Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the Margins of the War: Trëue der Union

I thought that I might stay on the topic of events that happened “on the margins of the war” and tell you a story closer to home for me. As a native-born Texan, any topic related to that state and the Civil War holds some fascination for me. Texas was referred to by one wartime Southern diarist as “the dark corner of the Confederacy” and this event certainly supports that view. At the same time, it is yet another tragic example of war’s inhumanity, especially when one lives on the margins of the war.

Texas in 1860 As I wrote earlier in an essay on Sam Houston’s fight against secession, Texas was totally unlike the rest of the Confederacy. Texas was a land of tremendous diversity, with a vast, isolated and uncivilized frontier region, which was constantly under the threat of attack by hostile Indian tribes. To be certain, Texas had seen remarkable changes in the years since its revolution against Mexico in 1836. Cities had sprung up where there was once nothing, plantations and farms had overtaken empty prairie land, and even railroads had begun to appear. But, it was also still a rugged and untamed place. However, what truly set Texas apart from the rest of the South was the presence of thousands of foreign immigrants.

Texas Hill Country Most notable among these recent arrivals to the state were the Germans. By 1860, nearly 10 percent of the state’s population was foreign born, consisting primarily of former Mexican and German citizens. In fact, of the 70,000 Germans living in the eleven states that would make up the Confederacy, nearly 30,000 lived in Texas, where they made up 7.5 percent of the free white population. Most of the Germans settled in the frontier region of the state, west and northwest of San Antonio in what is still referred to as the “Hill Country” region. Here, they established prosperous communities, such as Fredericksburg and Comfort, and cleared the rocky soil for their small farms.

However, with the arrival of the secession crisis of 1861, most Texans of German heritage found themselves aligned with Governor Sam Houston in opposing secession, and some of the heavily German populated counties would cast 95 percent of their votes against leaving the Union. Unfortunately for them, this would put them opposite most of their fellow Texans, and make them the targets of suspicion and open hatred once the state seceded.

The reasons these German immigrants voted against secession are fairly simple. First, the overwhelming majority of the German population did not believe in slavery, opposing it primarily for moral and religious reasons. They agreed with Governor Houston that the East Texas leaders of the state’s secession movement were primarily motivated by their desire to maintain the institution. However, they also remained Unionists because they were proud of their new citizenship and, unlike Texans from other states, they saw themselves more as Americans than merely Texans. Finally, the isolated German settlements and farms of West Texas were constantly under the threat of attack from marauding Comanches, who controlled virtually all the land west of the Pecos and Concho Rivers, as well as the Kiowas and Lipan-Apaches. As a result, the United States Government, in the form of the U.S. Army, played an important role in the lives of these Texans. Fort Mason was one of a string of forts guarding the Texas frontier First, the soldiers provided protection from the Indians, although, at times, with limited effectiveness. In addition, the forts that stretched along the borders of the western counties also provided a vital market for the farmers of the region who could sell their surplus grain, flour, and meat to the Army. Thus, the U.S. Army, which symbolized the Union to these Texans, became a crucial part of survival, and, therefore, the Union was not simply an abstract concept to the German population.

With the coming of the war and the withdrawal of the U.S. Army, the state’s government maintained a close watch on the Unionist counties of West Texas. Initially, the German populace managed to keep a low profile, but the beginning of mandatory conscription in 1862 changed that. The Confederacy’s conscription law required all males between 18 and 35 years of age to volunteer for, pledge allegiance to, and serve in, the Confederate States Army. The law was unpopular in all Southern states and it was violently opposed in Texas, so much so that, in May, 1862, the commander of the Confederate Military Department of Texas, put the entire state under martial law and appointed provost marshals to administer conscription. The administration of the law became "ruthless" and particularly so in the Hill Country.

Governor Lubbock appointed Colonel James Duff to enforce martial law in the Hill Country and he did so with brutal efficiency. Before the war, Duff had served in the U.S. Army, but was court-martialed and discharged. Quick to enlist in the new Confederate government of the state, Duff was a ruthless man who enforced martial law with a reign of terror. He employed nightriders who traveled the back roads of the Hill Country, terrorizing residents and even hanging numerous Germans on the mere suspicion of harboring pro-Union sentiments, then burning their crops and homes. One soldier, who served under Duff, would write, "Duff, in the preparation of his infamy, believed in hanging Union men as the best way of converting Union men to the true faith."

The German populace did not lie down and simply take these actions. In Gillespie County, they secretly organized a defense organization, the Union Loyal League. The League’s purpose was to fight Confederate conscription and attempt to maintain Union loyalty within the Hill Country German communities. In response, the state’s Confederate military department declared Gillespie, Kerr, Kendall, Medina, and Bexar Counties, where the German protests were the strongest, to be "in open rebellion" and, in effect, declared war on them.

