We were in Comfort this last Saturday … no, that doesn’t mean we were comfortable, exactly – just that we were in Comfort, Texas – a nice little town about an hour’s drive north from San Antonio, a lovely little Hill Country town situated where the Guadalupe River is crossed by the IH-10. In the larger world, Comfort is known for being the final burial place of a number of German Unionists, who either died in a vicious fire-fight on the Nueces River in August of 1862 or were murdered shortly afterwards. I was there because … well, this is the community in which a number of my books are set, and the ‘middle’ book of the Trilogy covers this tragic period. So, when another writer and enthusiastic local historian told me at the Meusebach Birthday celebration that I really ought to get in with this one … and we swapped copies of our books … well, I really must do things like this, meet people, talk to fans, and sell some books. It’s not a chore to actually be there and do that, but setting it up is sometimes a bit of a job and full marks to Blondie for taking the bull by the horns.

The plan was that a number of other local authors, some of whom had books about the Germans in the Hill Country, the Civil War in the west, or about the Nueces Fight and the subsequent execution of a number of Hill Country Unionists would have table space to sell their books at a picnic luncheon in the Comfort City park which would follow the commemoration ceremony and wreath-laying at the monument. After the the luncheon, there would be a symposium in the parish hall of the Lutheran Church … and we could set up again to vend books, through the good offices of the Comfort Historical Association … for a simple donation of 20% of total sales to them when all was done for the day. We headed up to Comfort, located the park without much problem, and set up on our portion of table, which was just large enough and under the shade of the park pavilion.

So, I missed most of the commemoration at the monument itself, although I did go up and take some pictures during the ceremony – while William Paul Burrier was explaining on what exactly had happened during the early morning hours of August 10th, 1862 on the bank of the Nueces River. He has explored those events and personalities involved to almost the sub-atomic level. (Alas, I can’t find any links to the book that he has written about it all.) Pictures taken, I spelled my daughter so that she could go and check out an interesting resale shop just across the field from the park … and then the three cannons at the memorial gathering were fired, and everyone came down to the park. There is a small problem at events like this – trying to eat. Just as you’re ready to tuck in to your plate, there are three or four people wanting to talk to you. Our place at the table was next to Carlos Juenke, who is from Fredericksburg, and has read the Trilogy and loved it extravagantly … and so, I hardly got to eat much lunch or look at any of the other writer’s tables. It was a large crowd, and very lively for nearly two hours – and then pack it all up, and drive around the block to the symposium venue … which was a bit more cramped, but indoors in the AC… bliss it is to finally go indoors, on a sultry August afternoon in South Texas.

The symposium was interesting – always interesting to see working historians going at it, although it was sidelined for some time when Mr. Burrier began talking about his current project – debunking many of the current conceptions held about the Adelsverein generally. He was of the opinion that Prince Solms and his confreres seriously intended to establish a working German colony in Texas – that their ambitions were on the colonial-imperialist side rather than more economic and charitable. This caused an intake of breath through-out the room, and Mr. Kearney got up to contest that – and being pretty well versed in the contents of the official Mainzer Adelsverein, he could quote chapter and verse. For a few moments, I thought we might have another civil war on our hands, right then and there. However, as a relatively phidless (PhD-deprived) scribbler of historical fiction, I was beneath the notice of the professional historians – in fact, one of the academic gentlemen barely concealed a sneer as he departed at speed from in front of my table once I explained that they were all novels. Well, given the usual sort of historical fiction and historical romance, one can hardly blame him, but it is altogether likely that more casual readers have learned local history from reading my books than ever did from reading his.

Ah well – a nice day, in a nice place, with nice people. And we bought a whole smoked chicken from the Riverside Market in Boerne for dinner on the way home. What could be better than that?

Late in the fall of 1862, under the mistaken assumption that they had been offered a thirty-day amnesty by the Governor of Texas and allowed to depart Texas unmolested rather than take the loyalty oath, a party of Unionists gathered together at Turtle Creek in Kerr County. They elected a settler from Comfort named Fritz Tegener as their leader, and Henry Schwethelm as second. Their number included Phillip Braubach, who had served as the sheriff of Gillespie County, and Captain John Sansom, a Texas Ranger before and after the war, and also the sheriff of Kendall County, two sons of Edwin Degener, a prominent free-thinker from Sisterdale, Heinrich Steves, whose large family had helped establish Comfort, and the Boerner brothers, one of whom had married a Steves daughter. Heinrich Stieler was also one of them; he was Henry Schwethelm’s brother-in-law and son of Gottlieb Stieler, an early settler whose family later established a ranch between Comfort and Fredericksburg which still exists today.

