The life story of William F. Reiber, M.D. is a classic American success story. Born in Pennsylvania on 8 July 1835, he was a son of German immigrant Jacob Reiber (1789-1857) and Mary (Fleisher) Reiber (1791-1861), a native of Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania.
His father, who was born in Baden-Württemberg, had left Germany in search of a better life. Both parents, as all parents the world over do, hoped their children would prosper even more so than they had.
William Reiber’s elder brother, George, who was born on 15 February 1830 in Sinking Spring, Berks County, was “prominently identified with the agricultural interests of Potter township, Centre county” in Pennsylvania by the time that J. H.Beers & Co. of Chicago had published its Commemorative Biographical Record of Central Pennsylvania. According to Beers, George Reiber had, by 1898, “achieved success by his own unaided exertions,” and was “a self-made man.”
William F. Reiber, the subject of this biographical sketch, also became a self-made man, electing to pursue a career in medicine during the early 1850s.
Following their Berks County beginnings, the family of Jacob Reiber spent a brief period in Butler, Pennsylvania before making their way to the Keystone State’s Centre County in 1836, where they resided near Tusseyville. Roughly a year old at the time, William F. Reiber was the younger brother to siblings Elizabeth (1826-1903), George (1830-1900) and John (1832-1909).
The Reiber clan lived on rented land, supported by the wages earned by their blacksmith father, who soon built a tidy enough nest egg to purchase area farm land from the Potter brothers.
* Note: Reiber family patriarch and matriarch, Jacob and Mary, would remain in possession of that land for the remainder of their days, and were ultimately laid to rest at what is now the Emanuel Union Church Cemetery in Tusseyville, Centre County, Pennsylvania. While their aforementioned son George remained in Centre County, their daughter and other son John made their way west to Michigan. Elizabeth, who went on to wed Adam Stemm, settled in Berrien County while John became a tinsmith in St. Joseph.
Education and Spirituality
As practicing Lutherans, Reiber family members took their cue from their patriarch, attending church faithfully, and rising to positions as deacons or other similar positions of authority within their respective congregations.
According to Beers, “the educational privileges” of William Reiber’s elder brother, George, “were limited, but in the common schools he obtained a fair literary training, his first teacher being James Powley. At the age of thirteen, however, he laid aside his text books and learned the blacksmith’s trade in his father’s shop, where he continued to work until the age of twenty-four years.” After marrying Potter Township native Esther Mayer, he then found work in the Colyer, Pennsylvania tannery of his father-in-law, which helped him amass enough funding to purchase real estate and become a leader in the region’s agriculture industry.
Educated similarly (but perhaps slightly better than his older brother since the local schools had likely improved over the intervening years), young William Reiber did well enough academically in his common school work that he was accepted into a medical program at the university level. Choosing to study at the same higher education institution where several of his future fellow Civil War surgical colleagues would also receive their healthcare training – the Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – he was afforded the advanced training necessary to succeed not only as a general physician, but as a surgeon during America’s mass casualty-producing Civil War of the 1860s. (Jefferson was as renowned for its focus on clinical practice as for its accomplished faculty of highly experienced physicians.)
Following graduation, William F. Reiber, M.D., entered private practice and became a family man, choosing Amelia Runkle (1838-1934), a daughter of Jacob and Susannah Runkle of Centre County, Pennsylvania, as his bride. Together, they became the parents of four children, the first three of whom were born in Pine Grove Mills, Centre County before the Civil War:
- Mary C. (born 7 January 1855);
- Clara E. (born 10 December 1857, married John Wilkinson, died 13 June 1920 in St. Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan); and
- Sarah Alice (born January 1860).
Their son, John Alden Reiber, was born in Centre County, Pennsylvania sometime around 1862. After marrying and living a long full life with Pearl Ewalt, he died on 18 October 1922 in St. Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan.
