North Buffalo finds family, Civil War links in Kittanning

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Robert Lehner, an 89-year-old Civil War history buff from North Buffalo, recently discovered a family connection to the Battle of Gettysburg when his son, Mark, unearthed some ancestral documents through online research.

Lehner is a World War II Army veteran who shies away from discussing his own personal service to his country. He sat at his dining room table recently, leafing through a mound of documents that linked him back more than a century and a half to his maternal great-grandfather, Johan Volk, a man previously unknown to him.

“It's very exciting to me to find out about him — to find out he fought in the Civil War and at the Battle of Gettysburg and that his regiment was noted for bravery and holding their positions,” Robert said.

The other shocker was finding out that Volk settled in Kittanning before the Civil War after moving to America from Nordlingen in the Bavarian region of Germany.

“It's such a coincidence,” Lehner said. “When I was 20-years-old, I was in Bavaria not far from that town.”

That's because while serving in the finance unit as a member of Gen. George Patton's troops, Lehner was stationed at times in Munich, Bamberg and Erlangen — all within a 100-mile radius of his ancestor's hometown.

Lehner rifled through the pile of documents showing Volk had likely enlisted in a New York regiment and was eventually buried in the Kittanning Cemetery in Rayburn.

“I knew nothing about him, and then to find he's buried here at the end of Union Avenue,” he said.

Lehner and his son have visited the grave where a weather-beaten tombstone is inscribed in German, bearing the name Johan S. Volk, with his hometown, birth year, 1829 and the year of his death, 1878.

Mark said he started delving into his family history about four years ago, gathering information from elderly relatives and collecting family photos.

“I was building a family tree just on a piece of paper,” he said.

But things really started coming together when he began researching online and discovered the family link to the 54th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

That's when the life of Johan Volk really began to take shape through information gleaned from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the New York State Military Museum.

Robert figures his great-grandfather — who is listed on the U.S. Census of 1870 as being a resident of Kittanning in a house along South McKean Street — joined a New York infantry because it was made up of German immigrants.

“This regiment had some fame to it, it had a reputation,” Robert said, adding that the men were uniformed in black and silver, carried an unofficial flag bearing a skull and crossbones and were known as the “Hiram Barney Rifles” or the “Black Rifles.”

Literature from the New York Military Museum and Veterans Center notes that the 54th New York Volunteers was stationed at the old United States Arsenal in Hudson City, N.J., from Sept. 5 to Oct. 16, 1861.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, the men of the 54th were stationed at Culp's Hill and managed to the knock back Confederates several times at Cemetery Hill.

Fast-forward 151 years to Memorial Day 2014. That's when Robert and Mark could be seen visiting a monument honoring the “Hiram Barney Rifles” at the foot of Cemetery Hill.

It was a satisfying moment for father and son when they arrived at the towering monument that connected them to their ancestor.

And it was the end of a long journey that wound through generations and across miles from western Pennsylvania to southern Germany, linking two soldiers — Robert and Volk.

“We were so elated to be there,” Mark said.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or

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