Fredericksburg was actually occupied by Duff’s troops. Duff declared himself provost, then stated in a letter, "The God **** Dutchmen are Unionists to a man…I will hang all I suspect of being anti-Confederates." Hangings were, in fact, frequent. Letters from German residents of Fredericksburg attest that many of them would leave their homes at sundown and hide in the surrounding woods in fear of raiding Anglo "guerrillas," or Die Haengerbaende, "the hanging band", who rode up in the night, snatched young men from their beds, hanged their parents, and burned their homes for avoiding conscription. This drove hundreds from their farms, with many fleeing to Union states, Mexico, or even back to Germany. But, the worst act of Confederate retribution was yet to come.

By the summer of 1862, the Union Loyal League had actually raised three companies of supposed Confederate volunteers but, through bureaucratic maneuvering and stonewalling, had managed to keep the companies in Texas, ostensible as "home guard" units. This kept Germans from being conscripted into the army and kept them at home to defend against both Indians as well as Duff’s men. Duff discovered the ruse and warned the Fredericksburg mayor and sheriff, the key personnel of the Union Loyal League, that he was about to appoint his own slate of municipal officers. Instead, he arrested the League’s key officials and had them thrown into jail in San Antonio. Fearing further arrests, the League immediately disbanded the companies and sent word that all persons wanting to make a run for Mexico to escape actual conscription should gather at Turtle Creek in Kerr County (about 15 miles west of Kerrville). On August 1, 1862, 68 men, including 63 Germans, one Tejano, and four Anglos, gathered at the appointed place and time. The group comprised mostly older men and a few young boys from Mason, Kendall, Kerr, and Gillespie Counties, but all of them were targeted conscripts. Fritz Tegener They elected Fritz Tegener as their commander, with his neighbor, Henry Joseph Schwethelm, voted in as second-in-command.

Beyond escaping to Mexico, the exact aim of the group is something historians cannot agree upon. Some say that they wished to merely escape conscription and taking any part in the war, while others contend that they sought to reach Mexico so they could enlist in Unionist Texan regiments forming there. The men seemed to have been relatively well armed with both rifles and six-shooters. The group proceeded southwest towards Mexico at a leisurely pace. Tegener was apparently convinced that there would be no pursuit. Tegener may have been correct, except that, as the Unionist force reached a crossing of the Guadalupe River, they encountered another German immigrant, Charles Bergmann, and "relieved" him of his supplies. Bergmann, angered at his turn of fortune, rode away until he found a small Confederate detachment. Bergmann was either detained by the Confederates, or decided to cooperate with them. In any case, he reported that a force of German Unionists headed for Mexico had robbed him.

When word reached Duff that these men were trying to make a run for Mexico, he became infuriated. He immediately organized a 94-man detachment under Lieutenant C.D. McRae to track down and intercept the Germans at any cost. Despite the fact that the German Unionists had a lead on his men, McRae managed to catch up with them on August 9, 1862, as the group encamped on the banks of the Nueces River between present-day Brackettville and Laguna, only 50 miles from the Mexican border. The Nueces River today At around 3:00 a.m. the next morning, the two groups would clash in a skirmish that has also long been the subject of debate among historians and descendants of the German Unionists.

The most credible accounts indicate that, at the time McRae and his men attacked, the Germans were down to only 40 men, with 28 having left to go home. The battle was brief and fierce. The Germans were camped in a bad defensive position and McRae’s men were able to overwhelm them quickly. Two Confederates were killed and 18 were wounded in the fighting and, according to the letters of one Confederate soldier, eight of the Unionists were killed, 11 were wounded, and the remainder escaped. Those who were wounded quickly surrendered. According to the account of R.H. Williams, an Englishman who was part of McRae’s detachment, the wounded Germans were initially treated with kindness. However, things would soon go terribly wrong.

Williams wrote that he and some others rode out to scout for the escapees. When he returned to the camp after an unsuccessful search for the remaining Unionists, he noticed immediately that the wounded were gone. Williams asked about their whereabouts and was told they had been moved to a "more comfortable location.” Then, the quiet of the prairie was interrupted by a loud, ragged volley of shots. Williams wrote that, at first, he thought “they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war, but it did not sound like that, either." Running in the direction of the shooting, Williams met a fellow Confederate soldier who held up his arms and cautioned Williams, "It’s all done. You needn’t be in a hurry…They have shot the poor devils and finished them off." Williams, shocked, said, "It can’t be possible they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!" But, the soldier replied, "Oh, yes, they’re all dead, sure enough, and a good job, too." In fact, the 11 dead Germans would later be found to have been shot in the back of the head.

McRae’s subsequent message to Duff listed no survivors, reading in part, "I have met determined resistance, hence I have no prisoners to report." Of the surviving escapees who managed to flee for Mexico, seven or eight were killed by yet another patrolling Confederate force in October as they tried to cross the Rio Grande, and nine more were captured at various locations and hung. The Germans who were killed in the fighting and the wounded that were subsequently executed were left unburied on the banks of the river.