Civil War Military Service
A resident of Centre County in 1862, William F. Reiber, M.D. enrolled and mustered in for Civil War military service as a Surgeon and member of the Field and Staff (officers) command with the 13th Pennsylvania Militia at Harrisburg, Dauphin County, but was discharged just a week later on 25 September. The Civil War Veterans’ Card File entry for him at the Pennsylvania State Archives documents this service, but gives no explanation for its short duration.
On 30 October 1862, William Reiber again mustered in for Civil War service at Harrisburg – this time as an Assistant Surgeon and officer (Field and Staff) with the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. From December of 1862 through March 1863, he served under Major William Gausler, Commanding Officer at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida, as the Assistant Surgeon to the companies of the 47th Pennsylvania detailed there. He then continued this service at Fort Taylor from April through December 1863 under Commanding Officer, Colonel Tilghman H. Good.
As with their previous assignments, Dr. Reiber and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians came to realize that disease would be their constant companion and foe. Soldiers were felled by yellow fever and typhoid, as well as dysentery and other ailments common to the often unsanitary conditions found in the close quarters of military life.
This made it all the more remarkable that, during this phase of service, the majority of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers chose to re-enlist when their three-year service terms were up. Many, who could have returned home with their heads held legitimately high after all they had endured, re-enlisted in order to preserve the Union of their beloved nation.
On 25 February 1864, William F. Reiber, M.D. and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers set off for a phase of service in which the regiment would make history. Steaming for New Orleans aboard the Charles Thomas, the men arrived at Algiers, Louisiana on 28 February and were then shipped by train to Brashear City. Following another steamer ride – this time to Franklin via the Bayou Teche – the 47th joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps. In short order, the 47th would become the only Pennsylvania regiment to serve in the Red River Campaign spearheaded by Union General Nathaniel P. Banks.
From 14-26 March, the 47th passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches. On 4 April 1864, Corporal Reuben Weiss was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate and sent home.
Often short on food and water, the remaining members of the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.
Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the back-and-forth volley of fire unleashed during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads (Mansfield). The fighting waned only when darkness fell. The exhausted, but uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. After midnight, the surviving Union troops withdrew to Pleasant Hill.
The next day, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered into a critically important defensive position at the far right of the Union lines, their right flank spreading up onto a high bluff. By 3 p.m., after enduring a midday charge by the troops of Confederate General Richard Taylor (a plantation owner who was the son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting still showed no signs of ending. Suddenly, just as the 47th was shifting to the left side of the massed Union forces, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania were forced to bolster the 165th New York’s buckling lines by blocking another Confederate assault.
Casualties were severe. Private Richard Hahn was killed in action. The regiment’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander, was nearly killed, and the regiment’s two color-bearers, both from Company C, were also seriously wounded while preventing the American flag from falling into enemy hands.
Still others from the 47th were captured by Confederate troops, marched roughly 125 miles to Camp Ford, a Confederate Army prison camp near Tyler, Texas, and held there as prisoners of war until they were released during prisoner exchanges in later months. Corporal James Huff, wounded in action during the Battle of Pleasant Hill on 9 April, was one of those released on 29 August 1864. Sadly, at least two members of the 47th Pennsylvania never made it out of that prison alive.
Following what some historians have called a rout by Confederates at Pleasant Hill and others have labeled a technical victory for the Union or a draw for both sides, the 47th fell back to Grand Ecore to resupply and regroup until 22 April. Retreating to Alexandria, they and their fellow Union soldiers next scored a clear victory against the Confederates at Cane Hill.
On 23 April, the 47th and their fellow brigade members crossed the Cane River via Monett’s Ferry and, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, helped to build a dam from 30 April through 10 May, which enabled federal gunboats to more easily traverse the rapids of the Red River.
Beginning 16 May, Captain Charles Yard and E Company moved with the majority of the 47th from Simmsport across the Atchafalaya to Morganza, and then to New Orleans on 20 June.
Removed from command amid the controversy over the Union Army’s successes and failures during the Red River Expedition, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks was placed on leave by President Abraham Lincoln. Banks subsequently spent much of his time in Washington, D.C. as a Reconstruction advocate for Louisiana.
