ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 9, 1862, some 68 armed men and boys from Comfort and the surrounding Hill Country set up camp beside the Nueces River, about ninety miles from home. They were Union sympathizers—most of them German immigrants—fleeing to Mexico to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army. By the next evening nineteen were dead, killed by Confederate troops who had followed them from the Hill Country. Some were killed in combat, but others were shot after they had surrendered. “Soon afterwards I visited our old camp,” wrote survivor Jacob Kuechler 25 years later, “and stood pale and shuddering at the sight of the fate which had befallen the poor wounded, who could not leave camp with the rest of us, having every one been murdered and mutilated by a cruel foe.”
In Comfort, founded by German intellectuals less than a decade before the incident, there has never been much doubt that what took place was a cold-blooded massacre of peaceable civilians. For the most part, historians have agreed, at least until lately. Paul Burrier, a cheery, rotund former Army officer related to participants on both sides of the battle, has been researching a book about the conflict. He has pored over books and academic journals, as well as scores of private letters and public documents, uncovering historical discrepancies that add shades of gray to what was thought to be a black-and-white story. His research suggests that the Confederate aggressors were not quite as villainous as they have been described and the Union victims were not quite as innocent. Not surprisingly, this revisionist interpretation is viewed with a great deal of suspicion in the predominantly German American town.
Last March Burrier presented his findings at the Palace Theater in Fredericksburg during a conference provocatively titled “Nueces Encounter 1862: Battle or Massacre?” The audience included several fourth- and fifth-generation residents of Comfort, and afterward some of them argued that the new research was akin to a Confederate rewriting of events. Greg Krauter, who runs the Ingenhuett General Store in Comfort and is the great-great-grandson of the immigrants who started that business, often fills the role of town spokesman on these matters. “Even though Paul has people on both sides, I’ve always felt he was trying to justify the Confederate actions,” says Krauter. “He’s done a tremendous service in finding primary documents, but I’ve never felt he was totally objective.” The disagreement cuts to the very identity of the town and its people.
There is not much argument over Comfort’s first years. Like nearby Sisterdale, Comfort was settled by freethinking Germans—bookish, idealistic adventurers who were drawn to the New World because of utopian yearnings. They were led to the Hill Country by Ernst Altgelt, an enterprising immigrant, in 1854. Among the first settlers Altgelt enticed to Comfort was his fiancée, an independent woman who planned to be a teacher or a journalist. Years later Emma Altgelt wrote a fascinating account of the hardship of building a community in the middle of nothing but cypress and pecan trees. But she also captured the exhilaration of her new life, and parts of her memoir read like a Willa Cather novel: “Civilization has improved many things but … robs the wilderness of much that is interesting [and] frightfully beautiful, such as the sight of a prairie fire… . A grand and beautiful sight it is, especially when the heavens are dark and masses of fire like ocean waves roar over endless stretches …”
These intellectuals turned their remote home into a place of culture; nearly every cabin was full of musical instruments and books. Until 1892 the town had no church, and to this day Comfort has no formal government (it gets by with volunteers). “Among the older inhabitants, a sort of communism prevailed,” wrote Altgelt, “brought about by the conditions… . One would give to others what could be spared, and take in return what was lacked.”
Soon, however, the innocent idealism of the Germans was grimly tested by the American Civil War. Most German immigrants did not share the Southern Anglo-American’s point of view on slavery; aside from any moral scruples they had, they generally didn’t own plantations. Many German immigrants also felt great loyalty to the federal government of their newly adopted country. And residents of the Hill Country counted on federal troops to protect them from the Comanche and the Apache who also lived there. In Comfort, a town founded on the principles of equality, freedom, and the right to make up one’s own mind, Unionist feelings ran high. When Texas seceded in 1861, these sentiments put most Comfort settlers in direct conflict with officials of the state.
Most accounts of the Battle of the Nueces include a premise that many historians and Hill Country residents have accepted as historical fact: In the summer of 1862 the Texas government proclaimed that any able-bodied male resident unwilling to pledge allegiance to the Confederacy had thirty days to leave the state—with guaranteed safe passage. Comfort citizens have always believed that the men fleeing to Mexico should have been protected by these terms. After exhaustive research in the state archives, however, Paul Burrier has discovered that the story about the proclamation is probably not true. A similar announcement was issued in 1861 shortly after Texas seceded, but apparently nothing of the kind was issued in 1862. Greg Krauter argues that even if the proclamation was issued in 1861, news of its contents might not have filtered out to the more remote German-speaking communities until 1862.
That May, after state officials became unnerved by vocal support of the Union cause in the Hill Country, Texas was placed under martial law. All males over sixteen were ordered to take an oath of Confederate allegiance; refusal meant sedition, to be dealt with at the discretion of local commanding officers. Captain James Duff was in charge of the troops sent into the Hill Country, and he soon became infamous. “I will hang all I suspect of being