Historical Friction

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

October 1997By Comments

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 anti-Confederates,” said Duff, according to one respected historian. Faced with conscription, death, or flight, on August 1 about 65 Union sympathizers (men and a few boys) met at Turtle Creek, about fifteen miles west of Kerrville, and headed for Mexico. The men were armed with rifles and six-shooters, and several historians have speculated that they were some sort of organized militia—perhaps a home guard formed to combat Indians in the absence of federal protection. According to a letter that Krauter provided to Burrier, however, at least one individual who was at Turtle Creek planned to join the Union Army later, after crossing the border. Consequently Burrier argues that the group was part of an organized resistance movement. “A myth is that these people were just innocent refugees on their way down to Mexico,” he says. “No. They were part of the armed resistance in the Hill Country. The group from Comfort referred to themselves as the Comfort Company of the Union Army.” Krauter counters that Burrier has assumed too much from the one letter and his own Army experience. He argues that there was nothing particularly organized about the withdrawal and that the idea of formal affiliation with the Union Army was, at best, wishful thinking.

According to a firsthand account of the journey written by Comfort resident Henry Joseph Schwethelm, the group elected his neighbor Fritz Tegener as its leader. They set off at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently for game and wild honey. Schwethelm objected strongly to the slow progress, but Tegener was confident that they were not being followed. In fact, the Unionist band had already been betrayed by Charles Bergmann, a recent German immigrant to the area. Some local historians have suggested that Bergmann was a spy who infiltrated the group, pretended to set out for Mexico, and then turned back. According to Burrier, however, Bergmann ran into the group by accident near the Guadalupe River, where the Unionists stole some of his supplies. Furious, Bergmann either sought out the Confederate soldiers or was detained by them and then decided to cooperate.

Duff dispatched a company of 94 men under the command of Lieutenant C. D. McRae to go after them. Bergmann came along as an advisor. Also among the group was R. H. Williams, an Englishman serving in the Confederate Army who later wrote a book about his experiences. In it, Williams suggested that from the beginning it was clear that Duff intended to show no mercy to any fugitives. “Sinister rumors of Duff began to spread, and it was said among other things that he had given certain of his followers to understand that he wanted no prisoners brought into his camp,” he wrote.

After eight days the Unionists had only reached the Nueces, although they could have been in Mexico in half that time. They set up camp for the night beside the river, near a cedar brake. Earlier in the day, some members of the party had seen horsemen in the distance, so the group agreed to move on first thing in the morning. Four guards were posted.

The Confederates had set out three days after the Germans, but they traveled purposefully and caught up with the group just as the Unionists were setting up camp on August 9. McRae, confident the immigrants would be ill-prepared, ordered his men to creep up during the night and attack at first light. At around eleven the troops began moving slowly and silently toward the camp in single file. Gunfire broke the calm at around three in the morning—two of the guards were killed after stumbling onto the approaching Confederate soldiers. “Some one had loosed off his gun at a sentry and instantly the camp was abuzz—like a swarm of bees,” wrote Williams. “Men ran hither and thither in great confusion; no one knew what to do …”

Sometime during that night—whether it happened before or after the shots were fired is fiercely contested—some 28 members of the German party slipped out of the camp and headed home. That left about 40 Unionists to face the Confederates. Most people in Comfort believe that the 28 departed before the shots were fired; Burrier believes otherwise and argues that the defections caused the Unionists to lose the ensuing battle. “They fought hard, and if twenty-some men hadn’t bugged out, they would have won it,” he says. “I call them ‘the people who left early.’ They ran.”

The Confederate forces attacked just before dawn. By every account the Unionists fought vigorously, and the Rebels suffered greater losses than anticipated. But the Confederates outnumbered their enemy, and they had taken cover behind the cedar brake, while the Germans were largely exposed. After nineteen Unionists were killed or badly wounded (two Confederates were killed and eighteen wounded, including McRae), the Hill Country group conceded defeat. Many able-bodied Unionists escaped but only temporarily: Over the next few weeks nine were captured and executed in various locations, and eight more were killed in an encounter with Confederate troops at the Rio Grande.

It isn’t clear how many Unionists lay wounded on the battlefield by the Nueces. One account, from a descendant of a Confederate soldier, places the number at eleven. Of the injured, Captain Williams wrote, “They had fought a good fight, and bore themselves so pluckily that I felt sorry that I had taken any part against them. We bound up their wounds, gave them water, and laid them as comfortably in the shade as we could.” That afternoon, when Williams returned from searching for Unionists to check on the captives, he was surprised to see that the camp was deserted. He was told that the prisoners had been moved a short distance away to a place that afforded better shade. Soon after, he heard a volley of shots. “I thought at first they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war, but it did not sound like that either. Then, thinking it might be an attack on us, I seized my rifle and ran in the direction of the firing. I met a man coming from it, who, when he saw me running, said: ‘It’s all done; you needn’t be in a hurry, it’s all done; they have shot the poor devils and finished them off!’ ‘It can’t be possible they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood?’ I said. ‘Oh, yes,’ said the man, ‘they are all dead, sure enough, and a good job too.’”

As survivors straggled home, the story of the bloodshed began to be told, although the loyalties of the teller influenced the shape of the tale. The Confederate troops returned to the Hill Country and announced ominously that they had taken no prisoners. More details emerged later from survivors—Schwethelm made it back eventally, after crossing the Rio Grande, traveling to Monterrey, catching a ship from Veracruz to New Orleans, and enlisting in the Union army. On the third anniversary of the battle, Schwethelm led a group from Comfort back to the site to retrieve the bones of his comrades. When they returned, a mass grave was dug in Comfort and a limestone monument erected with the names of all the Union sympathizers who were killed beside the Nueces or hanged later.

Duff has usually been given the blame for the massacre. (Schwethelm’s account even places Duff at the battle, though it’s clear he was not there.) Once again, Burrier has come up with a different interpretation. “Duff was overall commander, and he was responsible for the acts of the people at the battle site, but he didn’t order that to happen. There may have been some kind of understanding about not taking prisoners, but if so, that policy would have had to come from higher up.” Burrier believes that Duff’s commander, General H. P. Bee, and the lieutenant who took command when McRae was wounded share responsibility  for the executions.

Comfort survived the protracted conflict in the Hill Country to become a mecca for “health seekers” suffering from tuberculosis and later a sleepy tourist destination. Today Comfort features an impressive series of antique stores, several historic limestone buildings, and one or two old Fachwerk cabins, with German stone masonry alongside timber beams. The only sign of the town’s tortured history is the Treue der Union (True to the Union) monument, which stands on a hill in the center of town, as white as the gravestones at Arlington. Burrier does not question that many named there, listed as murdered, died as martyrs. “I’ve seen battlefield heroism, and by God, these people were heroes,” he says. “But we should not say that the Confederates were just bullies and cutthroats.”

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