By Michael T. Snyder
Pottstown Mercury - Sunday January 6, 2019
William Howe, a Union soldier, took the final walk from his prison cell to the gallows on Aug. 24, 1864, at the parade ground at Fort Mifflin. After a few prayers, a noose was placed around his neck and a hood slipped over his head. Moments later, when the trap was opened, Howe dropped about five feet and then was no more.
When the Civil War began, Howe was living in what is now Upper Frederick Township, Montgomery County. Born there in 1840, he was the son of Heinrich Hauck and his second wife, Catherina Bartman.
Howe’s parents were legally married, so why was his surname different from his father’s? After 178 years there is no answer to that question. But it is noteworthy that in the 1850 census the enumerator listed the then 10-year-old boy as “William How” or possibly “Howe.”
In 1860 Howe married Hannah Shaner, a woman eight years his senior and his stepsister. While it isn’t every day that stepsiblings marry, they didn’t share any DNA and didn’t even live in the same house. William lived with his mother, Catherina, and Charles Shaner, her second husband. Hannah and her brother, children of Shaner’s first marriage, lived in New Hanover Township with their maternal grandfather, Henry Krebs. (By the way, Catherina was Charles Shaner’s third wife.)
Hannah brought into the marriage a dowry of $1,500 in property and $450 in cash, a huge advantage for Howe, who had no financial resources.
When the Civil War began in April 1861, Howe, now a husband and father, lived with his family in Frederick Township and was working as farm laborer and a cigar roller. With his new responsibilities and limited means, it is understandable that he joined the throngs of men who volunteered to fight for the Union.
Slightly more than a year later this deep pool of volunteers was quickly drying up. Early in the spring of 1862, when it appeared that the Confederacy was on the verge of defeat, Edwin Stanton, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, closed all the recruiting offices.
However, ensuing Confederate military successes demonstrated that prognostications of its impending demise demonstrated the government’s crystal ball was cracked.