Austin Siemering, founder of the San Antonio Express News, wrote of the years and months leading up to the US Civil War in the German-Texas hill country, that “an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty started creeping on all who opposed slavery, like the feeling preceding a thunderstorm of the worst kind.” You know that part of a storm when the clouds blow in, all the thunderheads in bruise colors of blue and black and green, piling up on each other and climbing thousands of feet into the sky, as if the distant hills were moving closer, grown monstrous and threatening?
The wind goes wild, showing the hidden pale sides of the leaves and the windmill blades wheel frantically- but then it stops, suddenly; what was furor becomes in an instant a preternatural, sullen stillness, eerily calm. A beat. Two, three beats. And then the storm breaks, in all its rage and passion, in ferocity and clamour.
That. That’s how it was right before the war.
The German-Americans of the northern hill country, of Fredericksburg and Comfort and Sisterdale, had stood firmly against secession. The people who founded those places hadn’t left their homeland, families and friends and everything they’d known, to cross the ocean in search of a place to live their principles of ‘friendship, freedom, and equality’- the freedom and equality of ALL people- only to turn around now and fight a war to keep a whole race of people in chains. They hadn’t forgotten the price of the endless Napoleonic wars, the scores of their people sacrificed by forced conscription into the bottomless maw of the war machine, and they didn’t intend now to quietly, helplessly comply as their own sons were swallowed for a cause they abhorred.
They hadn’t risked their lives and the lives of their children and their elderly in the stinking holds of ships, hadn’t landed in the disease-ridden, overcrowded Texas port city, stranded and starving and abandoned without shelter, with no means of escape from the disease-raddled miasma of their mud huts on the coast to the high country where they would build their dream society- no, they hadn’t survived all that to betray their country now, the country that had taken them in and to which they’d sworn allegiance. No, not for principles they abhorred.
Not for something they called evil.
The German-Texans weren’t alone in their staunch opposition to slavery and the breakup of the United States. The Mexican-Texans (Tejanos) as a group were opposed to slavery- in fact, a large part of the reason the anglo-Texans had fought for independence from Mexico in the first place is that slavery was strictly illegal under Mexico’s flag, and many of the Tejanos were, like the German transplants, unwilling to fight for it now, and had extra reason not to side with the people who treated them like crap in the homeland they’d stolen from them in the first place. In fact, full 25% of the citizens of Texas opposed secession and favored remaining in the Union. No less personage than the hero of the War of 1812 and the Texas war for independence, former US Congressman, first President of the Republic of Texas, and three term Governor after the state became the 28th to join the Union in 1845, Sam Houston, ‘The Raven’ (according to the name, Colonneh, given to him by his adopted Cherokee people), also vehemently opposed secession, not because of his resistance to the “peculiar” (read: evil) institution, (he was a slaveowner who defended slavery as an economic necessity in the South), but because he was what he called “a Southern man for the Union”, who adamantly opposed the break-up of the United States and believed that the US would trounce- and destroy- the South in a civil war. The pressure was on Father Sam, ever since the election of Abraham Lincoln, to call a special session to consider leaving the Union, but Houston resisted, hoping time would help calm tempers and restore some measure of reason. But the rabid secessionists weren’t having any of this ‘voice of reason’ nonsense- no, they wanted their secession and if the old man wouldn’t give it to them, they’d get it another way. So the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, along with a cadre of other state bigwigs (those who, coincidentally, had the most to gain by starting a war), circumvented Sam Houston and called their own convention, which was, in SA Express-Newsman Siemerling’s (perfectly correct) estimation, “not representative of the People of Texas…a revolutionary gathering, not called by any legal authority”. Indeed, many of the delegates to this convention hadn’t been officially or legally elected to any office whatsoever and had no authority to vote on the issue. Unionists and anti-secessionists were very strongly (and forcefully) discouraged from attending, and many stayed away voluntarily, believing that since the thing was not actually government-sanctioned, it had no legal standing anyway. Seventy percent of the men casting votes, then, were wealthy slave owners.
As the convention opened on February 1, 1861, Texas’s Old Man Sam Houston warned the fanatical delegates that, “If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her … If she does not whip you by guns, powder and steel, she will starve you to death.”
“I love Texas too well,” declared old ‘Sam Jacinto’, “to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her.”
They seceded anyway. The ‘Ordinance of Secession’ the convention adopted repealed the one passed on July 4, 1845, by which Texas became the 28th of the United States and swore her citizens’ loyalty to the Constitution. By this ordinance, all powers of, obligations and allegiance to, the US government and the Constitution, were thereby revoked.
