Early Years and the Civil War
Harrison Holt Riddleberger was born on October 4, 1843, in the town of Edinburg, in Shenandoah County, and was the son of Madison Riddleberger (originally Riddlesbarger), a stage driver and gunsmith, and Susan Shryock Riddleberger. After receiving his education in local academies and possibly with a tutor, Riddleberger began working in a store in Harrisonburg when he was about fifteen. During the Civil War he joined the 10th Virginia Infantry Regiment and became a second lieutenant on April 22, 1862. Riddleberger was wounded in the foot on October 22, 1862, and the following January was detailed as an enrolling officer in Shenandoah County. He was promoted to captain of Company G of the 23d Virginia Cavalry Regiment on November 21, 1863. Captured in May 1864, Riddleberger was sent to prisons in Wheeling, West Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio. He was transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland, and released on exchange in February 1865, but he was captured again a month later and sent to Fort Delaware, where he remained until the war ended. Riddleberger took the oath of allegiance to the United States and was released on June 15, 1865.
Riddleberger worked in a Harrisonburg store once again before returning to Edinburg, where he taught school, worked as a store clerk, and might have become a photographer. On November 29, 1866, he married Emma V. Belew, the daughter of a physician who was a member of the Senate of Virginia at the time. They had four sons and three daughters. Riddleberger was a founder of an Edinburg newspaper called the Tenth Legion Banner on April 1, 1870, and at the same time published the Shenandoah Democrat, which later moved from Edinburg to Woodstock. In April 1880 he became the editor of the newly established Virginian at Woodstock. As editor for about a year, he supported the Readjuster Party’s platform in its columns. In 1884 Riddleberger and his wife acquired a controlling interest in the company that published another Woodstock paper, the Shenandoah Herald. He transformed it into a Republican organ while serving as its editor until his death. His widow continued to publish the Herald until 1894.
In 1871 Riddleberger had won election as a Conservative to the House of Delegates representing Shenandoah County, the first of two consecutive two-year terms. He was a member of the Committees of Privileges and Elections, on Retrenchment and Economy, and on Printing, becoming chair of the Committee on Printing in his second term. Riddleberger introduced “An Act to Provide Artificial Limbs for Soldiers Maimed in War, and for other Purposes,” which the governor approved on February 20, 1874. It provided an additional $6,000 to a previously established fund that had been exhausted. The large public debt left over from before the war was one of the most important and controversial problems to arise while Riddleberger served in the House of Delegates. Before he became a member, the assembly had promised to pay the debt and accrued interest in full, but tax revenue was inadequate. In 1872 Riddleberger voted to override the governor’s veto of a resolution to stop issuing bonds and to pay only what the state could afford. In March of that year the General Assembly passed a bill he had introduced to reduce the interest rate from 6 to 4 percent.
Riddleberger was a member of the state committee of the Virginia Conservative Party while in the assembly and a presidential elector on the Democratic ticket in 1876. In 1875 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Senate of Virginia from the district of Page and Shenandoah counties. He had been studying law in the office of Henry Clay Allen and was admitted to the bar that year. He was elected commonwealth’s attorney for Shenandoah County in 1877 and held office until he resigned in January 1883.
Riddleberger returned to the assembly as a member of the state senate in December 1879. He had joined the Readjuster Party, a coalition of white and black Republicans and Democrats who wanted to refinance the public debt at a lower interest rate to fund public schools and other services. Riddleberger was one of the party’s presidential electors in 1880, pledged to vote for the Democratic Party’s nominee. He served on the Committees on Courts of Justice, on Finance, and on Federal Relations, which he chaired. In 1881 and 1882 he sat on the Committee on Roads and Internal Navigation and was chair of the Committee on Finance and Banks.
