As a child, I remember my father telling me that any building in Texas that had stood long enough to be called ‘old’ was either made out of adobe or built by Germans. Traveling through the Hill Country of Texas (roughly the center of Texas—atop the Edwards Plateau and extending northwest and east of San Antonio), you run across countless little towns with German names, and the center of each of those towns consists of solid stone buildings.
Back then, many of these little communities still had German local newspapers and it wasn’t hard to find the occasional German sign in the shop windows. Several of these towns still had small local breweries producing German-style beer. Sadly, most of those have either closed or been absorbed into large multinational corporations that sell a watered-down lager that should be labeled “American Lawn Mowing Beer.”
After Texas secured its independence following the victory at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, Texas changed rapidly. Where the original settlers had picked land along the coast, favoring land where the annual crop of cotton could be floated down rivers to the Gulf, the new immigrants established communities farther inland. Among the numerous immigrants moving westward from the old South were thousands of European immigrants, mostly from Germany.
During the 1850’s, roughly 20,000 German immigrants poured into Texas, encouraged by enterprising real estate entrepreneurs who advertised (meaning they lied their asses off) in Germany about abundant cheap land in a peaceful and settled paradise brimming with infrastructure.
The Allen Brothers, for example, bragged about the thriving metropolis of Houston, situated along an active ship channel—a town “handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well-watered.” The last, at least, was true.
Actually, it was a mosquito-infested swamp along a bayou so muddy that it took a week to travel the forty miles from Galveston. The first log cabin constructed there sank. The "thriving metropolis" of Houston had a population of twelve people residing in one log cabin in 1837, when the first steamship visited. Four months later, there were 1,500 residents and over 100 houses. What the Allen brothers lacked in honesty, they made up in salesmanship.
One visitor who was more honest than the Allen brothers, said the city was “one of the muddiest and most disagreeable places on earth.” Twelve months later, one out of every eight inhabitants died of yellow fever—including one of the founding Allen brothers. By the time he was buried, Houston was the temporary capitol of Texas and was receiving thousands of new immigrants annually.
The Germans who arrived were a highly diverse group—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Atheists. Though most were farmers, there were stonemasons, intellectuals (teachers, newspapermen), merchants, brewmasters, and clergymen among them. In fact, almost everyone except aristocrats came to Texas from Germany.
Overwhelmingly, they were morally against slavery and they moved inland in search of cheaper land, past the coastal plantations where slavery was the norm. In the Hill Country of Texas, they used the abundant limestone and granite hills to build new towns. By the eve of the Civil War, German immigrants numbered about 5% of the Texas population, a number roughly equal to number of Tejanos.
Far from being peacefully settled land, this was a lawless land, plagued by frequent attacks from the Lipan-Apache, the Comanches, and the Kiowa, who resisted the loss of their lands. The Army established a series of forts and posts across the area, helping to protect the settlers as much by buying their agricultural surplus as by their military activities.
By the time the Civil War started, these communities were predominantly pro-Union, siding with Sam Houston—who was both a former president of the Texas Republic and a former governor—against joining the Confederacy. The German immigrants correctly believed that the movement to secession was primarily a political ploy to protect slavery. The Germans were proud of their new American citizenship, friendly with the local military and rightly suspicious of the politicians in Austin pushing for secession. Though some German communities voted 95% against secession, Texas seceded in 1861.
When Texas seceded, Governor Lubbock promptly enforced the Confederate Conscription Law, which required all men between the ages of 18-35 to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and to “volunteer” for service in the Confederate Army. Unlike military commanders in other Confederate states, Lubbock included male slaves in this enforcement. The conscription law was unpopular in all of the the Southern states, but nowhere was the resistance to the mandate more violent than in Texas.
In May, 1862, the commander of the Confederate Military Department of Texas, seeking to implement the law, put the entire state under martial law and appointed provost marshals to administer conscription. These provost marshals were particularly ruthless in the pro-Union German communities, confiscating wagons, horses, mules and any material thought to be “critical to the success of the Confederate forces.” Naturally, a lot of this material made its way to the black market, enriching the provost marshals.
