Last month I left you readers teetering on the edge of civil war, and I apologize for any jitters my dirty trick may have caused in your lives as you’ve waited on tenterhooks to find out if the war really happened, or if cooler heads prevailed and they managed to avoid the whole thing. (Tenterhooks were hooked nails used in a contraption called a tenter, and a tenter was a wooden frame they used to use to make woollen cloth all the way back to like the 1300s up until whenever someone came up with a better way to do it.
You’re probably asking yourself at this point, why in the world are we still going around saying that in 2019 when nobody knows what a tenter is, let alone what function the hook serves, and the answer is either A, Well who’s Pete for Pete’s sake? Who’s Murgatroyd of ‘heavens to’ fame, Pete’s sister? Is Adam’s off ox actually mentioned in the Bible and if so, was he (or she) one of those talking animals in the Old Testament like Balaam’s ass, and speaking of that, do you suppose everywhere Balaam went after telling that story, like down to the pub or wherever, all his buddies would rib him by doing that Ace Ventura thing where you make your butt talk? What a waste, I mean how often does a guy announce that his ass suddenly spoke up?) So the answer is either A, and there is no B. The answer is A.
Forget all that, here, let me put you out of your agony of suspense: Yes, civil war did break out in the US. In fact it was the worst, most bitter and the deadliest war in United States history, and it still divides people today, a whole 150 years after it ended. You probably already knew that, it was in all the papers.
What I started yammering on about last month was how the whole thing went down in this part of the world, in the German-Texas Hill Country. What did the Civil
War look like from here?
Quick recap: Last month I went on and on about how our former little one-horse Boerne wasn’t like most of the other little towns around us here in the Hill Country.
New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, Comfort and Sisterdale and Tusculum were all real-life German colonies, founded and settled on purpose by like-minded German radicals and social reformers with a shared vision, who were tired of the same-old same-old in the Fatherland- you know, tyranny and oppression, a stultifying class system and forced religion and just war, war, war- who left their homeland en masse specifically in order to build their own kind of world here, a Utopian society along communist principles of freedom and equality.
Boerne was not that kinda place. Now, when they broke the ground to build Boerne, there was a little settlement like that a mile or two down the road, along the Cibolo Creek off Johns Road way, an experimental socialist commune and Latin colony called Tusculum. But the origin story about our little burg Boerne was different, it all started with a couple of surveyors-slash-land speculators- realtors, developer types, who were already living in Texas, one of whom wasn’t even German at all- who’d gotten ahold of this hunk of land that was situated in a likely spot along the military road from San Antonio to points west. It really was a great place for a town, this point about halfway between SA and Fredericksburg that would make an excellent way station, since there was nothing else between the two towns and it was a long stretch from one to the other for a single day’s travel. A savvy business-person stood to make a mint setting up
a hotel or a bar or a stage stop, or a general store selling wagon wheels and axles and guns and bullets and I don’t know what all, novelty items that said My Dad went to
BOERNE and all I got was this darn 200 pound barrel of flour but my Dad got it worse because on the way home he got shot in the leg with an arrow (a barrel has more room to write on than a t-shirt.) Anyway these two dudes thought Hey, let’s survey out a town right here and sell lots in it because I mean, location location location, am I right? It had nothing to do with all those lofty principles of freedom and equality and radicalism that had inspired those hairy-legged pinko founders of Fredericksburg and Comfort, Boerne was just a smart business idea. Wrote a young German woman who arrived in San Antonio in 1852, the same year the grid for Boerne was being laid out: “A new town is to be founded between San Antonio and Fredericksburg, and everyone believes that it will be a good speculation to purchase land there.” That’s what Boerne was about. It didn’t matter if you were a wild-eyed Freethinker who’d been up to your eyeballs in the radical intrigue back in the Fatherland and you got here only by skidding onto the nearest boat one flying leap ahead of the German po-po, or if you were fresh out of a holler in one of the southern US mountain states- slave-states, like Kentucky and Arkansas, where a lot of Boerne’s first settlers came from- and you hain’t never holded no truck with the likes of no crazy abolitionist idee-ers- if you had the dough, you got yourself as much Boerne as you could pay for, which is still pretty much the prevailing credo. Boerneites never did hold any common beliefs that united them, we’ve always been a plain-old planned, mixed-development community, which I suppose one could see as a real bad omen of what this place would become someday, I dunno, 167 years or so later.
One of the core beliefs shared by the German Texans of the older, Adelsverein towns, was that slavery was evil. Period. I mean, a group of people who’ve taken the enormous step- REALLY enormous, in 1846, when a rough overseas trip didn’t mean getting stuck in coach where Kindergarten Cop’s the movie and the jackass in the middle seat smells like a gourd patch, it meant holing up in the steerage part of a rickety ship where your neighbor might be a three-ton shipment of bat guano and you hafta do your poo-poo undies and eat your gruel within the same four square inches – anyhoo, if you go through all of that to get to the other side of the world all in the cause of living out your socialist philosophies of personal liberty and equal rights, then you probably aren’t the kind of person who’s gonna be big into owning other human beings body and soul. Then again, that’s pretty much exactly what went down with the American Revolution, when the same guy who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” also ‘owned’ over 600 men, women and children over the course of his life.
