Hannah Krebs Shaner was born 14 July 1833, the second child of Charles and Elizabeth Krebs Shaner. Her mother died on 6 March 1837. Hannah's older sister Mary had just turned six in February and her younger brother John was not yet four months old. Her father would remarry, to a widow named Catherine Bartman Howe on 27 August 1844. Her first husband, Heinrich (Hauck) Howe, had died on 11 Feb 1844.
Six years later, in 1850, Hannah and her younger brother John were living with their aged maternal grandparents, Henry and Hannah Krebs. The only child living with Charles Shaner and his new wife was William Henry Howe, a son from her previous marriage. He was 9 years old.
On 3 March 1860, Hannah Shaner and William Howe were married. She was 8 years older than her husband. She had a dowry of $1,500 in personal property and $450 in cash. William had nothing. On 31 March 1862, Hannah Howe purchased six acres of land and the house in which they lived. As William farmed his land in Perkiomenville, the country was coming apart.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, a special convention was called in South Carolina on 20 December 1860 where an ordinance of secession was unanimously passed. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana followed in January, and Texas voted to secede on 1 February 1861, still more than a month before Lincoln was actually inaugurated. President James Buchanan denied the right of secession, but he also denied the right of the federal government to use force against the seceded states.
President Lincoln waited a month after his inauguration before deciding to send provisions to Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. On 12 April 1861, Confederate guns opened fire on the fort and the Civil War began. Now forced to make a choice between the Union and the Confederacy, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee voted to secede.
During the early days of the war, men rushed to recruiting stations, full of patriotic zeal, ready and willing to fight for their country. Though William was an aggressive individual and confident in his own abilities, he was not the type to be one of the first to enlist in the Union army. He was content to stay at home to farm, hunt, and drink with his friends. A war was going on, but in Perkiomenville there was peace. William continued to farm his land and, perhaps because of the war, he took a part-time job rolling cigars.
But, as the casualties incurred by the Union forces increased, the number of new recruits dwindled. Officials used every means at their disposal to encourage volunteers. William heard rumors about the need for more men and he dismissed them. As long as other men were willing to volunteer, why should he enlist and leave the comfort of his home and family?
Pressures were mounting. On 2 July 1862, President Lincoln called for 300,000 volunteers. Despite the encouragement of financial contributions to bounties and premiums by prominent citizens, the response was disappointing.
The government floated the possibility of conscription. To an uneducated man like William, the threat of being drafted into the army for an indefinite period of time with a minimal monthly salary was very real and very frightening. Some of the recruiting drives used heavy-handed techniques. That, coupled with a lack of understanding and distrust of the system, drew violent and vocal reactions from the people. The states that experienced the greatest problems were Pennsylvania, Indiana and Lincoln's own Illinois. In Pennsylvania, the major opposition was focused in the coal regions of Schuylkill County, where residents were primarily politically Democratic and opposed to the war. William heard the rumors of a draft, but as long as they were only rumors, he continued to live his life as normal with Hannah and his two sons, Charles Maurice and William Henry, Jr.
In an effort to make enlistment more attractive, new recruits would receive a $3 premium, his first month's pay in advance and one-quarter of a $100 bounty. The remainder of the bounty would be paid to the soldier at the end of the war or to his family if he should die. This gave the would-be soldier $40 (about $1,100 today) to provide for his family and was a big incentive for poorer men.
At that time, Tipperary born Dennis Hennan, who had served as the Lieutenant Colonel of the Irish 24th Pennsylvania Militia in the early month of the war, was chosen as Colonel of the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment. St. Clair A. Mulholland, a young man in his early twenties born in Antrim, was appointed as Lieutenant Colonel. Though originally recruited as an Irish regiment, pressures to fill the regiment in a timely manner made it difficult to maintain a purely Irish character and a number of "Pennsylvania Dutch," who would account for roughly 18% of the regiment by the end of the war, were recruited to the ranks.
One of these "Pennsylvania Dutch" recruits was William Howe when he enlisted on 8 August 1862 in Company A, 116th Pennsylvania Regiment. He was not a typical recruit for the regiment. While English was not unfamiliar to him, he was more comfortable speaking German. He may have felt a patriotic fervor or maybe the money was the motivation. The land on which he and Hannah lived was full of rocks and boulders, making it difficult to farm and produce any abundance of crops. The bounty money was an attractive offer and would help to maintain his family while he was away with the army. And, if anything should happen to him, Hannah and the children would be cared for by the government in a better manner than he could ever afford. He might have enlisted to prove that he was as brave as other men who had joined up. After all, he was a crack shot and proud of that fact.
While it is uncertain exactly why he enlisted, it is still more uncertain why he chose Company A. There were only seven German surnamed soldiers in the unit prior to his enlistment. Although the 116th Regiment was attached to the Irish Brigade, it was never a "green flag" regiment, a completely Irish-American unit, for "mingled with its Hibernians were many...from the Pennsylvania German stock."
So William bid farewell to his wife and sons and, on 2 September 1862, along with 687 other men broke camp and marched out behind Colonel Heenan. William's Company A had twenty-nine members, the fewest out of the ten companies in the Regiment. They were fed their last meal at home and then marched to the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore railroad for their train ride south to join the war.