The Unionists in the group were bound by ties of kinship, by community as well as personal loyalty. There were sixty-eight of them: all German, save four Anglos (including Sansom) and one Mexican. They intended to travel on horseback westward towards the Mexican border; most meant to go from there to the United States and join the Union Army. Having a three-day head start and no heavy baggage wagons to contend with, they should have been well over the Nueces and into Mexico but for their belief in the non-existent amnesty … and so they made their way across country in a fairly leisurely manner. Duff was enraged when he heard of their departure. To his mind, they were deserters in time of war and deserving of death. He sent word to Lt. C.D. McRae in San Antonio that Tegener’s party was to be pursued at all cost; implicit in his orders was an understanding that he didn’t want to hear much about survivors. McRae led out a company of more than ninety men after the Unionists and prepared to follow Duff’s orders to the letter.

On the evening of August 9th, 1862, Tegener’s party camped in thin cedar woods, not far from the Rio Grande, between present-day Brackettville and Laguna. The built campfires and set out four sentries a good way from the camp. Sometime early the next morning, McRae’s scouts encountered Tegener’s guards, and the exchange of shots alerted the Unionists. There followed a short and confusing firefight. Some sources claim that McRae’s company had overridden the sleeping Unionists and caught them by surprise in their bedrolls. Other accounts have it that nearly half of Tegener’s party had decided to give it up as a bad job, and go back to the Hill Country to defend their families … or scattered when it seemed clear that Tegener had chosen a bad defensive position. John Sansom, certainly no coward and not unaccustomed to dirty fighting was one of the survivors; he urged Hugo Degener to come away with him, but the younger man refused. Most of those who stood and fought were killed outright. Eleven of the wounded were executed upon capture, to the horror of one of McRae’s volunteers who left an account; one survivor was taken to San Antonio and executed there. Others were hunted down and executed a week later by McRae’s troopers as they tried to cross the Rio Grande. The survivors scattered, including Sansom and Schwethelm; who both made it safely over the border. Others fled back to the Hill Country, bringing news of the fight to the families of the dead.

Captain Duff refused to allow the families of the dead to retrieve the bodies. Minna Stieler, the sixteen-year old sister of Heinrich Stieler, and her mother managed to get permission to go to where the bodies of her brother and another comrade had been left unburied, and cover them with brush and stones, the ground being too hard to dig a grave, and the bodies too far decayed to remove. The other remains lay unburied for three years. Exactly three years to the day after the Nueces Fight, Henry Schwethelm returned with a party of kinfolk and friends from Comfort, and gathered up the scattered bones. They brought them to Comfort, and buried them in a mass grave, on a low hillside on what then would have been the outskirts of town.

The stone obelisk is plain and stark, shaded by a massive oak tree: panels on three sides list the names of the 36 dead of Tegener’s party, all of whom were True to the Union.

01. August 2012 · Comments Off on The Nueces Fight and ‘True to the Union’ · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , , ,

As I am going up to Comfort on the 11th, to take part in the 150th anniversary observences of the Nueces Fight, and since it has been a while since I wrote about this — herewith some background.)

Who would have thought that deep in the heart of a staunchly Confederate state, there would have been a large population of Unionists? But there was; and not only did they vote against Secession, but the governor of Texas himself was a Unionist. He was none other than Sam Houston himself, the hero of San Jacinto, who more than any other Texas man of note had politicked and maneuvered for ten long years so that Texas could join the United States. In the end, Texas seceded; instead of going it alone again, the secession party joined the Confederacy with what some observers considered to be reckless enthusiasm – especially considering the perilous position of those settlements on the far frontier. Those settlements had been protected from marauding Comanche, Apache and Kiowa by the efforts of US troops – and who would guard them now? When the Texas legislature passed a law requiring all public officials to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, Sam Houston resigned rather than take it. Being then of a good age, of long and devoted service to the people of Texas and held in deep respect even by citizens who didn’t agree with his stand, Sam Houston retired without incident to his home near Huntsville.

