Bennet C. Riley

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Bennet C. Riley
United States  Military Governor of California
In office
Preceded by Persifor Frazer Smith
Succeeded by Peter Hardeman Burnett
Personal details
Born (1787-11-27)November 27, 1787
St. Mary's County, Maryland
Died June 6, 1853(1853-06-06) (aged 65)
Black Rock, near Buffalo, New York
Resting place Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo
Spouse(s) Arabella Israel Riley
Profession Soldier
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1813–1850
Rank Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Union army brig gen rank insignia.jpg Bvt. Brigadier General
Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Bvt. Major General
Unit U.S. Regiment of Riflemen
5th U.S. Infantry
6th U.S. Infantry
Commands 2nd U.S. Infantry
Riley's Brigade
Department of Upper California
1st U.S. Infantry
Battles/wars Arikara War
2nd Seminole War
Mexican-American War

Bennet C. Riley[Note 1] (November 27, 1787 – June 6, 1853) was the sixth and last military governor of the territory of California before it became a U.S. state. He ordered the election of representatives to a state constitutional convention, and handed over all civil authority to elected delegates at the end of 1849. He participated in the War of 1812 on Lake Ontario. He also served in the United States Army during the Seminole War in Florida, and Mexican-American War.


Bennet Riley was born to Irish-Catholic parents, Bennet Riley and Susanna Ann Drury[1] in St. Mary's, Maryland, 1787; his mother died in 1792 and his father in 1811. Early in life apprenticed to a cobbler: he served as a foreman in a shoe factory and later as a sailor on a privateer.[2]

Riley married Arabella Israel, of Philadelphia, on 9 November 1834 in at the Jefferson Barracks, Lemay, Missouri.[3] They had eight children: William Davenport Riley and Samuel Israel Riley, twins, died in Fort King, Florida, on 15 and 17 November 1841; Bennet Israel Riley, born 1835 in Massachusetts, served in the Navy and died aboard the war-sloop USS Albany, which disappeared with all hands in September, 1854;[4] Mary, born 1836; Arabella I Riley, 1837–1916) (never married); George, born 1838; and Edward Bishop Dudley Riley (1839–1918).[Note 2] Ulysses S. Grant described him as "the finest specimen of physical manhood I had ever looked upon...6'2 (190 cm) in his stocking feet, straight as the undrawn [sic] bowstring, broad shouldered with every limb in perfect proportion, with an eagle and a step as light as a forest tiger.[5] An accident or injury in his youth caused him to lose part of his palette, and he spoke with a hoarse voice.[6][7]

Military career[edit]

Riley volunteered for service in the War of 1812,[8] and on 19 January 1813, he was appointed Ensign of Rifles. In March of the same year, he became a third lieutenant and in April 1814 a second lieutenant in the First Rifles. He saw action at Sackets Harbor, New York, in second of two battles for control of the shipyards on Lake Ontario. He gained a promotion to the first lieutenant in March 1817. Riley was further advanced to captain in the 5th U.S. Infantry, and by 1821 he was transferred to the 6th U.S. Infantry.[6][7]

The officer joined his superior, Colonel Henry Leavenworth, in an engagement against the Arikara Indians in August 1823. Riley was honored for ten years of faithful service by being promoted to brevet major on 6 August 1828, leading the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail in 1829.[6][9]

He had tenures as Major in the 4th U.S. Infantry (1837) and lieutenant colonel, 2nd U.S. Infantry, beginning in December 1839.[6] The Battle of Chokachotta in Florida took place on 2 June 1840. Colonel Riley was cited for bravery and good conduct during this engagement in the Seminole Wars. He gained the rank of Brevet Colonel in February 1844.[6][7]

During the Mexican-American War, Riley was colonel of the 2nd U.S. Infantry and fought at the Siege of Veracruz and the Battle of Cerro Gordo, where he was cited for bravery.[6] He was brevetted brigadier general and assumed command of the 2nd Brigade in David E. Twiggs's Second Division. He led his brigade at the Battle of Contreras and the Battle of Churubusco, where Winfield Scott gave him credit for the U.S. victory: Riley had discovered a way around the rear of Velencia's position.[10] He was appointed brevet major general and fought at the Chapultepec. After the battle at Churubusco, he also presided over the courts-martial of 72 deserters of the so-called Saint Patrick's Battalion discovered hiding in the San Patricios convent, among them John Murphy and John Riley.[11] He is generally considered one of the ablest brigade commanders in the army during the war with Mexico.[6][7]

Role in California statehood[edit]

After the War with Mexico, Riley served a brief stint at Fort Hamilton, New York, in 1848.[12] In the years 1849 and 1850, General Riley commanded the Military Department in Upper California and exercised the duties of Provincial Governor: the inaction of Congress in deciding the issue of California statehood complicated his service.[13] He relieved Colonel Richard B. Mason on 13 April 1849, as the Gold Rush worked into its most violent phase. In addition to the influx of prospectors seeking their fortunes, daily desertions of his own men rapidly depleted his troops. At the height of the Gold Rush, he had eight companies of infantry, two artillery, and two dragoons stretched between San Diego and San Francisco. When Congress refused to act on the statehood of California and New Mexico, he called for the election of civil officers to a de facto government. Consequently, the military authorities could not prevent the slaughter of California's native population nor could they suppress the violence in the lawless gold camps. He relinquished all his civil power on 20 December 1849.[14]