Despite the fact that the original law specified no punishment for noncompliance, Captain James Duff, the provost marshal for the Texas Hill country, began an outright reign of terror. Employing night riders, his band began burning homes and hanging German immigrants without trial. According to one of his men, the best method of convincing men to become Confederate volunteers was by hanging a few Union sympathizers.
The German communities attempted to resist the conscription act and remain loyal to the Union. After a Union Loyal League was founded in protest, the Confederate military declared Gillespie, Kerr, Kendall, Medina, and Bexar Counties to be in open revolt and declared war on them. Captain Duff occupied Kerrville—which had voted 400 to 17 to remain in the Union—then declared himself Provost, and began enforcing his personal version of the law on members of the league. In a letter to a friend, he declared, “The God damn Dutchmen are Unionists to a man…I will hang all I suspect of being anti-Confederates.”
The hangings became so frequent that Germans began to sleep in their fields or in nearby woods at night for fear of being taken by “Die Haengerbaende” (the hanging band). These guerrillas would arrive in the night, take the young men, hang the parents, and burn the homes and barns of those suspected of being pro-Union.
The Union Loyal League attempted to hide in plain sight—they formed three companies of supposedly Confederate militias who were assigned the duty of guarding the Hill Country against raids by the Comanche. Since they were in an active militia, this would exempt them from conscription. As you can imagine, their real duty was to guard against the thugs employed by Captain Duff.
Duff retaliated by jailing most of the League’s officers, threatening to hang or jail the remainder of the League. The militia companies disbanded and word was quickly passed to the young men that anyone desiring to flee to Mexico should meet along the Guadalupe River. On August 1, 1862, sixty-eight men—nearly all of them German immigrants—met and began riding south to escape from Captain Duff. Believing that there would be no active pursuit, the group’s progress was somewhat leisurely (perhaps, either because they were unsure of where in Mexico to go, or of what to do when they got there).
The group probably would have escaped successfully had it not run out of supplies and robbed a settler to replenish them (ironically, their victim was another German immigrant—who promptly reported the theft to the Confederate authorities). Furious, Captain Duff sent a force of nearly a hundred to intercept the fleeing Unionists, who—being unaware of their eager pursuers—were still making their way at a leisurely pace towards Mexico. Whether as a result of the slow pace or the general lack of a plan of action after they arrived in Mexico, twenty-eight of the Germans had abandoned the group and returned home.
On August 9, 1862, the Confederate force of ninety-six men under Lieutenant Colin McRae caught up with the men on the banks of the Nueces River about fifty miles from Mexico. The fierce skirmish began at 3:00 AM, and left casualties on both sides. Of the Unionists, eight were killed, eleven were wounded, and the rest managed to escape towards Mexico.
At first, the wounded were well-treated and received medical care for their wounds. Several hours after their capture, however, Lieutenant McRae ordered the men to be executed. The bodies of all of the dead Unionists—whether killed in battle or subsequently executed—were left along the banks of the Nueces River, where they remained for the rest of the Civil War, since the Confederate authorities prohibited anyone from visiting the site. After the war, as family members gathered the remains for burial, it was discovered that most of the men had been shot in the back of the head.
When news of the Nueces Massacre reached Captain Duff, he organized another force and arrested and hanged another fifty immigrants—including all of the twenty-eight who had abandoned the earlier party—in town centers, and fields across the Texas Hill Country. Similar hangings were carried out in North Texas, particularly Gainesville. These mass hangings are the largest in American history.
When the war was finally over, the scattered bodies of the men slain along the Nueces River were finally gathered. Time, spring floods, and the ravages of wild animals had made identification impossible, so the remains were returned to Comfort, Texas and buried together in the town center. A limestone obelisk was erected in their honor—one of the first to memorialize the Civil War and it stands in a former Confederate state to honor the men who remained loyal to the Union. It is the only Union monument erected in the former Confederacy.
On the side of the marker are listed the names of the men buried under the inscription, “Trëue der Union”, or in the language of the men who murdered them, “True to the Union”.