Other staunch Unionists in Texas were not able to refuse the demands of the Confederacy as easily as wily old General Sam. Among those who felt the wrath of the Confederacy most keenly were the German settlers of the Hill Country. Most of those settlers had come from Europe in the late 1840s; others had settled in San Antonio, Galveston and Indianola. In many cases they were the mercantile elite, as well as providing a solid leavening of skilled doctors, engineers, scientists, artists, teachers and writers in those communities. They were also Abolitionists; and in an increasingly perilous position as the split between free-soil states and those which permitted chattel slavery widened during the 1850s. Once Texas went Confederate, they were in even more danger, although they did not at first appear to realize this. Those citizens and counties which favored the Union and abolition could not easily separate, as West Virginia had from Virginia: they were stuck. The war began and ground on … and the breaking point came early in 1862 with passage of a conscription law. Every white male between the age of eighteen and thirty-five was liable for military service. This outraged those who had been opposed to slavery and secession, to the point of riots, evasion and covert resistance. Texas abolitionists and Unionists would be forced to fight in defense of an institution they despised, and for a political body they had opposed. Only a bare handful of men from Gillespie, Kendall and Kerr counties volunteered for service in the Confederate Army throughout 1861 and 1862, although good few more were perfectly willing to serve as state troops protecting the frontier, or in local volunteer companies of Rangers. Anyone who wanted a fight could take on the Indians, without the trouble of going east for military glory.

Before very long, the distinct un-enthusiasm in the Hill Country for the Confederacy and all its works and ways became a matter of deep concern to military and governing authorities. In a way, it was a clash of mind-sets: the German immigrants were innocently certain that the freedom of speech and political thought which they had always enjoyed since coming to Texas were still viable. The pro-Confederate authorities saw such thought and speech as disloyalty, clear evidence of potentially dangerous spies and saboteurs … and acted accordingly. In the spring of 1862, Gillespie and Kerr County was put under harsh martial law. All men over the age of 16 were ordered to register with the local provost marshal and take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Few did so – and many never heard of the order, until the state troopers arrived to enforce it, under the command of a peppery, short-tempered former teamster; Captain James Duff.

By summer, Captain Duff ordered the arrest of any man who had not taken the loyalty oath. His troopers waged a savage campaign; flogging men they had arrested until they told his troopers what they wanted to hear, wrecking settler’s homes, arresting whole families, and confiscating foodstuffs and livestock. Men of draft age took to hiding out in the brush near their homes, while their families smuggled food to them. Frequently parties of Duff’s men assigned to arrest certain men returned empty-handed, with the subject of the arrest warrant left dangling on a rope from a handy tree on the return journey. Four out of six men arrested near Spring Branch in the Pedernales Valley and taken to be interned with other Unionists were summarily lynched when two of them escaped while their guards were asleep. A state trooper serving in the Fredericksburg area at that time remarked, “Hanging is getting to be as common as hunting.” Suspicion followed by repression bred resentment and defiance, which bred violence… and resistance.

(To be continued …)

Book Events – Upcoming

There’s not all that much on my event calendar over the next few months – only one talk, and three big community events. What with the cost of gas, arranging for accommodations, and seeing to the care of home, pets and the garden, something more than a couple of hours drive from San Antonio is pretty much not doable this year. We love the drive up to Abilene for the Book and Music Fest there, but it involves an overnight stay. So – for the rest of the year, I’m keeping it local.

The next event that I’ll be at is the observation of the 150th anniversary of the Nueces fight: there will be a community picnic and a symposium on the 11th of August, at the True to the Union monument in Comfort and at the Lutheran Church fellowship hall across the street. A number of authors will have books on offer about the Civil War and the Nueces Fight, at the picnic and symposium venue.
In September, I’ll be doing a talk about the Civil War in the Hill Country for the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, on the 14th, at Ye Kendall Inn in Boerne. Did I say that we’re in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War?

Then, the next event will be the Christmas Market in New Braunfels, and this time I’m angling to be there for all three days of the event. This will be November 16-18th, at the Convention Center in New Braunfels. This was an amazing event for me last year, even though I could only be there for one day. The notice about it only went out. I haven’t heard yet about the final planned event – Christmas on the Square in Goliad, which is normally the first weekend in December, but I’ve added it onto my schedule regardless.