Historical Friction

During the Civil War, peaceful German immigrants from the Hill Country were massacred by Confederate troops. But how peaceful were they?

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

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