(The Texas Secession Convention also drew up a second document, a rationale of their reasons for seceding, titled, ‘A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union’, which effectively destroys the revisionist Confederate apologia that the war was not about slavery, to wit: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself [in this instance, the confederacy referred to is the United States], 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.” In fact, ensuring that African Americans remain enslaved was Texas’s primary aim in joining the CSA, as was well-known at the time: as one secessionist put it, “Independence without slavery, would be valueless… The South without slavery would not be worth a mess of pottage.” In a speech to the Texas secession convention, George Williamson of Louisiana urged Texas and all the slave states to secede, specifically in order to continue the enslavement of Americans of African descent: “With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual…[we look] to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery…”)
Texas joined the Confederate States of America on March 2, 1861, the anniversary of Texas’s Declaration of Independence from Mexico- and Sam Houston’s 68th birthday. When those hotheaded fanatics chose to throw Texas’s fate in with the Confederacy, Sam Houston flat refused to swear an oath of allegiance: “In the name of my own conscience and manhood, I refuse to take this oath.” On the date state officials were called upon to swear their loyalty, Houston sat silent and immovable as his name was called three times.
And so they threw him out. Abraham Lincoln offered to send
Six weeks later, Sam Houston would lean from the window of a Galveston hotel and in his booming voice make a grim prediction to the gathered crowd below: “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states’ rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”
His warning turned out to be deadly, terribly accurate, but by then it was too late for the people and the state he loved. The first shots had been fired at Fort Sumter exactly a week before he spoke. The US Civil War had begun. Texas’s Grand Old Man would not live to see the South in ruins, his worst fears realized- he would die shortly after the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the United States army.
There was no backing out now.
An estimated 90,000 Texans would eventually serve in the war effort on the side of the Confederacy, with Texas soldiers fighting in every major battle of the war. The first of the Texas soldiers to arrive in Richmond, Virginia were greeted by President of the CSA Jefferson Davis: “Texans! The troops of other states have their reputations to gain, but the sons of the defenders of the Alamo have theirs to maintain. I am assured that you will be faithful to the trust.” Huh. The so-called sons of the defenders of the Alamo had just thrown under the bus the Hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, the victory that ensured Texas independence as well as the ultimate revenge for the deaths of the Alamo’s defenders. Scores and scores of those reluctant soldiers on the receiving end of all that softsoap would be killed before the bloody war was over, along with other scores of living, breathing human beings, among those plenty of heroes who held their ground- and never deviated from their sworn loyalty to the United States- and stood up against the CSA.
All over Texas, people who’d held out against secession and vehemently opposed making war on the United States, out of a sense of duty or misplaced loyalty or for whatever other reasons, overcame their reluctance (or repugnance) and having failed to beat ‘em, now joined ‘em. James Webb Throckmorton, Texas legislator from North Texas, was one such: having been booed and catcalled as he cast his vote (one of only eight nays) against secession, he famously replied, “When the rabble hiss, well may patriots tremble.” Nevertheless, Throckmorton accepted the secession declaration and dutifully joined the Confederate army, eventually attaining the rank of brigadier-general. He would go on to become governor of the state during Reconstruction. Even in the German-Texan hill country, stronghold of Unionist sentiment, Charles H. Nimitz in Fredericksburg- grandfather of Chester W, Fleet Admiral Chester W- led a division called the Gillespie Rifles for the Confederate Army, and the Fredericksburg Southern Aid Society collected five grand in food and clothing for CSA soldiers in 1861.
Still others doubled down on their resistance to the Confederacy and stayed staunchly loyal to the US. More than 2,000 Texans joined the Union Army, among them Edmund J. Davis, who, like Throckmorton, made brigadier general (unlike Throckmorton, he did it for the good guys, in the United States army), and who would also go on to serve as governor in 1870.
Notable among the holdouts were the German-Texans of Fredericksburg, Comfort and Sisterdale in the Texas hill country- the vast majority of whom, Charles Nimitz aside, were true-blue Union loyalists who had no intention of dumping all their cherished principles to fight on the side of the devil. One of the biggest motivations behind their going through everything they’d gone through to- and in 1861, they’d been busting their asses in their adopted country for fifteen years already- had been their unswerving belief in the freedom of all people, and another was their antipathy to forced military conscription. They would not now be forced to fight to keep a race of people in bondage, nor for an entity- the Confederacy- whose very existence they deplored. That, said one historian, “was an insult past bearing.” A very few Gillespie County men signed up voluntarily with the Confederate Army, with most of the men of fighting age joining the various military and paramilitary outfits now solely responsible for defending the hill country outposts from hostile Indigenous tribes still very much entrenched in the hills of the western high country. When Texas turned its back on the United States, the United States naturally pulled all their troops out of the state- all those soldiers who’d manned the line of military fortifications that stood as the only buffer between the frontier settlements and the Comanche and Kiowa people. Fie! said defiant Texas, Who needs ‘em? One Texan is stronger and braver than twenty Yankees- and all that kind of self-delusional claptrap that was so popular at the time. So Texas troops took over the forts- the hell with ‘em!- and a month and a half later, before they even got comfy, most of them all marched off to war, and the few who didn’t volunteer were soon conscripted. West Texas- which in those days meant pretty much anywhere west of San Antonio- was left defenseless and the Comanche and Kiowa knew it, and Texas Civil War historians estimate that the Texas frontier was driven back a full 200 miles before the war was over. Many of the settlers on remote farms all over the hill country, along with residents of outlying hamlets, abandoned whatever headway they’d forged on the way to their own futures, in fear of the inevitable Indian raids from the unprotected west and north.
