History – Unwilling Participants – June 2012
The Germans left their home and everything they knew, risked their lives in the holds of stinking ships, and landed in the port city of Indianola to find it disease ridden and over crowded. Once there, they were stranded with no food, no housing, and no transportation to the new lives America promised. Relying on the kindness of others, they moved all of their worldy possessions from the coast to the Hill Country and carved farms out of forest with back-breaking labor eventually founding little jewels of towns among the hills. These people did none of these things with the intent to betray their new country, lose their possessions, or be forced to fight and die for principles they abhorred.
No, not for something they called evil.
There was bad weather brewing in the nation in those final antebellum days. It was like the cloying humidity, the lowering sky and that eerie red-violet light that broods when the coming storm won’t break. And the storm on the horizon in the Hill Country was one of Biblical proportions. In the words of Judge August Siemering, founder of the SA Express News, in his 1876 book called The Germans in Texas During the Civil War, ‘an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty started creeping on all who opposed slavery, like the feeling preceding a thunderstorm of the worst kind.’
The situation was, the German-Texans overwhelmingly opposed slavery. They had risked it all largely because of their belief in the freedom in the new world of Texas. Not only their own freedom, though that was a powerful consideration of course, but also because they believed in the principle of freedom for all people, and in the possibilities of this wide open place as a land of freedom. And they felt great loyalty to their new country, and no desire to secede from the Union over principles which they vehemently opposed. Also, one of the most compelling reasons for lighting out from the Old Country was the forced military service there. Many scores of men had been sacrificed to the Napoleonic Wars, and they could pretty well see which way the wind would blow if there was war between the states. It was a powder keg of a situation. All those German immigrants and their anti-slavery, anti-secessionist views. The Tejanos, those Texans of Mexican and Spanish descent who were also opposed to slavery yet were still sore with the United States over other matters (Manifest Destiny didn’t tend to make a young nation real popular with the ancient civilizations who were living there long before white people came around). There were also the ‘Anglos’. What they called the people who’d emigrated from other, mostly Southern, US states for the wide-open range, the promise of wealth, a fresh start, or just one step ahead of the law. Those Anglos, by and large, supported the Confederacy. That storm just over the horizon was starting to make ugly noises; ominous flashes of lightening could be clearly seen.
In 1860 the State of Texas voted on the issue of secession. Kerr County, with a population mix of Germans, Tejanos and Anglos, voted for secession, but only by a narrow seventy-six to fifty-seven. Gillespie County, where the population was more than three-quarters German, voted it down flat, by a vote of four hundred to seventeen. Texas seceded anyway, of course, and the die was cast. But you know the new Confederate State of Texas kept a weather eye on the Germans. Those votes didn’t make the situation any more comfortable for anybody.
Then in April, 1862, at the urging of old General Robert E Lee himself, the Southern states ratified the Confederate Conscription Law, which required all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five to volunteer for and serve in the Confederate States Army (the following year the law was broadened to include all males from seventeen to fifty.) The law was wildly unpopular all over the South, where they said it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. And while the poor men were off defending the rich men’s property, their own farms and families were going to hell in a handbasket. Unable to get crops into the ground, their livestock, food and everything they had confiscated for the use of the army, people were literally starving to death back home. In German-Texan territory in the Hill Country, where the people had voted against secession, the law was particularly hated, and more so for the reason that it took men away from the defense of the frontier from Indian raiders who took full advantage of their distraction. There were loud and militant protests, and the military responded with an iron fist. On May 30, 1862, General Philemon Herbert, commander of the Confederacy’s Military Department of Texas, issued the order that put the whole state of Texas under martial law.
I honestly never knew that.