At any rate, the German immigrants to Texas were a lot more true to their high-falutin’ ideals than Some Other Folks I Could Name, and they stood very staunchly against slavery. In 1854, the Texas State Convention of Germans called a meeting in conjunction with the German-Texan Gesangfest (singing society) in San Antonio, to which delegates were sent from New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Sisterdale, San Antonio,
Coletto, Grape Creek, Pedernales, Victoria, La Grange, Seguin, Indianola, and Castroville- you’ll notice that Boerne is conspicuously missing from this list, especially since I just pointed it out. At the end of the two days of the meeting, the German Convention announced a pretty unambiguous resolution: “Slavery is an evil,” they declared, “The abolition of which is a requirement of democratic principles.”
Oooh boy, did they catch some flak for that . And the flak piled up about a hundred-fold more when a certain Dr. Adolph Douai, editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, took up his pen for the cause. Dr Douai was one of those German-born scholars, social reformers and outspoken abolitionists who were coming into Texas by the boatload, a ‘48er’ who’d been tried five times for high treason back in Germany for his role in the 1848 revolution, who ended up serving a year in prison. He lit out of there upon his release and became the editor of the San Antonio Zeitung soon after he got to Americathe Zeitung had been established as a “Social-Democratic Newspaper for the Germans in West Texas,” (they called the Hill Country West Texas in those days, since that was about as far west as anybody was willing to go unless they were looking to get in on the wrong end of a tussle with the Native people.) Anyway, the Zietung was mostly written in the German language, but editor Douai attacked slavery in both German and English, so everyone would have the benefit of his opinion of slavery. And none of this sat well with the pro-slavery faction in San Antonio- and that was a big ol’ faction- aptly called the Know-Nothing Party- in fact, their opposition to Douai’s Zietung became so frenzied that members of the local Turnverein – a coalition founded by fellow Forty-Eighters , (the founders of many of the state’s Turnverein s were original settlers of New Braunfels and Comfort), volunteered to stand guard at the newspaper office to keep it and Douai safe from the berzerkers who made up the proslavery mobs. The owners of the Zietung, scared yellow over the lightning rod their newspaper had become, decided to sell it right quick before someone hauled off and murdered them, so Dr Douai went ahead and bought it, and kept on calling out slavery and pro-slavers like nothing had ever happened. When the Gesangfest anti-slavery resolution was passed, Douai gleefully published the news and every word in both languages to make doubly sure everyone knew exactly what was up, and the Usual Suspects were not amused- indeed, their choler reached new heights of hysteria. Douai’s passionate editorials ended up turning public sentiment all over Texas fervently against Those Damn German Abolitionists. The local Know-Nothing newspaper, the State Times , seethed: “It is a matter of surprise to us that the citizens of San Antonio have tolerated so long in their midst, a nuisance like that of the Zeitung . For our own part, as much as we are opposed to ‘mob law,’ we could find nothing to censure in the forcible removal of that paper.”
The same bad scene was playing out in the German-Texas Hill Country- in fact, it was the same thing all over the United States, not only between recent immigrants and other immigrants whose families had been here longer (like pretty much everyone who lived in the US and wasn’t of Indigenous ancestry), but between members of communities, villages and towns, and between people in the same family, as a line was drawn that widened and deepened every day- are you with us, or against us? Are you pro-slavery or abolitionist? Whatever middle ground may have once existed disappeared in the super-charged climate of animosity, and there was no riding the fence left. Are you with us or against us?
In Fredericksburg and Comfort, Union sentiment was extremely strong. The German-Texans there felt like the United States had taken them in and welcomed them when they’d come fleeing persecution and the intolerable conditions in their homeland, and they’d sworn oaths of allegiance to the United States, and now that it was nut-cuttin’ time they would honor the troth they’d pledged to their adopted country, and remained loyal. That made it especially egregious- and ironic, and unfair- when the
Know-Nothings- and popular opinion in general- accused them of “assuming a hostile attitude towards native-born[see above] citizens and their democratic institutions.” The virulently pro-slavery State Times purple-prosied on: “They are the escaped victims of foreign tyranny and despotism, come to us by invitation, to share the liberties of this country and to enjoy the tranquility and those natural rights of men denied them in their native land,” it bemoaned. “. . . Verily, the Germans have departed from every rule of propriety, and from every shadow even of the love of their adopted country by which they have been actuated, and gone astray after the teachings and bubbles held up to them by traitors and this they cannot deny. Their famous ‘platform convention’ of San Antonio is the first stride toward treason…” Heavy stuff… and all a bunch of unmitigated bulls…er, bull-oney, is what I meant to say, heh heh. Plus yeah, I know it was a very different time and that newspapers back in the day tended toward a kind of cloying grandiloquence in their writing style, but I still can’t shake the feeling that a guy who could write “verily” in an un-ironic way HAD to’ve been a pretentious jerk.
