The Nueces Massacre, August 10, 1862


The Nueces Massacre, also known as the Battle of the Nueces.

Contributed by Robert G. Schulz, Jr.

The following is a long excerpt from my own family history, from a chapter entitled, "The Germans: Geh Mit Ins Texas." It concerns the Nueces Massacre.

The critical issue of the Civil War that finally split Germans and Anglos into literally-warring factions was military conscription – again, the very reason many Germans had fled their homelands to come to Texas. In April, 1862, at no less than Gen. Robert E. Lee’s urging, the Southern states ratified the Confederate Conscription Law, which stated that all males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were required to volunteer for, pledge allegiance to, and serve in, the Confederate States Army. In 1863 the law was abridged to broaden the age liability limits to seventeen and fifty. The law was unpopular in all Southern states; it was particularly repugnant in Texas because, first, all men who really wanted to fight had already volunteered and, most critically, it left little or no manpower to defend the long frontier against the ever-raiding Comanches, Kiowas, Jicarillas, and, in the Pecos and Rio Grande regions, the Mescalero Apaches. Texans protested loudly and militantly so, in May, 1862, Gen. Paul Octave Hebert, commander of the Confederacy’s Military Department of Texas, put the entire state under martial law and appointed provost marshals to administer conscription. The administration of the law became "ruthless," and the power of the provosts was soon expanded to include confiscation of personal property deemed necessary for the welfare of the Confederate States. Such personal property, it became evident, included wagons, oxen, mules, and horses being used for private transport of cotton to the Mexican ports. In Fredericksburg, popular resident Jacob Kuechler was appointed by the Confederacy to serve as "enrollment officer" for the Confederate Army, which apparently placed him in league with the provosts and in opposition of the same immigrants with which he’d shared life and death experiences on the trek up from Indian Point. Along the border, Dr. John "Rip" Ford, former Texas Indian fighter, Texas Ranger, battle surgeon, hero of the Mexican War, Texas politician, and now a colonel in the Confederate Army, was spat upon and cursed by his friends and neighbors because he found it necessary to commandeer their feed grains for his own cavalry mounts.

Now the protests by neutral, pro-Unionists, and even offended property owners grew ugly and even violent – with the Hill Country Germans being the most vocal. In June, 1861, key officials in Gillespie County – the mayor and sheriff of Fredericksburg, the city’s leading grocer and butcher, and Confederate enrollment officer Kuechler among them – secretly organized as the Union Loyal League. Some sources defend the league’s mission as one of maintaining a balance between pro- and anti-Union sentiments, but the League’s real purpose was to thwart Confederate conscription and attempt to maintain Union loyalty within the Hill Country German communities. Letters intercepted by Confederate troops allegedly connected the Union Loyal League to leading Southern unionists A.J. Hamilton, who would govern Texas under a military regime as post-Civil-War Reconstruction was invoked, and E.J. Davis, who would be the last of Texas’ Reconstructionist governors. In response, Gen. H.P. Bee, commander of all Confederate forces in South Texas, declared Gillespie, Kerr, Kendall, Medina, and Bexar Counties – where the German protests were the strongest – to be "in open rebellion" and, in effect, declared war on them. Fredericksburg was actually occupied by Confederate troops under Capt. James Duff, a gruff, brooding Scotsman who had been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army. Duff declared himself provost, then stated in a letter, "The God damn Dutchmen are Unionists to a man…I will hang all I suspect of being anti-Confederates." Hangings were, in fact, frequent. Letters from German residents of Fredericksburg attest that many of them would leave their homes at sundown and hide in the surrounding woods in fear of raiding Anglo "guerrillas," or Hangebund (or Die Haengerbaende -- "the hanging band"), who rode up in the night, snatched young men from their beds, hanged their parents, and burned their homes for avoiding conscription. Persecution of neutral and pro-Union Germans drove hundreds from their homes – some, all the way to Union states, Mexico, or even back to Germany. The Latin Colony at Sisterdale disintegrated; many of Comfort’s "Free Thinkers," and the remainder of "The Forty," left Texas for good for states west and north.