Under martial law, provost guards were appointed to administer conscription- that is, force the reluctant into the Army- and their powers increased rapidly and soon came to encompass the confiscation of personal property deemed necessary for the welfare of the CSA. The situation was ripe for wild abuse, and it was, of course, wildly abused. Wagons, oxen, mules, horses, foodstuff, crops and livestock were all swept up and disappeared into the black market. Into the pockets of officials. ‘The administration of the law,’ says one report, ‘became ruthless.’ And it would get worse. Much, much worse. At this point the protests grew loud, violent and ugly, and the Hill Country Germans were the loudest of all.
In 1861, several bigshots and local officials of Gillespie County, including the mayor and the sheriff, had secretly organized as the Union Loyal League. The League has been described variously, according to who’s describing it. Some sources called it a militia organization formed in order to protect the people of the Hill Country from Indian raids and Confederate ‘actions’. Another author stated, ‘the League’s real purpose was to thwart Confederate conscription and to attempt to maintain Union loyalty within the Hill Country German communities.’ Some of the actions attributed to the League were writing insurrectionist letters, establishing an underground communication system between them and the Union, and ‘to intimidate anyone who supported the Confederacy. They… earned the title of traitors and insurrectionists from secessionists.’ At least one source believes that the Union League organized militias in eighteen German communities to actively oppose the Confederacy.
Well, that wasn’t going to ease the tension much. Letters were intercepted by the Confederates connecting the Union League with leading Unionists, and the storm broke. General HP Bee, the commander of the CSA forces in South Texas, declared Gillespie, Kerr, Kendall, Medina and Bexar Counties to be ‘in open rebellion’, and war was effectively declared upon them. Fredericksburg was occupied by Confederate troops, led by Captain James Duff.
Duff, ‘a gruff, brooding Scotsman’, had been dishonorably discharged from the US Army several years before he landed in the CSA and declared himself provost over the occupied Fredericksburg. He was a vicious, merciless man who would be called the most brutal Confederate commander in the Hill Country, and ever afterwards be known as ‘the Butcher of Fredericksburg’. He was one of the most hated men of the era, definitely the most loathed in the Texas Hill Country. Soon after taking charge, Duff wrote in a letter: ‘The goddamn Dutchmen are Unionists to a man… I will hang all I suspect of being anti-Confederate.’
This in a town that had voted against secession four hundred to seventeen.
There were hangings, and there was brutality. There were midnight raids in which young men were snatched from their beds, their parents hanged and their homes burned as punishment for avoiding military conscription. It was the time of the Hangebund, or DieHaengerbaende – the Hanging Band. It was a reign of terror. It got to be so that the people in town and on the outlying farms fled their homes at dusk to hide in the hills and forests in order to save their lives – they said two thousand people disappeared into the hills to hide. Others left town permanently, and the Latin colony at Sisterdale emptied out; many of the Freethinkers left Comfort forever, and the last of ‘The Forty’ disappeared from Texas forever.
And then there came the massacre.
Some reports say the sixty-three Germans, one Mexican and four Anglos were on their way to Mexico in order to avoid the draft. Another report claims that Duff had learned of a plot to attack Confederate troops. Others believe the men were intending to reach the mouth of the Rio Grande and join the Union forces keeping the blockade there; at least one member of the group had stated his intention of joining up with the Union Army. One report maintains that they even called themselves ‘The Comfort Company of the Union Army.’ At any rate, somehow word got through to the ranks that whichever of them wanted to flee to Mexico to avoid the draft should gather at Turtle Creek in Kerr County, and the sixty-eight men arrived at the appointed time. They were mostly older men and young boys, and all of them were targeted for the conscription. They were from Gillespie, Kendall, Kerr and Mason Counties. They elected Major Fritz Tegener as their commander and his Fredericksburg neighbor Henry Joseph Schwethelm as his second-in-command, and the party made their desperate run.
At one point on their flight the men ran into one Charles Bergmann, at a crossing of the Guadalupe River, and apparently did a little confiscation of their own, relieving him of his supplies, whatever those might have been. This naturally upset Mr. Bergmann, and when he ran into a troop of rebel soldiers, he was either forced, or voluntarily told them that he had been robbed by a force of German Unionists who were at that moment headed for Mexico.
