zouaves, the worst of all New York regiments. Riker was portrayed as a ponce by De Trobriand and was criticised by brigade officers for employing the services of a special drill instructor. However, his foresight in this respect at least was to prove its worth on the field of battle before Fort Magruder in May 1862.
On May 31st, 1862, at Fair Oaks VA., Riker’s regiment was detached from its brigade by the Division Commander, General Couch, himself to defend the threatened right flank of the Union line, and it was here, to the left of Kirby’s battery, which the Anderson Zouaves were supporting, that the gallant Colonel, while coolly leading his regiment into battle sitting astride his horse smoking his cigar, fell to enemy fire.
Colonel John Lafayette Riker is buried at Green-wood Cemetry, Brooklyn, NY.
Adapted from John Tierney’s speech to the Friends of Colonel Riker, 31st May, 2006.