Texas seceded from the Union in early February of 1861 and joined the Confederacy that March, less than a month before the bombardment of Fort Sumter that began the Civil War. But the embrace of secession and of the Confederacy was far from monolithic in Texas. About a third of the state’s residents, after all, were enslaved. And in parts of Texas, in those counties that had voted against secession, Unionist sentiment could be strong.
In the little Hill Country town of Comfort, about fifty miles northwest of San Antonio, a lonely limestone obelisk sits in a patch of parkland on a bluff above Cypress Creek. Three German words are carved onto the southern face of the shaft: Treue Der Union—“True to the Union.” Elsewhere on the monument are listed the names of some of the 68 men who were killed—gefallen—on the banks of the Nueces and Rio Grande during the summer and fall of 1862. It is one of the few monuments to the Union ever erected on Confederate soil, and the names incised upon it—names like Bauer, Luckenbach, Weyershausen—testify to the depth of German influence in this part of Texas and to the cultural and political dilemmas that entrapped many German Texans during the Civil War.
“Nowhere does the German race prosper better than here,” declared a German tract promoting immigration to Texas in the 1840s. The words were advertising hyperbole, but if they had been entirely untrue there wouldn’t have been such a steady surge of German settlers arriving in the years just before and after independence. By 1850, they made up more than 5 percent of the population. They came as Mexican colonists originally, as had the Europeans of Scots-Irish descent seeking land grants in the days when Texas was still part of Mexico.
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The first wave of German immigration came at the urging of a man once named Christian Friedrich Dirks, who had been in the loyal service of the Duke of Oldenburg until the duke discovered that Dirks was no longer loyal and decided that his services were no longer wanted. Escaping an embezzlement charge required a change of name and a change of scene, and that was how the newly christened Johann Friedrich Ernst arrived in Texas in 1831. He began writing letters to friends back in northwestern Germany—letters that were published in the newspapers—extolling the Texas paradise he had discovered. Soon people began leaving their fragmented, played-out farmsteads in places like Oldenburg, the Münsterland, and Holstein and coming to join Ernst to try their luck in the bountiful black Texas soil.
In the next decade, after Texas had become an independent republic and was offering colonization grants of its own, more Germans arrived. The new immigrants disembarked in Texas under the auspices of the Adelsverein, also known as the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The altruistic-sounding name was somewhat misleading, since the society was formed by a group of titled aristocrats interested as much in the profits they would gain from a surging German presence in Texas as in the offer of a new start to struggling families. These new families ended up farther west than the first group of Germans, staking out farms in the picturesque but thin-soiled Hill Country. They established towns like New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, where fachwerk houses and fortresslike buildings of hand-cut limestone still line the streets today.
The first commissioner-general in charge of the Adelsverein settlers bore the distinctly un-Texan title of Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Ludwig Georg Alfred Alexander, Prince of Solms, Lord of Braunfels, Grafenstein, Münzenberg, Wildenfels, and Sonnenwalde. Prince Solms was a dashing and romantic-minded character who had become infatuated with Texas in part because of an alluring German novel he had read on the subject and who believed that the Teutonic adventure in this new land would bring “new crowns to old glory.” In addition to lending part of his titled name to the town of New Braunfels, he helped create a short-lived Texas utopian community of freethinkers called the Forty. One of the members of the Forty was a young man named Friedrich Schenck, who, in a letter home to his mother, revealed a wide-eyed, searching soul whose mood swung in a short arc from sighing contentment to outright rapture: “A strange melancholy came over me when, from a hilltop, my eye looked out over the immeasurable plains and the evening sun spread its magic shadows over the valleys and poured its purple over the peaks of the highlands.”
Schenck was deeply impressed by almost everything he experienced in Texas, but there is one passage in his letter, about a visit from a Comanche delegation, that is particularly striking when considered against the merciless wars that festered between that nation and the Anglo Texans. “I could tell you all so much,” he wrote, “about those slender, half-naked children of the wilderness, of the agility of the young warriors and of the luminous eyes of the beautiful amazons. . . . One would have to know the language of these people to comprehend their spiritual development.”
Schenck’s idealism about Indians was one thing, but it was the pragmatic negotiating skill of Prince Solms’s successor, John Meusebach, that forged an important and lasting treaty in 1847 between the Comanches and the Germans who aspired to settle on their hunting grounds in the land between the Llano and Colorado rivers.
Conflict between the Germans and the Indians was mitigated by the Meusebach-Comanche treaty, but the “beardmen,” as old-time Texans referred to the German settlers, sometimes found themselves in hostile territory anyway. The enlightened views of idealists like Friedrich Schenck were bound to collide with prevailing Texas thinking. “Unfortunately,” Schenck reported to his mother after describing the joys of cultivating the Texas soil, “this happy picture of Texan farm life is also disturbed below by the curse of slavery . . . the feelings of the Germans bristle against such practice, as it is contrary to the holiest right of man—freedom!”