After his administrative service concluded on the Pacific, Riley was ordered to take command of a regiment on the Rio Grande. However ill-health prevented further service on his part. He returned to his home in Black Rock, near Buffalo, New York, where he died of cancer.[6] General Riley died on Thursday evening, 10 June 1853.[7] He left a widow (Arabella died on 12 February 1894) and four children.[15] Riley is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo.[7]


On 27 June 1853, Camp Center (Kansas Territory) was named Fort Riley in Bennet Riley's honor, even though he never served at the fort, and it was a cavalry post, while Riley's career was that of an infantryman. Riley County, Kansas is also named in his honour.[16]

Notes and citations[edit]


  1. ^ His name is sometimes written as Bennett, but his own correspondence uses the spelling of Bennet. See United States. Congress. House. 13th Congress, 2d Session-49th Congress. House Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Executive Documents: 13th Congress, 2d Session-49th Congress, 1st Session, p. 822. for an example.
  2. ^ Edward Riley, born in 1839 in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, graduated from West Point in 1860. There is some conflict with the sources over his subsequent service. Sources about his father report that he served with the 4th Infantry in California; upon the outbreak of war in 1861, he resigned his commission on 13 June 1861, and left with Lewis Armistead for Texas, and then to Virginia. He served as a staff officer, under Braxton Bragg and Albert Sidney Johnston and several others, as part of the Confederate staff. Davis, p. 601. According to Army records, he served as a corporal in the 2nd Infantry, and deserted in June 1861 in Troy New York. New York State Archives, Cultural Education Center, Albany, New York; New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900; Archive Collection #: 13775-83; Box #: 84; Roll #: 932-933, Edward Riley. Accessed 3 November 2015. He is listed in the "Officers of the 4th Infantry Present and Absent in September 1861", Army Register of Enlistments, p. 539, accessed 3 November 2015, and in US Army Historical Register - Volume 2 › Part III - Officers Who Left the US Army After 1860 and Joined the Confederate Service › Page 4. Accessed 3 November 2015. (subscription required)


  1. ^ Spencer Tucker, San Patricio Battalion, found in Alexander Bielakowski (ed), Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Jan 11, 2013. 9781598844283
  2. ^ Jefferson Davis, Papers, LSU Press, 1975 9780807158654, p. 602.
  3. ^ Newspapers and Periodicals. American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. U.S., Newspaper Extractions from the Northeast, 1704-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014, 29 Nov 1834. Accessed 31 October 201.(subscription required)
  4. ^ Navy Casualty Reports, 1776–1941, Lost and Wrecked Ships, Explosions and Steam Casualties, p. 5, Fold3 12-003. Accessed 3 November 2015. (subscription required) See also Correspondence of Franklin Pierce with the Senate, To the Senate (re sloop-of-war Albany), 26 February 1855, Congressional Edition, Volume 745, p. 331.
  5. ^ Susannah Ural Bruce, The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861–1865, NYU Press, 2006, 9780814799390 pp. 36–37.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Davis, p. 602.
  7. ^ a b c d e f New York Times, New York Times: General Riley, June 11, 1853.
  8. ^ Durwood Ball, Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848–1861., University of Oklahoma Press, 2001, 9780806133126 p. 8..
  9. ^ Otis E. Young, Philip St. George Cooke, The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829: From the Journal and Reports of Major Bennet Riley and Lieutenant Philip St. George Cooke, A. H. Clark Company, 1952.
  10. ^ Philip F. Rose, Mexico Redux, iUniverse, Sep 21, 2012 9781475943313 pp. 204–205.
  11. ^ Tucker, in Bielakowski.
  12. ^ National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Returns from U.S. Military Posts, 1800-1916; Microfilm Serial: M617; Microfilm Roll: 442, Fort Hamilton, October 1848. Accessed 3 November 2015. (subscription required)
  13. ^ Anthony Quinn. The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California. U of Nebraska Press, 1997 pp. 22–24. 9780803288515
  14. ^ Ball, pp. 12–15.
  15. ^ The surviving family is listed in the 1855 State Census for Buffalo City, Ward 11, Erie, New York, USA, household 586. Census of the state of New York, for 1855. Microfilm. New York State Archives, Albany, New York. Accessed 3 November 2015. (subscription required)
  16. ^ Michael A. Beatty, County Name Origins of the United States, McFarland, 2001 9780786410255. #937, p. 140.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Persifor Frazer Smith
Military Governor of California
April 12, 1849–December 20, 1849
Succeeded by
Governor of California
Peter Hardeman Burnett