When this report was carried to Duff, the Butcher of Fredericksburg burst into a rage. Duff sent word to a Lieutenant CD McRae in San Antonio, ordering him to track down the ‘deserters’, and do what he needed to do. It is said that Duff told McRae that he ‘didn’t want to hear any word about survivors of any conflict that might ensue.’ McRae had his marching orders, and he set out with a force of ninety-four men, including Bergmann, to hunt down the Germans.
On the evening of August 9, 1862, the Unionist group was camped on the West Fork of the Nueces River in Kinney County, Texas, not far from the Rio Grande. Four sentries were posted, and the men eventually curled up in their bedrolls and went to sleep.
The ambush happened just after midnight. Reports vary – that twenty-six of the Germans were killed outright, as they slept in their bedrolls, an all-out massacre. That they were crushed underneath the hooves of the horses charging in under the Patrollers. That ‘vengeful, blood-thirsty Confederates perpetrated an out-and-out massacre of politically innocent Germans who were just loyal to their Union.’ That the men were alerted by the gunfire as the rebel soldiers fired on the sentries, and went out, heavily armed, to meet them in battle. As historian Robert G Schulz, Jr, wrote, ‘the truth is probably in veiled hiding somewhere among the various, heavily-colored accounts.’
Thirty-five of the Unionists were killed in all, some after escaping from the initial battle/massacre- seven or eight by a different group of Confederate Patrollers in October as they tried to cross the Rio Grande, and another nine who were captured at various locations and summarily executed. And some of the wounded in the first assault. One of the Confederate soldiers came back from an unsuccessful search for escapees, to find that eleven wounded men had been executed. ‘It can’t be possible they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!’ he gasped. ‘Oh yes,’ the other replied, ‘they’re all dead, sure enough, and a good job, too.’
When the news of the Battle of the Nueces- or the Nueces Massacre, depending upon who told the story- got back to the Hill Country, there was fresh hell. There was outrage, there were wails of grief, and there was more rioting, and more Unionists were scared out of the hills and hanged. In the aftermath of the tragedy, what came to be called the Bushwhacker War broke out between Confederates and Union sympathizers. Bushwhacker was one of the names of those irregular, guerilla forces of the Confederate Army from whence sprang the troops that chased the Unionists nearly to Mexico- they were also called the Patrollers, Die Haengerbaende, the Hanging Band. ‘Ambushes,’ one historian wrote, ‘from both sides were so common that many features of the surrounding terrain were named Bushwhacker. Many homes and farms were set on fire, and sometimes the occupants were shot. These incidents created animosity between the two factions and it continues today among the descendants of German Unionists and Confederate sympathizers.’ He wrote that in the year 2000. The killing didn’t end until the last death in 1889, twenty-seven years after the Nueces.
The Unionist dead on the West Fork of the Nueces were not buried, the families of the fallen barred from any access to their hero’s bodies until after the end of the Civil War. Henry Joseph Schwethelm, second-in-command of the doomed party, one of the very few survivors of the campsite massacre, was able to flee into the Mexican interior, where he caught a ship to New Orleans and there joined the United States Army. After the war, on August 10, 1865, the third anniversary of the Battle of the Nueces, Schwethelm led a group to Comfort, to gather the bones of the fallen. Animals and the elements had been at them in the three intervening years, those years of war, famine, of neighbor against neighbor, American against American, and the men gathered what remains they could and took them home, and buried them on a little hill in the middle of the town of Comfort. The next year they dedicated the Treur der Union monument on the anniversary, once again, and it is the only monument to the Union, besides National Cemeteries, on former Confederate territory. This August will see the sesquicentennial of that battle, that massacre, that heart-breaking tragedy, and it is hard, from this vantage point, not to see those men as heroes, as they surely were.
They surely were.