Sunday, March 21, 2010

Connecting Links

     It was difficult selecting a topic to post this March.  In February I pushed to finish and publish the latest webpage for my website, which had to do with Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign;  To Front Royal and Back.    Then I turned my attention to a presentation scheduled for March 10th at the West Valley Civil War Roundtable.  The topic of my talk was titled “Nine Weeks at Harper’s Ferry.”  It’s based on this page of my website, Nine Weeks at Harper's Ferry, but drew heavily on my ‘John Brown’ blog posts from October.

     It was fun putting together my first ‘PowerPoint’ Presentation for the talk.  I got to incorporate all sorts of interesting pictures into the slide show.   Naturally, for me, I had too much material and didn’t get through it all.   But the talk was successful nonetheless.  This took up all my time in early March and I didn’t know what new subject of interest to post here on the blog.   The subjects of these two projects, the 13th Mass at Harper’s Ferry in 1861, and Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 seemed widely divergent; you might say they were ‘myles’ apart.

     My efforts to research Shields’ and Fremont’s pursuit of Jackson up the Shenandoah Valley, kept bringing me to this website;  Myles Keogh.   I was impressed and eventually solicited the author’s opinions on the campaign, and so made another important Civil War friend and contact.

      As it turns out there is a connecting link between these two stories, and that is ‘Captain’ R. C. Schriber of the 13th Mass.  Words like ‘idiot’ and ‘fraud’ generally follow mention of his name.

     Schriber commanded Company I, 13th Mass., at the Ferry in 1861, and he was also on General James Shields’ staff in the Valley Campaign of 1862.   He was conspicuous enough to earn detailed mentions in 3 books; "Three Years in the Army" (1894) by Charles E. Davis, Jr; "Three Years With Company K" by Sgt. Austin C. Stearns, [deceased] (1976); and "The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry" by Joseph Barry, (1903).  Perhaps there are more.  These authors only hint at Schriber’s subsequent career with a Maryland Brigade, but at ‘Myles Keogh’  I found some correspondence from Colonel Samuel S. Carroll addressed to Lt-Col. Schriber of Gen. Shields’ staff, and had one of those ‘Aha!’ research moments. "So that's where he went !"

     Schriber always gets a good laugh whenever I give talks on the regiment and the March 10th presentation was no exception.  So, for this post, I offer up excerpts  from my late presentation on R.C. Schriber of the 13th Massachusetts Infantry and the 1st (?) Maryland Cavalry.

Mysterious Captain R. C. Schriber

     At Harper’s Ferry in September 1861, there was a skirmish at Beller’s Mill, (near the town) in which Companies I & K went a ways up Shenandoah Street to some flour mills.   They stayed about 2 hours, then encountered some Rebel cavalry on the way back.  As Company I came down Shenandoah Street shots rang out from the hill above the town.  This may be the skirmish in which Captain Schriber distinguished himself.  At first fire he jumped into the Shenandoah River to hide behind a stone wall that protected the Winchester and Potomac Railroad from the river.  The wall protected him from the bullets, but the strong current of the river nearly drowned him.

     His fine clothes were damaged.  A red sash he wore left a permanent stain on his uniform which no amount of washing could remove.  “It would appear as if his uniform eternally blushed for the cowardice of the unworthy wearer.” *

     Schriber was attached to the regiment at Fort Independence shortly before it left for the seat of war.  He passed himself off as a military officer with experience fighting against the Russians in the Crimean War, and Massachusetts Governor, John Andrew, appointed him Captain, to the 13th Mass.  The claim of war service was highly doubted by those in Company I, under his command.

     At Harper’s Ferry he kept his headquarters on a canal boat, so as to be ready to retreat at any time, his men said.

     He had a good deal of trouble with his men.  Some were in the guard house about all the time. One day he was drilling his company in the manual of loading and firing.  He told them he would put every man in the guard house if they didn’t do exactly as he wanted.  Then he gave the commands…

     “Ready… Aim…   Aim Higher !”

     About ½ mistook his command for “Fire!” ;  and they fired.    Austin Stearns said it was fun to watch the “Dutchman” rave and shout language “not generally heard on drill.”

     His uniform was loaded down with medals and merit badges and the red sash.  After the river incident he lost caste with his men.  Austin Stearns said of him, “He could have fraud wrote after his name and not over express it.”

     Joseph Barry reports his conduct toward the ladies of the town was “disgraceful,” and there is evidence in the original field books of Company I, that he was dealing in illicit horse trading.

     But Captain Schriber’s ambitions could not be contained by the 13th regiment.  By late October he had manipulated his way onto Major-General N. P. Banks’ staff.

     He rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with the 1st Maryland Cavalry, (Gen. James Shields’ division) but was eventually drummed out of the service for fraud.  He is mentioned in the war department’s ‘official records’ a few times.  One is his report on the battle of Kernstown, explaining his modest role in commanding the troops to victory.  Another mention is found in a  quote of General Shields referencing “deterioration in the situation; Col. Schriber is at work.”

     Here is 13th Mass Historian Charles Davis’s sketch of Schriber:

     “The appointment of this officer to our regiment was an instance of attempting to graft foreign fruit to a native tree.  As it proved a lamentable failure, no apology is necessary for showing him up as a warning to future governors in making such attempts.  The fact that he had expressed a contemptuous opinion of Yankees doesn’t count for much,  but that was no reason why he should make himself conspicuous by peculiarities in dress or manners.  Eccentricities of this kind were unbecoming in a man of such mediocrity as he.

     Evidently the air we breathed was unsuitable for a man of his expansive nature, and we were glad when he shook the dust of the Thirteenth from his feet.  …We watched his career with interest as he sailed aloft, unconscious of his elephantine conceit, soaring higher and higher until he reached the rarefied air of a lieutenant-colonel in a Maryland brigade, where swindling and conduct unbecoming an officer were frowned upon.  Having reached this giddy height he exploded like the sky-rocket, whose flight he so much resembled, and like it plunged to earth again, followed by the fiery tears of his mysterious friends.  He was dismissed from the service, and is, probably, now in ‘Fair Bingen on the Rhine’ relating the heroic deeds he performed in Yankee land to save the Union.”

Note:  *Quote is from Joseph Barry's "Strange Story of Harper's Ferry."
To read more about Capt. Schriber see the link to my website page "Nine Weeks at HF" above.


  1. Thanks for the Keogh website plug. I have now become a 'devout' follower.

  2. Brad,
    I saw your presentation "Nine Weeks at Harper's Ferry" before the West Valley Civil Warriors Roundtable group and enjoyed it very much . I can empathize with you not having enough time to make the presentation. I experienced the same problem with my PowerPoint program "The Civil War Letters of William Beynon Phillips". The good news is that you can always put together a new program to cover what you missed. That is what I intend to do with mine. I believe I have enough material for three presentations, and if not I will relish doing the new research needed to fill in the gaps.