- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

COMFORT, Texas (AP) - The Nueces River near a tiny community called Laguna, north of Uvalde, was a happy place last weekend. Kids splashed and waded in the cool, green waters, while their parents relaxed in lawn chairs along live oak-shaded banks.

Although I didn’t ask, I’m guessing none of the folks enjoying the July Fourth weekend had any idea that the clear spring waters of the river not far from where they were celebrating ran red with blood on an August morning more than 150 years ago. They’re not likely to have known that for three years the bodies of 19 victims of a Civil War encounter lay strewn along the river bank, prey to the vultures and coyotes. The story of the Nueces Massacre - or Battle, depending on your perspective - begins a hundred miles to the northeast, in Comfort, the tidy, little German town on the banks of the Guadalupe. On a quiet residential street across from a school, a 20-foot-tall limestone obelisk commemorates the men from Comfort and environs who lost their lives on the banks of the Nueces in 1862. The monument, the oldest Civil War memorial in the state, is one of only two in Texas dedicated to the Union. Unlike statues of Jefferson Davis or courthouse memorials to the Confederacy that are up for debate these days, this monument won’t be going anywhere, despite the controversy it’s engendered off and on through the years in our Confederate-sympathizing state.

In 1860, some 30,000 German immigrants were living in Texas, making up 5 percent of the population. Many were small farmers who had fled endless wars and conscription in the Old Country, while others were highly educated Freethinkers who had immigrated to Texas after a failed democratic revolution in Germany in 1848. The Freethinkers helped found Comfort and Sisterdale, Hill Country communities free of organized religion, dedicated to civil liberties and committed to science and education.

“They were ready to set up their form of social democracy, and they weren’t well-received,” Anne Stewart, whose ancestors arrived shortly after Comfort was founded, told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1f1MQOo).

Bookish and idealistic, these German intellectuals dedicated themselves to founding a communitarian utopia. Comfort had no church until 1892 and still has no formal government. Stewart noted that when the town has its Fourth of July and Christmas parades, spectators and participants are expected to clean up after themselves, since there’s no municipal trash service. Unlike more traditional Texas towns, like nearby Center Point where Confederate battle flags flutter in the town cemetery on holidays, Comfort has always seen itself as set apart.

Needless to say, Comfort’s Freethinkers, like most Texas Germans, abhorred slavery, so when Texas seceded in 1861, much of the Hill Country was in direct conflict with the new government. Hill Country Germans not only felt an abiding loyalty to the federal government but also relied on federal troops to protect them from the Comanches.

In May 1862, the commander of the Confederate military in the state placed all of Texas under martial law and appointed provost marshals to enforce the Confederacy’s newly enacted Conscription Act. Gov. Francis R. Lubbock appointed Capt. James Duff to round up reluctant volunteers, particularly Hill Country Germans.

Duff is an interesting character, although most Texans have never heard of him. According to the Handbook of Texas, he was a San Antonio merchant whose wagons were used in 1856 to transport a large meteorite (now known as the Wichita County Iron) to Austin. He had been a sergeant in the U.S. Army before the war but had been court-martialed and discharged.

In the spring and summer of 1862, Duff and his Partisan Rangers conducted nothing less than a reign of terror in and around Fredericksburg. Duff’s method of rounding up German settlers trying to evade conscription included hanging men on the mere suspicion that they harbored Union sentiments and then burning their crops and homes. German residents of Fredericksburg and other Hill Country communities would hide in nearby woods at night in fear of Duff and Die Haengerbaende, “the hanging band.” Hundreds fled to Union states, to Mexico or back to Germany.

On the night of Aug. 1, 1862, a group of about 70 men gathered at Turtle Creek west of Kerrville and set in motion plans to leave for Mexico. They would make their way to Monterrey and then over to Veracruz, where they would board a ship bound for Union-occupied New Orleans and join up with the Union Army. They chose Fritz Tegener, a county treasurer who lived in Comfort, as their leader.

When word reached Duff that a band of Unionists was headed to Mexico, he immediately organized a 94-man detachment led by Lt. C.D. McRae, along with an assortment of regular Confederate cavalry. McRae’s party caught up with the Unionists on the night of Aug. 9, as they camped among the oaks and cedars on the banks of the Nueces. They were 50 miles from the Rio Grande.

As Tegener and his men slept, the Confederates attacked. The Unionists, armed with hunting rifles and six-shooters, managed to repel the first charge, killing two Confederates, but a second charge broke through. The Confederates killed 19 of Tegener’s men. Nine were wounded and taken prisoner. The rest fled toward the Rio Grande or tried to make it back home.

As the sun rose, McRae’s men were caring for the Union wounded, until one of McRae’s lieutenants ordered them moved into a nearby cedar thicket. There, the Confederates shot all nine through the back of the head. It’s unknown to this day whether McRae ordered the executions or perhaps lost control of his unit. Stewart, a retired librarian and amateur historian, maintains that a doctor from nearby Fort Clark advised McRae that he could do nothing more for them and they ought to be shot. Two months later McRae tracked down remnants of Tegener’s party on the Rio Grande and killed eight more.

On the Nueces, the Confederates buried their dead in a long trench but left the bodies of the Unionists on the riverbank. On the third anniversary of the battle, a few families made their way to the river and brought home the bones of their loved ones. They buried them, along with those who had been hanged, under the obelisk in Comfort beneath a 36-star flag, the only flag in Texas that to this day flies permanently at half-staff. Along with their names is the inscription in German, “Treue der Union,” ”Loyal to the Union.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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