But the pro-Confederate contingent, knowing how the German-Texans felt about being mixed up in the damnable war in the first place (and they knew that because the Union men made no bones about it and shouted it aloud every chance they got), didn’t trust those guys as far as they could throw ‘em.
A year into the war and at the urging of Confederate General Robert E Lee, on April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the first Conscription Act, under the provisions of which all men between the ages of 18 and 35 years old, were drafted into military service. There were a few exceptions including ministers, and state, city or county officials…with a couple of other conspicuous exceptions thrown in: the so-called ‘Twenty Negro Law’ exempted slave owners who “owned” twenty or more slaves. Er, hang on a sec: weren’t these the very dudes who were so het up on pulling out of the Union and going to war in the first place, to protect their OWN hefty investments in human misery? A whole lotta regular Joes out busting their humps on the battlefields- the vast majority of whom did NOT own slaves- sure thought so. Another way for the bigshot about town to weasel out of danger and any possible inconvenience to himself in the godawful bloody mess they’d been so eager to create, was to hire a substitute to take his place in the ranks out there being slaughtered by the tens of thousands. A rich enough man could cast about for someone, say, outside the conscription age, a kid or an old man (and in those days anyone over 35 did indeed have one foot in the grave, and if he took the cash to go off to war for some nabob, he was effectively taking the plunge and diving in with both feet.) Someone from the exempt list- a preacher with a tiny congregation in a frontier church, maybe, or a clerk in a county courthouse strapped for cash, might be sore tempted to pocket a wad and head off with a rifle over his shoulder, hoping for the best. Foreign nationals who weren’t eligible for the draft were often particularly eager to earn a little dough the hard way- many of them had just arrived here, broke as a joke, and with no English to their name, finding any other gainful employment was something of a task. Would-be substitutes advertised their services in the newspapers, and there were even brokers- agents- whose job it was to find substitute soldiers for well-heeled clients. The cowardly muckamuck who took this way out would have to pay a fee to the CSA in addition to the sizable chunk of change (well, Confederate script) the substitute charged, so only the very wealthy could afford to avoid fighting, which made almost everybody else absolutely, and understandably, furious, and yet another reason why the whole damn thing was called a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Indeed, there were a whole lot of very poor men- whose people back home were often literally starving to death- fighting for the ill-begotten wealth of a very few filthy-rich planters. Estimates of the number of Confederate substitute soldiers alone ran from 50,000 to 150,000 men.
Four months after the initial draft act, they nudged the conscription age up to 45, and in February 1864 the age limits were again extended, to any able- bodied boy or man between 17 and 50. They were running out of bodies to throw into the machine.
The conscription was, of course, wildly unpopular, especially among the Tejanos and of course, the German-Texans in the hill country. Draft resistance was widespread, all over the south, and while many Tejanos went to Mexico to avoid fighting for what they didn’t believe in, potential draftees in the German towns of the high hill country slept in the hills at night in order to avoid being forced to fight for the hated Confederacy. Even the frontier soldiers weren’t exempt from the harsh scrutiny of the CSA, which suspected them of providing aid to US troops whom the Confederacy feared might attack from the west. The German-Texans cried out in protest, angrily and very vocally against forced conscription, and the Confederate state of Texas heard.
On May 30, 1862, General Philemon Herbert, commander of the Confederacy’s Military Department of Texas, put the state of Texas under martial law.
Under martial law, provost guards were appointed to administer conscription- that is, to force the reluctant into the Army- and their powers increased rapidly and soon came to encompass the confiscation of personal property deemed necessary- and they were the ultimate authority in doing the deeming- for the welfare of the CSA. The situation was ripe for rampant abuse, and it was, of course, rampantly abused. Wagons, oxen, mules, horses, foodstuffs, crops and livestock were all swept up and disappeared into the black market, and, alchemized into cold, hard cash, before reappearing in the pockets of the confiscators. “The administration of the law,’ says one report, ‘became ruthless.” And it would get much, much worse.
Scotsman James Duff, court-martialed for desertion of the US army, the brute, bestial sadist who would well earn the handle ‘The Butcher of Fredericksburg’, and go on to commit what has been called “The Blackest Crime in History”, was on his way to town.