Anyway, here were the pro-Union German-Texans, all for sticking to their United States- painted as traitors and treasoners. Yet one more reason for their position- these people knew from their own bitter experience back in the Fatherland, what it was like when a country fell apart into petty, bickering little city-states and duchys. They’d lived
it and they’d fled from it, that’s why they were here in the first place! As another newspaper man, a Forty-eighter and an unswerving abolitionist, August Siemering of the San Antonio Freie Presse für Texas wrote in his book Die Deutschen in Texas waehrend des Buergerkrieges (or as you might know it better, The Germans in Texas during the Civil War) : “After years of hard toil they did not care to see their fields trampled by marching armies and their homes go up in flames. They have crossed the Atlantic to find peace, not to take up arms.”
And then there was Boerne, the town where anyone at all could move in, whether you were John Brown’s Body (before it became dead) or George Fitzhugh himself (some numskull who wrote a diatribe called Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters )- as long as you had the dough, you got your land. So Boerne did have some abolitionist German citizens, but it was also chock full of the other guys too, and some of them even owned slaves themselves (and those slaves lived in the part of town called The Flats- or The Flat, as I’m told by one learned Boerne sage who should know). Some of the other, more ardent communities in the area (I won’t name names, but it was mostly Comfort), weren’t huge fans of Boerne, seeing it as sort of a town of money-grubbers with their minds on earthly treasure and no care for higher aspirations- they just weren’t, as a whole, concerned with human liberty and social justice and all the other things for which the original settlers stood. It’s funny now, a hundred and fifty years on, that whoever thought up the widely-swallowed nonsense about Boerne having been populated with wild-eyed abolitionists and Freethinkers, got it so incredibly wrong. It was the citizens of Comfort who banded together to keep churches out of their townand they could’ve told you that the people in Boerne were too busy making money to worry about things like that- and in fact, when the first church was built here in B-town, it had the full support and material help of most of the folks who lived here.
But that’s my own pet obsession, and if I don’t look lively this whole article will go running off down that rabbit hole. What we’re talking about right now is the powder keg heating up under the noonday sun in the Texas Hill Country. And now we’re at the part where everything shot up to a whole new level of vitriol, when the Texas State Legislature surged right over the top of Texas’s Grand Old Man, Governor Sam Houston, on a tide of feverish pro-slavery mania, and forced through a secession vote on February 23, 1861. Texas seceded of course, 166 to 8. One of those eight counties that voted down secession with a resounding ‘not only no, but hell no’, was Gillespie County, home to Fredericksburg, and they came back 20 to 1 against it. In the town of Fredericksburg itself, the vote was 17 for, and 400 against, leaving the Union.
There had been the secessionist outrage over the 1854 Resolution by the Gesangfest/Texas State Convention of Germans, the violent backlash against the German-Texans as a group, touched off by Dr Douai and the Zietung ’s righteous campaign against slavery, and by now the atmosphere positively crackled with dangerous electricity and ever more rampant animosity toward anything and anyone deemed anti-slavery, (even Governor Sam was called a “traitor-knave” to his face. The ‘Old Man’ held out against secession for years, not because he was a passionate abolitionist- he himself owned slaves- but because, as he said, “I wish no prouder epitaph to mark the board or slab that may lie on my tomb than this: ‘He loved his country, he was a patriot; he was devoted to the Union.’” He also warned the US Congress, in 1854: “Mark me, the day that produces a dissolution of the Union will be written in the blood of humanity.” And he, or course, was right.) Now this, this was the last straw. Angry oaths and open threats were shouted from the floor of the legislature as the “Dutch” county vote was announced in the state house. And not only the German-Texans in Gillespie County, but by extension all the Germans in the Hill Country, were permanently branded with the label “traitors”. That anti-secession vote would be remembered, and would be avenged in a staggering epoch of violence and carnage, brute terror, and finally, appalling massacre, before that whole bloody war was over.
But how could they be traitors, these people who’d fled their own fractured homeland to find freedom in the United States- these people who had chosen, in the face of bitter, unrelenting pressure and the very real threat of violence-soon to be carried into action- to stand steadfast on the side of the country to which they had sworn their loyalty? How could they be traitors, who had voted against the declaration that Texas would henceforth be a “separate Sovereign state … absolved from all allegiance to the United States”?
Excerpt from DECLARATION OF CAUSES:
February 2, 1861
A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
How could their cause be anything but sacred, who stood up against such evil?
*I know I’m taking a while to unwind this story, and that I’ve left you teetering on the edge of war once again. But it’s an intense and fascinating story with all kinds of creeks and streams feeding into it, like a big river growing bigger and stronger to the point where the force of its current would knock down anything that dared to stand up in front of it- and I felt like you guys might want to know the whole thing.