But one act of persecution and vengeance against the German residents – or, depending on your point of view, an appropriate response to "treason" -- stands out above all others and, in the small German communities of the Hill Country, is memorialized to this day. The facts of the matter were still being hotly debated as late as March, 1997, at a conference in Fredericksburg entitled "Nueces Encounter 1862: Battle or Massacre?". The latest findings were reported in the October, 1997 issue of Texas Monthly magazine, in an article by Helen Thorpe, "Historical Friction." The following summary includes those latest findings as reported by Ms. Thorpe but is compiled from a number of sources.

By the summer of 1862, the Union Loyal League, under Kuechler’s guidance, had actually raised three companies of supposed Confederate volunteers – about five hundred men – but, through bureaucratic maneuvering and stone walling, had managed to keep the companies in Texas, ostensible as "home guard" units. Duff sniffed out the ruse and warned the Fredericksburg mayor and sheriff, the key personnel of the Union Loyal League, that he was about to appoint his own slate of municipal officers. Instead, he arrested the League’s key officials and had them thrown into an army jail in San Antonio. Kuechler barely avoided arrest but immediately disbanded the three Confederate companies and got word to the ranks that all persons wanting to make a run for Mexico to escape further conscription should gather at Turtle Creek in Kerr County (about fifteen miles west of Kerrville). On August 1, 1862, sixty-eight men – sixty-three Germans, one Mexican, and four Anglos – heeded the call and gathered at the appointed place and time. The group comprised mostly older men and a few young boys from Mason, Kendall, Kerr, and Gillespie Counties, but all of them were targeted conscripts. They elected a Fritz Tegener (some sources refer to him as "Maj. Tegener") as their commander; serving as Tegener’s second-in-command was his Fredericksburg neighbor, Henry Joseph Schwethelm, who later documented his account of the whole episode. Kuechler also joined the company. Some sources argue that the group’s aim was just to get to Mexico, to avoid conscription and fighting altogether. One branch of thought rather weakly contends the Germans were legally acting in response to an act the new Confederate government of Texas had passed in 1861, immediately after secession from the Union, granting a thirty-day period of "immunity" to all Union sympathizers who wished to take their possessions and leave Texas (Obviously, by 1862 the "immune" period had long since expired, and the argument that news of the act had just reached the back hollows of the Hill Country does not stand up to the speed with which other "news" from the State Capital reached even the most remote farms.). Still other sources maintain the group intended to reach the mouth of the Rio Grande and join the Union detachments enforcing the blockade (A goodly portion of the Union Army’s First Texas Rifles stationed at Brownsville were Texas Germans and holdovers from the group of five hundred young men who volunteered off the beach at Indian Point for service in the Mexican War.). One source strongly argues that the men were "…part of the armed resistance (emphasis is ours) in the Hill Country." At least one member of the group was an avowed Union sympathizer and had clearly stated his intent to join the Union Army, and one historian claims the group actually named itself "The Comfort Company of the Union Army." Several sources claim that the group was only lightly armed and that some individuals were unarmed; however, the best-documented reports state that the Germans were well-armed, with both rifles and six-shooters. The Germans did, in fact, proceed to the southwest at a lazy, almost insolent pace, stopping often to hunt game and search out wild honey. In his writings, Schwethelm claims he raged at Tegener to speed the pace, but Tegener was convinced that there would be no pursuit. Tegener may have been correct, except that, as the Unionist force reached a crossing of the Guadalupe River, they encountered a recently-arrived German immigrant, Charles Bergmann, and "relieved" him of his supplies. Bergmann, angered at his turn of fortune, rode this way and that until he found a small Confederate detachment. Bergmann was either detained by the Confederates, or decided to cooperate with them. In any case, he reported that a force of German Unionists headed for Mexico had robbed him.

In Fredericksburg, Duff received word of the conscripts’ flight and burst into a rage. To Duff, the Germans were simply deserters, and for deserters there was but one fate. Duff sent notice of the "desertions" to a Lt. C.D. McRae in San Antonio and instructed him to intercept the Germans by forced march, at any cost. There is also a great deal of evidence that, even at this early point, Duff let McRae know that he didn’t want to hear any word about "survivors" of any conflict that might ensue. McRae raised of force of ninety-four men, including Bergmann, who served as "an advisor," and a British volunteer, R.H. Williams, who later wrote a book about the affair, and struck off after the Germans.