Still able and willing to fight after their Bayou battles, William F. Reiber, M.D. and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians made the difficult decision to leave several wounded and disease-ridden members of their regiment behind to convalesce at hospitals in New Orleans while the healthier majority sailed for the Washington, D.C. area.
Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I steamed aboard the McClellan, beginning on 7 July 1864. Following a memorable encounter with President Abraham Lincoln on 12 July, they joined up with General David Hunter’s forces at Snicker’s Gap, Virginia for the Battle of Cool Spring, and assisted in defending Washington, D.C. while also helping to drive Confederate troops from Maryland.
The men from Companies B, G and K then arrived later that month via the Blackstone, and reconnected with the bulk of the regiment at Monocacy, Virginia on 2 August.
Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Attached to the Middle Military Division, Army of the Shenandoah beginning in August, the opening days of September saw the departure of several 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had served honorably, but whose three-year terms of service were expiring. Those members of the 47th who remained on duty were about to engage in their regiment’s greatest moments of valor.
In early September, the regiment engaged with fellow Union troops in the Battle of Berryville, Virginia, and sustained several casualties. On 15 September 1864, William F. Reiber, M.D. was shown on a Union hospital death ledger as having certified the death of Jacob Apple from apoplexy at the Union’s hospital at Berryville, Virginia. Apple had been serving with the 47th’s Company B:
Battles of Opequan and Fisher’s Hill, September 1864
Then, on 19 September 1864, the 47th Pennsylvania and other regiments under the command of Union General Philip H. (“Little Phil”) Sheridan and Brigadier-General William H. Emory, commander of the 19th Corps, began inflicting heavy casualties on their enemy, who were commanded by Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early during the Battle of Opequan (also spelled as “Opequon” and referred to as “Third Winchester”). Still considered by many historians to be one of the most important during Sheridan’s 1864 campaign, the Union’s victory here helped to ensure the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.
The 47th Pennsylvania’s march toward destiny began at 2 a.m. on 19 September as the regiment left camp and joined up with others in the Union’s 19th Corps. Advancing slowly from Berryville toward Winchester, the 19th Corps bogged down for several hours with the massive movement of Union troops and supply wagons, enabling Early’s men to dig in. Finally reaching the Opequan Creek, Sheridan’s men came face to face with Early’s Confederate Army. The fighting, which began in earnest at noon, was long and brutal. The Union’s left flank (6th Corps) took a beating from Confederate artillery stationed on high ground.
Meanwhile, the 47th Pennsylvania and the 19th Corps were directed by General William Emory to attack and pursue Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederate forces. Some success was achieved, but casualties mounted as another Confederate artillery group opened fire on Union troops trying to cross a clearing. When a nearly fatal gap began to open between the 6th and 19th Corps, Sheridan sent in units led by Brigadier-Generals Emory Upton and David A. Russell. Russell, hit twice – once in the chest, was mortally wounded. The 47th Pennsylvania opened its lines long enough to enable the Union cavalry under William Woods Averell and the foot soldiers of General George Crook to charge the Confederates’ left flank.
The 19th Corps, with the 47th in the thick of the fighting, then began pushing the Confederates back. Early’s “grays” retreated in the face of the valor displayed by Sheridan’s “blue jackets.” Leaving 2,500 wounded behind, the Rebels retreated to Fisher’s Hill, eight miles south of Winchester (21-22 September), and then to Waynesboro, following a successful early morning flanking attack by Sheridan’s Union men which outnumbered Early’s three to one. Afterward, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent out on skirmishing parties before making camp at Cedar Creek.
Among the casualties were Private Edward Smith, who was wounded at Opequan on 19 September, and Private J. M. Kerkendall, who was wounded during the fighting at Fisher’s Hill on 22 September.
