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Our Rich History: Colonel Peter Rudolph Neff was a cultural and spiritual innovator for Cincinnati

By Jacob Koch
Special to NKyTribune

As the summer months gave way to the fall in September of 1862, the city of Cincinnati geared up for war. The encroaching threat of Confederate Brigadier General Henry Heth marching his troops north from Lexington, would put Cincinnati on high alert.

Mayor George Hatch would order all businesses closed in Cincinnati. Under the command of Union Major General Lew Wallace, the city was placed under martial law, with the citizens organized to defend the city.

Multiple militia groups formed to protect the city, such as the Cincinnati Black Brigade, the Squirrel Hunters, and units even responding from out-of-state such, as the 86th Indiana Volunteers. However, one group that particularly stood out was the Pearl Street Rifles, more colloquially known as Neff’s Detachment, named after the brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Peter Rudolph Neff. Though the brigade would not face combat, the unit’s commanding officer would have a profound legacy on Cincinnati during and after the war.

Photo from 1900 print of Colonel Peter Rudolph Neff. Portrait from College of Music of Cincinnati.

Initially Neff would be enlisted into this brigade as captain under Colonel John B. Groesbeck. However, after Colonel Groesbeck would leave to join the national war effort, Neff would take his place.

The weaponry this brigade was armed with was quite remarkable compared to much of the weaponry issued to Union military soldiers. The typical Union soldier would have been issued a single shot, Springfield 1861 rifled musket. In comparison, the Pearl Street Rifles were issued 80 Colt Revolving Rifles, a 5-6 shot rifle (.44 Caliber were 6 shot, and the .56 Caliber were 5 shot) costing approximately $50 each.

While the armaments of this brigade are remarkable, the brigade’s namesake is perhaps the more remarkable aspect. He would not only valiantly lead his brigade, but would contribute in significant ways, even saving Cincinnati from the draft during the Civil War by raising $250,000 in 1863.

Additionally, he would be tasked with the construction of the pontoon bridge across the Ohio River for the Union defense from Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.

Peter Rudolph Neff was born June 19, 1832, to parents Peter Neff and Isabelle Freeman Neff in Baltimore, Maryland. Neff’s grandfather, sharing his name Rudolph Neff (originally Näf), had emigrated from Switzerland in 1749. A common theme in Neff’s family was naming male children some variation of their father’s and grandfather’s names.

As Colonel Neff was named after his father and grandfather, do too his three sons were named in similar fashion. Peter Rudolph Neff and Frederick Rudolph Neff would not survive childhood, and a third son, Rudolph Neff would survive.

Additionally, Colonel Neff would have a grandson from his daughter Isabella, named Rudolph Neff Maxwell, who also shared the name with his son.

Neff’s father moved the family to Cincinnati in 1835 to go into business with his brothers George, John, Rudolph, and William, establishing “Neff Hardware House.” His firm would quickly grow and become a major business in Cincinnati. The business changed its name to “Neff and Sons” after his uncles retired in 1848. It remained operational until 1871, when his father and Colonel Neff retired, and the business was sold.

Colonel Neff was regarded as a remarkably bright boy. At age ten, he attended Woodward High School where he studied under Dr. Joseph Ray for two years. He would continue to Cincinnati College (University of Cincinnati), later leaving to receive private instruction from tutors in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, French, Latin, Greek, and English Literature. With his well-rounded education complete, Neff would then go into business with his father and brother in 1847. Neff would continue to grow his acumen for business for the next twenty-one years. This would not be his only focus prior to the war, however.

Neff would marry his first wife, Caroline Margarette Burnet Neff, in Brooklyn NY, on June 30, 1853. Caroline came from a very prominent family in Cincinnati. She was the granddaughter of Jacob Burnet, who was largely responsible for writing the Ohio state constitution, as well as being a prominent lawyer and judge on the Ohio Supreme Court. This marriage, however, was short-lived, as she would pass away on August 4, 1864.

From this marriage, five children were produced, four daughters and a son who did not survive.

In 1867 Neff would then marry his late wife’s sister, Josephine Clark Burnet, who would outlive him by two decades. From this marriage, seven children were produced, four of whom survived to adulthood.

While Neff would have his share of tragedy during his life, he was a very spiritual man. He was prominent in the Presbyterian church around Cincinnati since 1850. In 1851 Neff was elected superintendent of the German Mission Sunday School. Upon his election to the position, the school hosted about 150 students, but this would quickly rise to nearly 600 students. He again would accomplish this task in 1870 following the war, when the Second Presbyterian Church opened the Mission Sabbath School. Its membership quickly grew to 545 at its largest, outgrowing the basement of the Presbyterian church where it was held.

In addition to work with the Presbyterian Church, Neff was a prominent member in the “Society of Religious Inquiry,” or as later changed and is commonly known today, the YMCA. He would serve in many key positions, such as president and a member of the executive board for many years. In addition, he was an executive board member of the Lane Theological Society.

Much as religion was important in the Colonel’s life, music would play an almost equal part. From a young age, Neff had been involved with music, having received training during his schooling.

Along with Colonel George Ward Nichols and Reuben R. Springer in 1878, he would form the College of Music of Cincinnati, which would later become CCM.

Neff would initially take the role as treasurer, accepting no pay for his administrative duties. He would serve in this position until September of 1885, upon Colonel Nichols’ death. Neff was then named his successor and would become the second president of the college. In addition to his administrative duties to the college at the time, he would also be the president of the Philharmonic Orchestra for a year, was associated with most operas in Cincinnati, was elected the president of the Union Board of High Schools, president of the Association of Charity of the Eleventh District, and was an active member of the Committee of Public Safety, and the Citizens Committee.

The many organizations Neff was associated with demonstrate just how deep his connections to the community were. Often, he would take these positions to benefit the community at his own expense. His association with many of the churches, Sunday schools, and education organizations, allowed him to have a profound impact on the youth of Cincinnati in the mid-to-late 19th century. His work with the Presbyterian Church led to the later formation of the YMCA, which continues to help people in communities across the country.

Additionally, his work with the College of Music of Cincinnati would lead to it becoming one of the preeminent music colleges in the country, enrolling some of the most talented musicians nationwide. CCM continues to have a profound effect on the music community at large. Neff ultimately spent his last years in Chicago, where he died on February 13, 1912.

Jacob Koch is a researcher at Heritage Village Museum. He received his BA in History from the University of Cincinnati and is currently a graduate student at Northern Kentucky University.

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