Still, the Germans should have reached Mexico without incident. Even after Duff became aware of their plans, they had at least a three-day head start on any pursuit, they were mounted on horseback, and they had no wagons or carts to encumber them. However, by the evening of August 9, 1862, they had traveled only about ninety miles to the southwest and had encamped near some cedar brakes on the West Fork of the Nueces River, in Kinney County, not far from the Rio Grande (between current-day Brackettville and Laguna). They were lounging about a campfire, totally at ease, but Tegener did post four sentries, assigning them positions a good distance from the camp. According to one account, a number of the younger men were hotly engaged in a discussion of the meaning of the phrase, "States Rights," and why it was so critical to the Confederate cause. At another large fireside forum, men were openly and loudly lamenting their flight, were vocalizing about their homesickness, and were threatening to return to their homes. It was at this point that McRae’s out riders discovered the Germans and reported back to their commander. McRae set up a plan to attack the Germans at first light and, just before midnight, sent his men forward, silently and in single file, to take up assault positions around the Germans.

What happened next is, even at this juncture, open to debate; accounts of even respected historians vary widely. Fehrenbach and Wooster, for example (more likely Wooster, and Fehrenbach quoting Wooster), claim the Germans were taken completely by surprise; that up to twenty-six of them were killed in McRae’s first volley "outright," in their bed rolls; that a large number died under the hooves of the horses of a Confederate charge; that the wounded were shot where they lay or as they tried to surrender; and that all but seven of the survivors were hauled back to White Oak Creek in Gillespie County and hanged. Biggers offers an even more emotional description of an all-out "massacre;" Ms. King simply quotes Biggers. The Handbook of Texas reports that nineteen unionists were killed and nine wounded during the initial battle; that the nine wounded were later hanged; and that thirty-seven of the Germans escaped. Six more unionists were killed, the Handbook says, while trying to cross the Rio Grande; eleven reached home safely; and twenty reached Mexico or even California. The most widely-held opinion of the event, particularly among today’s Hill Country descendants of those who perished, is that vengeful, blood thirsty Confederates perpetrated an out-and-out massacre of politically-innocent Germans who were just loyal to their Union. However, the recollections of Schwethelm and Kuechler, who survived the attack and escaped, and the Englishman, Williams, paint a different picture of the battle, and the truth is probably in veiled hiding somewhere among the various, heavily-colored accounts.

Apparently, at some point, about 3 a.m. August 10, 1862, McRae’s men stumbled blindly into two of Tegener’s sentries. The sentries opened fire immediately but, just as quickly, were killed in the return fire from the Confederates. The camp was roused by the distant gunfire and all the men armed themselves and went to the alert. Furthermore, either just before, or just after, the sentries and McRae’s force fired on one another, a group of twenty-eight men did in fact ride out of the camp and head for their homes back in Kerr and Gillespie Counties – leaving the remaining thirty-four still-living Germans in the camp out numbered more than two to one. (The "when" of their leaving is, again, hotly debated, even today, because the time would determine whether the men were "just homesick" or "deserted their fellows" in the face of obvious danger.) McRae’s force attacked the camp just before daylight. The Germans were badly situated; their camp was in an open depression, while McRae’s men were able to fire from the cover of the higher cedar brakes. The battle itself was brief but deadly for both sides. Two Confederates were killed and eighteen, including McRae, were wounded – adding further doubt to claims that the Germans were only "lightly armed." As we noted earlier, the number of casualties suffered by the Germans ranges up and down the scale of conjecture. However, according to the letters of one Confederate soldier, eight of the Unionists were killed, eleven were wounded, and about twenty escaped. The wounded, badly out numbered and unable to fight further, surrendered. (Here, some historians claim that, had the twenty-eight men not left the camp before the battle began, the Germans might have prevailed, so strong and well-directed was their resistance.) Williams says in his writings that the eleven wounded were well-attended, were given food and water, and were openly congratulated for their fighting spirit. The German wounded were arranged for their comfort about the camp, and Williams and others rode out to scout for the escapees. When Williams returned to the camp after an unsuccessful search for the remaining Unionists, he noticed immediately that the wounded were gone. He was told they had been moved to a "more comfortable location," but he soon heard a loud, ragged 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," Williams wrote. Running in the direction of the shooting, Williams met a fellow Confederate soldier who held up his arms and cautioned Williams, "It’s all done. You needn’t be in a hurry…They have shot the poor devils and finished them off." Williams, shocked, said, "It can’t be possible they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!" But the soldier, according to Williams, replied, "Oh, yes, they’re all dead, sure enough, and a good job, too." McRae’s subsequent message to Duff in fact listed no survivors, reading in part, "I have met determined resistance, hence I have no prisoners to report." Of the twenty or so escapees who managed to flee for Mexico, seven or eight were killed by yet another patrolling Confederate force in October as they tried to cross the Rio Grande, and nine more were captured at various locations and executed forthwith (lending credence to the alleged hangings at White Oak Creek).