Moving forward, the surviving members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers would continue to distinguish themselves in battle, but they would do so without their respected commanders: Colonel Tilghman H. Good and Good’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel George Alexander, who mustered out 23-24 September upon the expiration of their respective terms of service. Fortunately, they were replaced with leaders who were equally respected for their front line experience and temperament, including Major John Peter Shindel Gobin, formerly of the 47th’s Company C, who had been promoted up through the regimental staff to the rank of Major (and who would be promoted again on 4 November to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and regimental commanding officer).
Battle of Cedar Creek, October 1864
During the Fall of 1864, General Sheridan began the first of the Union’s true “scorched earth” campaigns, starving the enemy into submission by destroying Virginia’s farming infrastructure. Viewed through today’s lens of history as inhumane, the strategy claimed many innocents – civilians whose lives were cut short by their inability to find food. This same strategy, however, almost certainly contributed to the further turning of the war’s tide in the Union’s favor during the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19 October 1864. Successful throughout most of their engagement with Union forces at Cedar Creek, Early’s Confederate troops began peeling off in ever growing numbers to forage for food, thus enabling the 47th Pennsylvania and others under Sheridan’s command to rally and win the day.
From a military standpoint, it was another impressive, but heartrending day. During the morning of 19 October, Early launched a surprise attack directly on Sheridan’s Cedar Creek-encamped forces. Early’s men were able to capture Union weapons while freeing a number of Confederates who had been taken prisoner during previous battles – all while pushing seven Union divisions back. According to Bates:
When the Army of West Virginia, under Crook, was surprised and driven from its works, the Second Brigade, with the Forty-seventh on the right, was thrown into the breach to arrest the retreat…. Scarcely was it in position before the enemy came suddenly upon it, under the cover of fog. The right of the regiment was thrown back until it was almost a semi-circle. The brigade, only fifteen hundred strong, was contending against Gordon’s entire division, and was forced to retire, but, in comparative good order, exposed, as it was, to raking fire. Repeatedly forming, as it was pushed back, and making a stand at every available point, it finally succeeded in checking the enemy’s onset, when General Sheridan suddenly appeared upon the field, who ‘met his crest-fallen, shattered battalions, without a word of reproach, but joyously swinging his cap, shouted to the stragglers, as he rode rapidly past them – “Face the other way, boys! We are going back to our camp! We are going to lick them out of their boots!’”
The Union’s counterattack punched Early’s forces into submission, and the men of the 47th were commended for their heroism by General Stephen Thomas who, in 1892, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his own “distinguished conduct in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter, in which the advance of the enemy was checked” that day. Bates described the 47th’s actions:
When the final grand charge was made, the regiment moved at nearly right angles with the rebel front. The brigade charged gallantly, and the entire line, making a left wheel, came down on his flank, while engaging the Sixth Corps, when he went “whirling up the valley” in confusion. In the pursuit to Fisher’s Hill, the regiment led, and upon its arrival was placed on the skirmish line, where it remained until twelve o’clock noon of the following day. The army was attacked at early dawn…no respite was given to take food until the pursuit was ended.
Once again, the casualties for the 47th were high. Sergeant William Pyers, the C Company man who had so gallantly prevented the American flag from falling into enemy hands during the Battle of Pleasant Hill was cut down and later buried on the battlefield. Sergeant Francis A. Parks and Private Marcus Berksheimer were also killed in action at Cedar Creek. Company E’s Corporal Edward W. Menner and Privates Andrew Burk, John Kunker, Owen Moser, Jacob Ochs, and John Peterson were wounded in action. Kunker, Menner, Moser, Ochs, and Peterson survived but Private Burk, who had sustained gunshot wounds to the head and upper right arm and had initially been declared killed in action by mistake, was shipped from one hospital to another in an attempt to save his life. Treated first at a field hospital following the battle, he was then sent to the Union Army’s post hospital at Winchester where, on 13 December 1864, he underwent surgery to remove bone matter from his brain. He was then shipped to the Union Army’s General Hospital at Frederick, Maryland, where he died two days before Christmas (on 23 December 1864) from phthisis, a chronic wasting away from disease-related complications (often tubercular) commonly suffered by soldiers convalescing in hospitals after being severely wounded in battle.
