- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

The city of San Antonio, Texas, is primarily identified with the Alamo and the fight for Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. Less well-known is its prominence during the early stages of another struggle for partition in 1861, this time from the United States. Before the firing on Fort Sumter reverberated across the nation, San Antonio had become the focus of confrontation between partisans of the North and South.

At the time, San Antonio was situated close to the frontier, yet was the largest city in Texas, with some 8,200 people. There were almost equal numbers of Anglos or Americans, Hispanics and Germans, plus about 300 slaves. These ethnic groups lived apart and lacked unity.

San Antonians were predominantly pro-Union, especially the Hispanics and Germans. Only a minority favored secession. Many of the Germans had come to America to escape political turmoil. After Texas seceded, a good number of these people fled a few miles north to the German settlement of New Braunfels in the Hill Country or south to Mexico.

Without a fight

In pre-Civil War days, the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas had its headquarters at San Antonio under the leadership of Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs, a 70-year-old pro-South Georgian. A member of his command was Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, a Virginian who was in charge of the cavalry at Fort Mason on the frontier.

In early February 1861, a committee formed in Texas to consider secession. It commissioned a Texas Ranger named Ben McCulloch as a military officer. His instructions were to lead a band of about 1,000 volunteers into San Antonio to demand that Gen. Twiggs turn over U.S. Army property there. With only a small force at hand, Twiggs readily surrendered his command to McCulloch in the Main Plaza in San Antonio without a fight.

In effect, the surrender included some 2,500 men spread out at forts along the Rio Grande and the frontier in the north and west. The Stars and Stripes came down, replaced by the Lone Star flag. This incident occurred two months before the fateful action in South Carolina that triggered a long and bloody Civil War.

The Confederacy gained millions of dollars in property, including the new U.S. Arsenal in San Antonio and the quartermaster depot at the Alamo. Since hostilities had not yet officially commenced, the surrendered U.S. soldiers received permission to leave the state by moving south to the coast. The Texas militia set up a temporary camp just outside of San Antonio at San Pedro Springs for Union detainees while awaiting transportation to the coast.

On the day of the surrender, Lee arrived at the Main Plaza in San Antonio from his frontier post en route to Washington in response to a summons from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. McCulloch’s men confronted Lee and boldly demanded that he immediately resign his commission in the U.S.Army and join the Southern forces, otherwise his valuable baggage and personal effects would be confiscated. An acquaintance of Lee related that he became uncharacteristically emotional and expressed outrage at this treatment. Lee pledged not to resign until he learned Virginia’s intentions regarding secession.

War breaks out

With the U.S. forts spread out across the state, it took some time before the formal surrender of the troops manning them was accomplished. In the meantime, on April 11, when Maj. Robert Anderson, in command of the U.S. facility at Fort Sumter, S.C., informed an emissary from Brig. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard that he would not surrender, the Confederates concluded that a state of hostilities existed between North and South.

Given that the Union troops were leaving Texas at a fast clip, Confederate Gen. Samuel Cooper, upon learning of Anderson’s refusal, sent Col. Earl Van Dorn from the Confederate capital at the time in Montgomery, Ala., to San Antonio to assume command in Texas. His orders were to arrest all U.S. troops. The following day the bombardment of Fort Sumter began.

In the meantime, Col. McCulloch informed the Confederate secretary of war in Montgomery that only seven companies of U.S. troops remained in Texas. These soldiers under Lt. Col. I.V.D. Reeve’s command, numbering about 300, were believed to be moving from El Paso toward San Antonio on their way to the coast and embarkation. After learning that war had broken out, McCulloch asked for instructions regarding how to treat these men when they arrived. The response was: “Hold them as prisoners of war.”

‘Battle’ of Adams Hill

While Reeve’s detachment was still making its way across Texas, Col. Van Dorn arrived in San Antonio to assume command. With a force numbering nearly 1,400, he moved out the El Paso Road to intercept Reeve and seek his surrender. On May 9, he found the Union force deployed for battle on a hill overlooking San Lucas Creek, about 13 miles west of San Antonio.

Van Dorn wanted to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. He sent emissaries under a flag of truce to persuade Reeve to surrender, since he was badly outnumbered. After a period of negotiations, Reeve agreed rather than sacrifice his men uselessly. While Texans remember this incident as the “Battle of Adams Hill,” not a shot was fired.

When the Confederates arrived back in the city, the citizens greeted them as heroes and hailed the great “victory” at Adams Hill. Van Dorn issued paroles to the captured Union officers and allowed them to leave the state, but he held the enlisted men as prisoners of war.

After the excitement in the early days of confrontation calmed down, San Antonio did not witness the horrors that took place elsewhere during the war. The distance of Texas from the main theaters of battle kept it out of the line of fire.

Texas did experience continuing problems with hostile Indians on the frontier. The lack of sufficient forces at home made it difficult to prevent Comanche and Kiowa tribes from attacking settlements across the northern and western frontier.

Nueces massacre

Another internal concern in Texas was how to deal with disaffected citizens, particularly the Germans. In mid-1862, the leader of the troops in San Antonio, Capt. James Duff, traveled into the Hill Country north and west of the city with orders to seek out those who opposed the Confederate government. Over a three-week period, Duff arrested suspects and sent them back to the San Antonio guardhouse in chains.

During this roundup, Duff, who had a reputation as a harsh enforcer, learned that about 80 German Unionists had gathered just west of Kerrville in the Hill Country, determined to escape to Mexico. A detachment of Partisan Rangers that Duff ordered to intercept the Unionists overtook them at the Nueces River and killed all 80, executing the wounded. The victims of the “Nueces Massacre” were later memorialized with a monument at Comfort, Texas, north of San Antonio.

Cotton hub

During the ongoing conflict, San Antonio served as a center for the vital cotton trade from central and western Texas. The cotton was transshipped 200 miles south to Brownsville through the King Ranch, then across the Mexican border to Matamoros.

Both Confederate and Texas authorities viewed Matamoros as a vital lifeline after the Union blockade of Southern seaports and control of the Mississippi River took hold. This trade provided many scarce items for Texans, such as medicine and coffee. Because these goods and food from surrounding farms were plentiful, San Antonio society often held dinners and balls as fund-raisers for troops at favorite places such as the Menger Hotel. Visitors from elsewhere in the Confederacy viewed San Antonio as flourishing compared to the severe shortages experienced at home.

San Antonio was also a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Unlike its counterparts in the rest of the country, this “railroad” headed south instead of north. Since slavery was illegal in Mexico, it became a haven for escaped slaves.

A group of abolitionist Texans helped plan and facilitate the movement of slaves to the border. The absence of these escaped slaves added to the shortage of labor caused by men going off to the war, yet records show that it was rare for slaves living in San Antonio to run away. Less turbulent conditions locally may have contributed to this phenomenon.

Texas weathered the Civil War better than most other states that had seceded. After the Confederate surrender in 1865, the U.S. Army returned to San Antonio and once again raised the Stars and Stripes. Because of its isolation during the conflict, there are few Civil War sites within San Antonio to preserve. There is, however, the recollection of the weeks preceding the firing on Fort Sumter when this Texas community was caught up in turmoil that eventually spread across the entire country.

Thomas J. Ryan is vice president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. Frank S. Faulkner Jr. of the San Antonio Public Library provided research assistance.

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