The Wrong War?

Deep in to my second week of COVID quarantine I received an unexpected and intriguing message from my uncle. It was a video showing him open a small wooden box, removing a smaller cloth pouch, and emptying its contents. He picked the item up, brought it closer to the camera, and slowly flipped it over so I could see both sides. No commentary. No context provided in the text message. Just the video.

For obvious reasons I was confused and very curious. So, I simultaneously called him and googled the item.

My uncle answered my first question with ease. This item wasn’t some random thrift shop find. It was something shared generation to generation in the family. That’s kind of where the back story stopped. He guessed maybe it was from the Pfeiffer side (his mom’s side) — but that wasn’t based on any specific story or nugget of information, so he couldn’t be 100% certain.

We were able to identify what it was and its historical significance, and eventually we changed topics.

I had to investigate further.

What was the item you ask?

It is a Kriegsdenkmünze für die Feldzüge 1870-1871 (War Commemorative Medal of 1870-1871). There were two versions made:

  • One for combat service, made of bronze
  • One for non-combat service, made of steel

There are a few differences in the design of each, which helped identify ours as the non-combat service version. Both were created and authorized by Kaiser Wilhelm I (aka. King of Prussia) in May 1871 for service in the Franco-Prussian War… the war which resulted in the unification of Germany.

One side of the non-combat medal has the years of the war. The reverse side has the royal cypher of William I above “Für Pflichttreue im Kriege” (For devotion to duty in the war), and around the edge is “Gott war mit uns, Ihm sei die Ehre” (God was with us, to Him be the glory).

So who could it have been awarded to? It’s unlikely to have been shared by an extended family member… which only leaves a handful of suspects:

  • Carl Heinrich “Henry” Gerling
    • Born 27 Oct 1835 in Hille, Minden-Lubbecke, Nordrhein-Westfalen
    • But… he came to the US in 1854 (verified)
  • Carl Bronn
    • Born 23 Dec 1850 in Gützkow, Vorpommern-Greifswald, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
    • But… he came to the US in 1869 (verified)
  • Heinrich Pfeiffer
    • Born 16 Apr 1851 in Blasbach, Lahn-Dill-Kreis, Hessen
    • But… he came to the US in 1868 (verified)
  • Heinrich Wilhelm “William” Rudolf Stoeppelwerth
    • Born 18 Apr 1842 in Aschendorf, Osnabrück, Lower Saxony
    • But… he came to the US before 1863 (verified)
  • Johann “John” Knechtel
    • Born 22 May 1843
    • But… he was born in Canada, not Germany (his dad came from Germany) (also verified)
  • Heinrich Wilhelm “William” Köhnecke/Koehneke
    • Born 15 Jan 1843 in the Kingdom of Hannover (more on this anther time)
    • But… he came to the US in 1866… based on family stories and the 1910 US Census… or maybe it was 1867 based on the 1900 US Census? And wasn’t he in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866?

Of the likely suspects, all were ruled out by verifiable documentation except for one: Heinrich Wilhelm “William” Köhnecke/Koehneke.

Let’s do a quick rewind and review the family story of his origins. Our two sources are my great-aunt Vera’s autobiography written for a school assignment, and a handwritten note by Otto A. Koehneke (her dad… aka William’s eldest son). I think it’s safe to assume that Vera got her information from her dad, as William died in 1914, which was 6 years before she was born.

Excerpt from great-aunt Vera’s autobiography
Handwritten note from Otto Koehneke

Their version is that William was a soldier for Hannover, which was allied with Austria against Prussia in 1866. After Hannover/Austria lost, he fled via Hamburg to America so he wouldn’t have to swear allegiance to the Prussian flag, and arrived here around Christmastime 1866.

It’s a compelling and logical narrative.

Verifying the Koehneke origin story has been an ongoing quest for me… my white whale. I have collected A LOT of information about the family… but to this day, I haven’t found William’s 1866 ship manifest/passenger list. Looking back on my verified sources for him, the earliest mention of him in the US is an 1876 Chicago city directory (his address and occupation match later records, so I’m confident it’s him). So what happened in the 10-ish year gap between Christmas 1866 and this city directory from 1876?

If he truly arrived in 1866 or 1867, there should be an 1870 US Census for him… but that hasn’t been found either. The earliest census record for William is in 1880 where he’s living in Chicago with his sister and her husband and children.

With no definitive proof of his arrival in 1866, and nothing else until 1876, is it possible that the medal was earned by William? Did we have the wrong war all these years?

My theory is this:

It’s still possible that William could have been a soldier in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. There is nothing to prove or disprove that service yet. After Prussia’s victory, the Kingdom of Hannover (where William was from) became part of the massive Kingdom of Prussia. It’s possible that William was still there during the Franco-Prussian War, which lasted from 19 July 1870 – 28 January 1871.

The medal-in-question was presented to officers, military physicians, civil servants, and men of the German armies who took part in the war, in addition to the crew of the SMS Augusta. He could have served in any of those roles and not been engaged in combat.

The medal was established 20 May 1871. I highly doubt that German officials would have tracked him down in the US to present the medal… so I suspect William could have remained in Germany at least through June of that year, if not longer. (I have no idea how long it took to create and distribute the medals following its establishment).

Voyages from Hamburg (assumed) to New York (assumed) took as long as 2-ish months by ship, or as short as 2 weeks by steamship. This leaves plenty of time for William to have departed Germany and arrived in America by Christmastime (of whatever year).

I don’t have anything to prove this theory. I’m still searching for a passenger list and any other documentation which could shed some light on the truth.

That said — who else could it have been?

William Koehneke

p.s. For all the fans of symbolism out there… the non-combat version of the medal design includes a wreath of oak leaves. William’s eldest son was Otto August Koehneke — who frequently shortened his signature to “OAK”

Also… fast forward four generations from William… his 2x great-granddaughter (me!) received similar medals during her first Iraq deployment in 2004-2005: the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (for those in units who could deploy in support of the war), in addition to the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (for those who did deploy).

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