By Hadassa Whitney
William Haffner was born on September 24, 1837, in Kaiserslautern, Rheinland‑Pfalz, Germany. (According to military records, his name was originally “Wilhelm Höffner.”) By 1861, William had immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. He was part of a vast influx of German immigrants during the 1840s and 1850s, such that by 1855 New York City had the third largest German population in the world.
On May 3, 1861, William enlisted with the Union Army, 20th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company K, entering with the rank of First Lieutenant. The 20th Infantry was comprised primarily of German-American soldiers who, like First Lieutenant Haffner, were recruited in New York City. The regiment was nicknamed “Turner Rifles” because the vast majority of recruits were members of various German-American Turner Societies, many of them coming from the city’s Kleindeutschland neighborhood.
New York’s Turner Societies were descended from the Turnvereine Movement in Germany in the early 19th Century. The Societies championed athletics, German culture and liberal politics, and many Turners participated in the German Revolutions of 1848–49. In America, Turners became leading advocates for gymnastics as a sport and school subject. They supported the Union war effort during the American Civil War, and many fought in the Union Army. It is unknown whether William himself was a member of the New York Turnvereine.
With the rest of Company K, First Lieutenant Haffner mustered into federal service for a two-year tour of duty on May 6, 1861. After training in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay Park, all companies of the 20th Infantry left New York on a steamship for Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on June 13, 1861. The regiment’s departure was marked by a festive parade to their transport ship. Reflecting the infantry’s guiding philosophy, an American flag, a black-gold-red flag of Germany’s democratic revolutionaries, and a guide flag with the motto Bahn Frei (Clear the Way) were presented during the departure festivities.
In the summer of 1862, First Lieutenant Haffner was transferred to Company I in order to be promoted to the rank of captain. The timing of the transfer coincided with the transfer of the whole 20th Infantry Regiment to the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The latter transfer was in preparation for the Peninsula Campaign.
Following the transfer, the 20th Infantry engaged in combat at the Battle of White Oak Swamp. During this battle, a Confederate artillery bombardment surprised the Union regiment as they were encamped. The surprise attack caused chaos, with some Union officers and soldiers fleeing. The remaining members of the 20th Infantry, including Captain Haffner, regrouped in the shelter of nearby woods until the end of the bombardment.
The 20th Infantry was next engaged in major combat at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. The regiment incurred heavy losses, but their performance during the battle earned the unit praise. In particular, the regiment was praised for their action in checking the final Confederate counterattack near Dunker Church. (After the war ended, the veterans of the 20th Infantry dedicated two separate monuments in memory of their fallen comrades.)
In the Spring of 1863, the 20th Infantry was approaching the end of its two years of service. It was unclear to the soldiers whether their two years started from the point at which they were mustered into New York service or the United States service. As a result of the unclarity, on April 29, 1863, there was a mutiny of two hundred soldiers en route to the Battle of Chancellorsville. The mutineers were quickly tried and sentenced to hard labor, but the sentence was later commuted and the soldiers eventually received honorable discharges.
It can be inferred that Captain Haffner was not among the mutineers, for he continued his service past the date of the mutiny. With the remainder of the regiment, Captain Haffner crossed the Rappahannock participated in the Battle of Salem Church in early May 1863, in which his unit incurred higher casualties than at any other battle. Captain Haffner was among those casualties, being wounded and captured by the Confederate Army on May 4, two years and one day after his enlistment date. According to military records, Captain Haffner was held as a prisoner of war for about three weeks, when he was paroled on May 25. Along with the other survivors of the regiment, Captain Haffner returned to New York City and was mustered out on June 1, 1863.
According to the New York State Census of 1865, William had married Johanna Barbara Neu, and the couple was living in the 13th Ward of Brooklyn. Barbara Neu (born May 2, 1845) was the oldest child of Johann Christian Neu and Marie Elisabetha Schreiner. Like her husband, Barbara and family had emigrated from the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany. The Neu family arrived in New York City in 1853 and settled in Kleindeutchland, or “Little Germany,” a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York dominated by German immigrants. While the Neu family resided in Manhattan, Barbara’s father served as a Moravian missionary for 10 years, at which point he left the city to serve as a pastor of several churches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
According to the register of Civil War Veterans, William and Barbara continued to live in Brooklyn after their marriage until at least September 1877. During that time, in October 1864, the couple had a son, William. Sadly, young William died of convulsions at the age of seven months in June 1865. There are no records of any other children born to William and Barbara.
Barbara’s father, Pastor Christian Neu, served the Hopedale Moravian Church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, from 1872 until the spring of 1877. After leaving the region for several years to serve a church in West Salem, Illinois, Pastor Neu returned to the Hopedale vicinity while taking a sabbatical to recuperate from a bout of ill health. According to the 1880 Federal Census, in June 1880, William and Barbara were living in Greentown, Pennsylvania, with her parents. Presumably, the younger couple had relocated to support her father’s recuperation. William’s occupation was described as a tinsmith and tin roofer installing flat-seam tin-coated sheet metal roofs, probably primarily on barns.
By the end of August 1880, Pastor Neu had recuperated sufficiently to accept a call to Schoeneck Moravian Church in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. William and Barbara, however, remained in Greentown for the next decade, until William died at age 54, on November 10, 1891. William’s remains are buried in the Hopedale Moravian Cemetery.
After William’s death, Barbara moved in with her younger brother, Charles William Neu, who lived in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn. Barbara lived with Charles, his second wife, Cora Poole, and another brother, Louis Charles Neu, until Charles’ death in 1923. After that, Barbara lived in Woodhaven, Queens, at the home of Charles’ son, Charles C. Neu. She died at that residence, at age 82, in May 1927.
Note: The biography was based in part on research conducted by Hadassa’s mother, Judith Hankinson, Captain Haffner’s 2nd great-grandniece.