When news of the Nueces Massacre, or The Battle of the Nueces, as it is alternately called, reached San Antonio and the German settlements, new waves of rioting broke out. Duff dispatched a second force that rounded up another fifty men, including some of the twenty-eight who had fled the camp before the battle and were now hiding in the hills, and even more lifeless German bodies were soon hanging from tree limbs and scaffolds hastily-raised by Confederate troops.

The German dead at the Nueces campsite were never buried, and Confederate troops barred everyone – families, friends, wives, children – from the area until the Civil War ended. Two brave women, sisters of two of the dead Unionists, made their way to the battle site despite threats and warnings and attempted to bury their brothers. The Confederates would not help, and the ground was too hard for the women to penetrate with the rough tools available. They therefore piled rocks and brush on the bodies so that animals could not get to them. Schwethelm, one of two or three survivors of the actions near or around the Nueces, did cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, fled all the way into the interior to Monterrey, then caught a ship from Veracruz to New Orleans and enlisted in the Union Army. After Southern General Robert E. Lee’s final surrender, Schwethelm returned to Comfort. On August 10, 1865, exactly three years after the Battle of the Nueces, he led a group from Comfort to the battle site to retrieve the bones of his fallen comrades. Wild animals, of course, had savaged the remains and scattered bones in all directions, but Schwethelm’s group collected what they could find, brought the bones back to Comfort, and buried them in a mass grave on a small hill in the middle of the town. Next to the grave, the residents of Comfort erected a tall limestone obelisk as a monument to the German men and boys killed during the battle. Inscribed on the east face of the monument are the words, Treue der Union ( "TROY-der-OON-yen," or "Loyal to the Union"). The west face of the obelisk lists those believed to have died at the Nueces battle site (Gefallen am 10 August 1862), the south face honors those killed at the Rio Grande (Gefallen am 18 Oct. 1862), and the north faces lists those allegedly hanged (Gefangen, genomen, und ermordet --"Captured, taken prisoner, and murdered"). The monument lists thirty-five names, but the exact number killed, and the manner of their deaths, obviously will never be known.

Names on the Comfort Monument

West Side: Killed in Battle at Nueces, Aug. 10, 1862 -- Leopold Bauer, F. Behrens, Ernst Boerner, Albert Bruns, Hugo Degener, Fritz Vater, Hilmar Degener, Pablo Dias, Adolph Vater, Johann Geo. Kalenberg, Heinrich Markwart, Christian Schaefer, Louis Schierholz, Heinrich Steves, Amrey Schreiner, Wilhelm Telgmann, Michael Weirich, Heinrich Weyerhausen.

North Side: Captured (or taken prisoner) and murdered -- Wilheim Boerner, Theodore Buckisch, Conrad Bock, F. Tays, Heinrich Stieler, Herman Flick, August Luckenbach, Louis Ruebsamen, Adolph Ruebseman.

South Side: Killed at Rio Grande, October 18, 1862 -- Joseph Elster, Ernst Felsing, Peter Bonnet, Franz Weiss, H. Hermann, Valentine Hohmann, Moritz Weiss.