Not all Germans in Texas were hostile to slavery, but there was a discernible overall resistance to secession, most strikingly in areas like Gillespie County, home to Fredericksburg, where the vote for remaining in the Union reached 96 percent. There was ample reason to be cautious about expressing pro-Union sentiment too loudly. Ferdinand Lindheimer, the great Texas botanist and editor of a New Braunfels newspaper called the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, urged his readers to keep their heads down in the coming conflict. “When in Texas,” he wrote, “do as the Texans do. Anything else is suicide and brings tragedy to all our Texas-Germans.”
But his voice went unheeded by a core of militant German Unionists in the Hill Country, some of them refugees from the failure of the liberal European revolutions of 1848. They banded together to form the Union Loyal League, which, among other things, discouraged enlistment in the Confederate army and stood ready as partisans to assist in a federal invasion of Texas. In August 1862, fearing that they were about to be imprisoned or worse, sixty to seventy German Unionists decided to flee to Mexico. They took their time, not knowing that they were being pursued by a force of Confederate cavalry and state militia. A week or so after setting out, they were camped along a bend in the Nueces River, in western Kinney County, in a grassy prairie meadow fringed by cedar trees. They were only about forty miles from the Mexican border. “At 4 o’clock in the morning,” remembered one of the survivors, August Hoffmann, “our enemies came.”
During the ugly fight that followed, about half of the Unionists bolted through the trees. Some of them managed to make it home or to Mexico, but most of the others were captured and hanged, or died in a later battle with Confederate troops at the Rio Grande. The rest of the Germans who were surprised on the Nueces that morning stood their ground, putting up an intense fight despite being caught entirely unprepared. But not long after daylight, all these men were either dead on the field or wounded. The wounded were dragged off into the trees and shot in the head. The Confederates buried their own dead but left the bodies of the Unionists to rot on the ground. Their bones lay there until the end of the war, when they were gathered up and buried and their names memorialized on the unlikely monument in the middle of Comfort.
There is a semantic historical squabble over whether this incident should be referred to as the Battle of the Nueces or the Massacre of the Nueces. No such parsing is required for what happened a few months later in one of the North Texas counties that voted against secession. This part of the state was a region of dangerous instability—due in part to its nervous frontier proximity to Comanche, Kiowa, and Wichita raiders, who had been emboldened by the withdrawal of federal troops. It also lay along the recently established Butterfield Overland Mail route, which originated in St. Louis, crossed Texas, and terminated in San Francisco. Many of the people in this area had come from or had ancestral ties to places like Kansas and the border states of the Upper South. Only 10 percent of the population of Cooke County, whose northern border ended at the Red River, owned slaves and felt a strong economic kinship with the plantation South. But they were alert and alarmed. As a minority population, they feared an insurrection from Unionists who might collaborate with Indians, with Kansas abolitionists, or with rebellious slaves.
Read more: In this excerpt from ‘Big Wonderful Thing,’ long-simmering tensions erupt into a brutal race war in South Texas in the early twentieth century.
On October 1, these Confederate sympathizers struck. A colonel of the Texas state troops named James Bourland arrested 150 men suspected of being Union fifth columnists. Colonel William Young, who the year before had led the Eleventh Texas Cavalry across the Red River to capture three federal forts in Indian Territory, handpicked a jury, stacking it with slaveholders—like himself and Bourland. During the trial, in Gainesville, the jury condemned seven of the men and hanged them one by one from an elm tree outside town. But that wasn’t enough for the mob that had begun forming during the proceedings. They stormed the courtroom, seized fourteen more, and lynched them all. The next week, Young was bushwhacked and killed, likely by Union partisans.Then nineteen more of the men who had been arrested were retried and condemned to death, with Young’s avenging son Jim supervising the proceedings. The condemned men were taken to the hanging tree and dispatched at the steady rate of two per hour. The county buried some of them in shallow graves by the banks of a nearby creek, graves easily disturbed by rooting animals. Not long after, a girl saw a hog carrying something in its jaws down a Gainesville street. It was her stepfather’s arm.
“Reason had left its throne,” decided a local minister about what came to be known as the Great Hanging. It was a clear enough judgment about the situation not just in the northern tier of Texas counties during the Civil War but also in the Hill Country, across the Indian frontier, and along the Rio Grande border. Far from the great battlefields east of the Mississippi, much of Texas remained on the ragged edge of the Civil War, where the titanic struggle trickled down to local clashes among vigilantes, night riders, infiltrators, committees of safety, spies, and saboteurs.
To Kate Stone, a 22-year-old woman who fled across the Sabine after the fall of Vicksburg, Texas was “the dark corner of the Confederacy.” She used the phrase “dark corner” repeatedly in her diary. She didn’t like anything about the place, its “whiteheaded children and buttermilk,” its “desolate wind-swept” prairies. “And, oh, the swarms of ugly, rough people, different only in degrees of ugliness. There must be something in the air of Texas fatal to beauty.”
Stephen Harrigan will be a featured speaker at EDGE: The Texas Monthly Festival in Dallas November 8-10. For tickets, visit edge.texasmonthly.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The New Texas History.” Subscribe today.