On February 9, 1880, Riddleberger introduced a compromise bill to refinance the state debt. It would have funded three-fifths of the total debt (West Virginia’s allotted portion was two-fifths) at 3 percent interest and included a controversial provision that sharply reduced the ability of bondholders to pay state taxes with the bonds’ coupons. The bill passed both houses of the assembly, but the governor vetoed the measure. The following year when the Readjusters ran their first slate of candidates for statewide office, Riddleberger received some endorsements for governor but not the party’s nomination. He campaigned for the party’s nominees and a conflict resulting from the publication of letters damaging to the Readjuster cause led Riddleberger to challenge the editor of the Richmond State and congressman George Douglas Wise to duels. Riddleberger met both men on October 15, 1881. A lack of pistol caps at the first duel meant that no shots were fired, and three rounds of shots at the second duel resulted in no injuries. After giving a speech to Readjusters in Richmond that evening, Riddleberger was arrested and later released on a $1,000 bond and a promise not to participate in duels for a year.
Early in 1882, after Readjuster William E. Cameron won election as governor, Riddleberger introduced and the assembly passed three bills to settle the debt question. One required that state taxes be paid only in currency, gold, or silver; one permitted courts to determine whether bond coupons presented for payment were genuine; and one, which became known as the Riddleberger Act, refinanced two-thirds of the public debt with new bonds at 3 percent interest. Cameron signed the laws, which, together with other tax reforms adopted that year, converted a treasury deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. Although subsequent legislation modified Riddleberger’s law in detail, the act ended a decade of divisive politics about the public debt.
In March 1881 Readjuster leader William Mahone had become a member of the U.S. Senate and caucused with the Republican majority. He unsuccessfully nominated Riddleberger for the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms. On December 21, 1881, the General Assembly elected Riddleberger to the six-year term in the Senate that began on March 4, 1883. During the session, the assembly considered a bill to remove the penalties for dueling from several people, one of whom was Riddleberger. Despite his request to have his name withdrawn from the bill, his name was kept and the bill passed. The assembly also passed an antidueling bill that session requiring all officeholders thereafter to take an oath that they had not engaged in a duel after May 1, 1882.
Riddleberger took his seat in the U.S. Senate on December 3, 1883, the first day of the Forty-Eighth Congressional session. With Mahone, he caucused with the Republican Party majority. During Riddleberger’s six-year term, he was a member of the Committee on the District of Columbia and chair of the Committee on Manufactures. He also served on the Committee on Railroads in the Forty-Eighth and Forty-Ninth Congresses, on the Committee on Naval Affairs in the Forty-Ninth and Fiftieth Congresses, and on the Committee on Education and Labor in the Fiftieth Congress. Riddleberger introduced a number of resolutions and bills during his single term, including legislation for a free bridge across the Potomac River near Georgetown, for a lighthouse at Tangier Island, and to extend the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to Fort Monroe.
Riddleberger gained a reputation for eccentricity. He was the only senator in March 1885 to oppose confirmation of Delaware Democratic senator Thomas F. Bayard as secretary of state. Bayard had recently introduced a resolution to condemn an Irish separatist attack in London, and Riddleberger was the sole senator to vote against it, stating that it would make it appear that the United States endorsed British policy in Ireland. When Bayard’s nomination for secretary of state came up, Riddleberger objected on the grounds that he believed Bayard’s principles were too English and that he could not be trusted with foreign policy.
After Mahone’s term as senator concluded on March 3, 1887, Riddleberger denounced the former leader of the Readjusters as arrogant and stubborn, and blamed him for the Republican Party’s loss of several Virginia congressional seats and the state’s electoral votes in 1884. Riddleberger continued to caucus with the Senate’s Republicans, giving them a bare majority and control of committee assignments and chairmanships, but by the time his own term concluded on March 4, 1889, he had returned to the Democratic Party.
His personal conduct often attracted attention. In 1887 when one of his clients was declared insane in the Shenandoah County Court, Riddleberger objected so strenuously that the judge had him arrested and jailed for contempt of court. Friends freed him during the night, but he returned to jail on his own. He was prone to depression, suffered from hemorrhoids, and often drank excessively, which was well known. Riddleberger died at his home in Woodstock on January 24, 1890, and was buried in Cedarwood Cemetery in Edinburg.