John L. Riker was born on August 15, 1822, in New York City, the son of a merchant and alderman. While in his twenties he married his first cousin, Anna Elder, and the couple had a daughter, also named Anna, and a son, John, Jr. In 1851 John’s wife died, followed by his father the next year and his son in 1854.
John went on to study law, passing the bar in 1860. He had barely begun his practice when the war erupted.
John raised a volunteer regiment, known as the Anderson Zouaves, which became the 62nd New York Infantry Regiment. It served in the defences of Washington in the fall and winter of 1861. But before he could lead it in the army’s advance on Manassas in spring of 1862 Riker was courtmartialled for a number of offenses, including creating a false roster, extortion from sutlers, and keeping a woman in his headquarters. He was found innocent of the charges, even though the court established that a woman posing as one of his soldiers had been with the regiment since its inception and had lived with his daughter at headquarters.
Riker resumed command of the regiment before it shipped out to Fort Monroe and the Virginia Peninsula later that March. He led his men in the battles of Williamsburg on May 5th and Fair Oaks on May 30th.
Riker was killed at the head of his men at Fair Oaks. He last words were reportedly, “Boys, we’re surrounded – give them the cold steel!” One of his officers, Lieutenant Bradley, told how Colonel Riker never drew his sword in action, instead cooly smoking a cigar.
On June 10th the bodies of Colonel Riker and Colonel Miller of the 81st Pennsylvania, who was also killed at Fair Oaks, were buried at Greenwod Cemetery in Brooklyn.
New York’s Grand Army of the Republic Post #62 was chartered in Colonel Riker’s name.