Private Jacob Ochs, who had been shot in the foot at Cedar Creek, recuperated enough to be discharged from the Union Army’s General Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland on a Surgeon’s Certificate on 19 June 1865. Private Reuben Golio, also wounded in action, was absent and sick at muster out.
Regimental Chaplain William Rodrock suffered a near miss when a bullet pierced his cap.
Still others were captured and held as prisoners of war, several of whom died. Corporal James Huff,wounded in action and captured by Confederate forces during the Battle of Pleasant Hill just six months earlier, was captured again by Rebels during the Battle of Cedar Creek. Marched to the Confederate Army prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina, he died there as a POW on 5 March 1865.
Corporal Frederick J. Scott was also captured; he died in captivity at Danville, Virginia on 22 February 1865. He was promoted to the rank of, but not mustered as a 2nd Lieutenant on 20 March 1865.
Corporal William H. Eichman was one of the “fortunate” ones; wounded in action during the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19 October, he was then captured, and held as a prisoner of war (POW) until he was released on 11 May 1865. He was honorably mustered out less than a month later – on 1 June 1865.
Privates Jacob Haggerty and Henry Beavers were also captured and held as POWs until being released on 1 March and 8 March 1865, respectively. Private Franklin Moser was wounded in action and then also declared as missing in action following the battle.
Following these major engagements, William F. Reiber, M.D. and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians were ordered to Camp Russell near Winchester from November through most of December. On 23 November 1864, Private Charles Arnold was accidentally wounded. (He was discharged seven months later, on 25 June 1865, on a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability.)
Rested and somewhat healed, the 47th was then ordered to outpost and railroad guarding duties at Camp Fairview in Charlestown, West Virginia. Five days before Christmas they trudged through a snowstorm in order to reach their new home.
By the dawn of the New Year, William F. Reiber had seen enough heartache to last ten lifetimes. So, on 23 January 1865, he ended his service with the 47th Pennsylvania by resigning his commission.
After the War
A physician and surgeon in Berrien Springs during the 1870s and 1880s, William F. Reiber, M.D. served as a Trustee of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Berrien Springs in 1871, and also became a founding member of the Berrien County Medical Society in 1874. From 1882 to 1889, he served as the Surgeon for his local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (Kilpatrick Post No. 39).
Like many of his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, William F. Reiber, M.D. suffered from chronic health problems throughout most of his post-Civil War life, a fact documented by notations on his entry on the U.S. Veterans’ Schedule of 1890.
A resident of the Village of Three Oaks, Michigan in 1894, he was one of the old soldiers who did not live to see the arrival of a new century, passing away on 31 December 1899, just hours before its dawn in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Survived by his wife and four children, he was laid to rest in that community’s Rose Hill Cemetery on 2 January 1900.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.
2. Berrien Springs Business Directory. Berrien Springs: 1887.
3. Census of Michigan Civil War Soldiers (1894).
4. Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866, Pennsylvania State Archives.
5. Death Certificate (William F. Reiber). Lansing: State of Michigan, Department of Vital Statistics, 1899.
6. George Reiber, in Commemorative Biographical Record of Central Pennsylvania, Including the Counties of Centre, Clearfield, Jefferson and Clarion, Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens, and of Many of the Early Settled Families, vol. 1. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co, 1898.
7. History of Berrien and Van Buren Counties with Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers; Philadelphia: D. W. Ensign & Co., 1880.
8. Reiber, William F., in Officers of Kilpatrick Post #39, in Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan. Berrien Springs: Sons of Union Veterans, Department of Michigan, 1882-1889.
9. Reiber, William F., in U.S. Civil War Pension Index (application no.: 544265, certificate no.: 337921, dated 2 July 1885; application no.: 711177, certificate no.: 509778, filed by the veteran’s widow from Michigan, 9 January 1900). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1900.
10. Reiber, William F., in U.S. Returns from Military Posts. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1893.
11. Reibur, William F., in U.S. Veterans’ Schedule. Washington, D.C. and Berrien Springs, Michigan: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1890.