Hangings of Unionists in TexasWhen news of what became known as the Nueces Massacre reached San Antonio and the German settlements, rioting and open resistance broke out. Duff dispatched a second force that rounded up another 50 men, including some of the 28 who had fled the camp before the battle and were now hiding in the hills. Within weeks, more lifeless German bodies would be hanging from tree limbs and scaffolds across the Hill Country.

The German dead on the Nueces were never buried, and, for the balance of the war, Confederate authorities prohibited anyone from visiting the area. Once the war was over, a group from Comfort went to the battle site to retrieve the remains of those who had been killed. Treue der Union Monument-Comfort, TXDespite the fact that animals had disturbed the remains and scattered bones in all directions, they were able to collect what they could find, and bring them back to Comfort. They would bury them in a mass grave on a small hill in the middle of the town and erect a tall limestone obelisk next to it. This monument was among the first erected in the United States commemorating the Civil War and, ironically, it would stand in a state of the Confederacy, honoring those who had lost their lives resisting the Southern cause. On its sides are listed the names of those who died under the inscription “Trëue der Union” or “Loyal to the Union.”


  1. I live several miles from Comfort, and the monument. Growing up, my Grandfather would never drive through Comfort, declaring it a "Godless, Yankee-loving-town". I always wondered what that meant. I don't believe he knew the actual history of the monument, and he just repeated what others had said. ...which probably wasn't much about the actual history (way before the internet came along). Only that a few of the early settlers held atheist/agnostic views, and lived in a “communal” environment (they were sort of early hippies).

    They were supposedly intellectuals who professed a "tolerance" for differing opinions and faiths. Though in truth, they weren't all that tolerant. They didn't allow a "house of worship" to be built in Comfort until the end of the 19th century…sounds a little like present day Liberal/Progressives, eh?...altruistic, and caring for the ‘common’ man, as long as they come together and exist as a “village”, discrediting true tolerance, religious freedom, and rugged individualism…but I digress.

    We'll never know what actually happened early 8/10/62, since history has a way of spinning itself to fit the agenda of whoever is writing it. However, It is a fascinating story. I'd like to see more research on these immigrant Americans. Though I probably would have joined the Confederate Army if I had existed back then (ain’t retrospect interesting), the thought of the cold blooded slaying of the 9 Freethinkers is incomprehensible, even by Victorian-era standards, and seem like tactics that the enemy we are currently engaged with would use (though the merry band of Freethinkers were not the innocent souls they've been made out to be).

    The Germans assimilated beautifully into the cultural fabric of America, retaining their proud heritage, yet embracing their American loyalties, and producing some of our greatest citizens. If only the majority of the latest wave of immigrants were as noble and patriotic (I’m sure a few are).

    There is a lot to be learned from this incident, and loads of parallel lessons. Only time will tell.

    Thanks for the great website!

  2. I had the privilege of visiting the Treue der Union monument today in Comfort, Texas. I was in Comfort on business and a local citizen mentioned the history of the area and the monument. I'm a 48 year old male of German decent. Growing up in nearby San Antonio, I had never heard of the unionist struggle of the Hill Country German immigrants during the Civil War. After reading the history of the monument on the internet, this certainly seems like another dark chapter in American history, and in particular, Texas history. I must say, to me, the monument was very moving. I've been to Washington D.C., visited the Vietnam Memorial, and witnessed the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. When I see the United States flag flying proudly, but sadly, at half staff, it is very moving. I was struck by how this small patch of ground was so lonely and remote, only the size of a small city lot, that I found on a sleepy, deserted street in the middle of a small Texas town. I was moved when I realized that the remains of men with such strong conviction were laid to rest at my feet. I was struck by the mention that it doesn't matter if a monument is dedicated to just a few men, or a few thousand, it is still hallow ground.

  3. This is a very good account. As an additional interesting (Okay, I find it interesting) detail, McRae was wounded in the battle. The order to execute the survivor came from one of his lieutenants. Williams indicates that the lieutenant was a northern, and Williams believed that the lieutenant (whom Robinson identifies as Lt. Luck, but other sources differ) ordered the executions to prove his worth to Duff, who would undoubtedly have approved.

    In an additional act of cruelty after the massacre, the families could not retrieve the bodies, though some commentary indicates that some families did violate that prohibition. A mass funeral service was held after the war ended.

    It is also my understanding that this is the only monument to Unionist in all the former Confederate States and that it is the only site, other then Arlington Cemetery, allowed constantly to fly the US flag (with 36 stars) at half mast.

    Nations are built,unfortunately,on the remains of patriots buried in obscure sites both overseas and on our continent.

    Anonymous is really correct that in Comfort one finds a place to honor, in our hearts, all those patriots.

  4. SORRY, I missed the section on funeral and burial. just delete those sentences if you will. this is not for posting, obviously. If you can't edit, then I will rewrite and resubmit.