Letter From Texas: Gott Mit Uns

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As modern imperialism grows, even the regions within those countries under its rule become homogenized.  Within the subnational regions, smaller ethnic enclaves, with their diverse cultures, tend to take one of two paths.  They become tourist traps where the natives are totally ignorant of their own histories, differences, and contributions to the larger groups, until, eventually, everyone wears the same garb (lederhosen, feathered hats, kilts, identical regalia), employs the same false architecture, adopts the same fake accent, sings the same pseudo folk songs, dances the only folk dance he knows, and claims the same beliefs and ideologies.  Or they just die out altogether.  I don’t know whom this hurts worse—the larger “empire” or the enclaves.  It certainly makes the world a duller place.  And contrary to the philosophers, knowledge of history is its own virtue.

I first discovered this as a child.  After living in Washington, D.C., for several years, my parents and I had returned to the Texas ranch that had been in our family since 1845.  The culture clash between the East and Southwest was not as great as I had expected; too much time had passed.  But I had been taught by my family, as well as by mounds of books, that we were Texas Germans, as was the entire Hill Country of the state, including the towns and cities of New Braunfels, Boerne, Fredericksburg, Dickinson, Seguin, Austin, San Antonio, Castroville, Hondo, up to what we still thought of as the western frontier—indeed, all of South-Central Texas.

Most of the Germans had arrived in Texas when it was still a republic, under the guidance of the Adelsverein (“The Noblemen’s Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas”), led by Prince Karl von Solms-Braunfels (though he didn’t stay).  It was not long before over one third of all Texans were German.  Before the invention of barbed wire (1875), the Texas economy was based on cotton, so the Texas Germans raised it and owned slaves, though not as many as the East Texans did.  As late as the eve of U.S. entry into World War I, a rally for the kaiser was held in Boerne among the (mostly) still German-speaking blacks, with the rallying cry: “Ve Chermans haff got to schtick togedder!”

The Texas Germans went on to fight valiantly for the United States after we entered the war, despite the closing of our schools and violent harassment by groups of drunken Anglo teenagers from San Antonio.  I lost two uncles to gas attacks on the Western Front.

As late as the 1950’s, one could not buy groceries or feed in the small town nearest our ranch without knowing German.  My grandfather founded New Braunfels High School, and almost all the textbooks were in German (though Greek and Latin—and English—were also taught).  He was also the editor of the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, our first newspaper (since the 1850’s), and cofounder of our first bank (the Guaranty State Bank).  This whole section of Texas was closely knit.  After all, the Germans arrived in the 1830’s and 40’s not knowing whether they were immigrating to Mexico, an independent Texas republic, or the United States.

Differences among groups of Texas Germans were common.  The influential founders of New Braunfels were largely Prussian, atheist (“freethinkers”), and townspeople; Fredericksburg was founded by Bavarians and other southern Germans, Roman Catholics, and country folk; the German towns to the east were largely Lutheran (Evangelisch) and from all parts of Germany and all occupations.  In addition, there were the Forty-Eighters.

The only question that had interested children back in Washington, D.C., was whether they were Southerners or Northerners.  After all, Washington had been a Southern city for most of its history, was the center of the War Between the States, and the mid-to-late 1950’s was the height of regional rivalry.

As soon as my family returned to Comal County, Texas, we ran into a similar conflict.  I met the other descendants of the War Between the States.  Every kid would announce that, although his own ancestors had fought for the Confederacy, everyone knew that the other Texas Germans had fought for the Union.  About the time I concluded that the tooth fairy was a myth, I began to suspect that this Texas-Confederate history didn’t make sense.  If every German-American Texan I met had Confederate soldier ancestors, including three progenitors of mine, how could this ethnic group have been so pro-Union?

At the University of Texas-Austin, I studied Texas history, and, for my master’s thesis, I decided to unravel the myth of German Unionism.  This proved to be a hopeless task.  Every textbook of Texas history I could find simply stated, without footnotes, details, or any other support, that the Texas Germans were pro-Union and were either neutral or fought for the North during the War.  The only evidence given was a mention of the Nueces Massacre.  The books I found on the involvement of Texas in the Confederacy produced the same scant evidence and cited only earlier general histories, which used almost the same words (and often had the same typographical errors).  Those books concerning only the Texas Germans simply skipped the crisis of the South in which the Texas Germans played so great a part.

Several years ago, the myth of German Unionism reached its climax in a series of newspaper columns by the late Maury Maverick, Jr., in the San Antonio Express.  Maverick was a left-wing columnist and the lawyer son of an equally left-wing mayor of San Antonio in the 1930’s; both devoted their lives to atoning for the sins of the patriarch of the clan, Sam Maverick, while keeping his money.  Sam was not only a notorious cattleman (whence cometh the word maverick, which first meant “found” or stolen or rebranded cattle) but a Confederate officer and an anti-German, upon whose livestock he preyed.  As a result, Maury Jr. defended Vietnam draft dodgers for a living and insisted that the Texas Germans shared his left-wing views.  He began the series by stating that the Texas Germans fought for the North during the War Between the States and that “over a hundred German Unionists were lynched during the War and lived under a reign of terror.”  (This would have been a surprise to Adm. Chester Nimitz of World War II fame, about whom Maury Jr. always wrote admiringly, since the admiral’s father, Capt. Charles Nimitz, had been the highest-ranking Confederate officer in the German area and was, indeed, the Confederate recruiting officer in charge of maintaining order.)

Several dozen Texas Germans challenged the series by Mr. Maverick on his allegations.  After a lot of shilly-shallying, Maverick retreated to one mysterious nighttime murder, by unknown persons, for unknown reasons.

When presented with the facts and the statistics, most believers in the myth, including at one time even the New Braunfels Zeitung-Herald (successor to the Zeitung), merely declared that the Texas Germans must have been trying to “blend in” with the Anglo Confederates, an absurd proposition when one considers that there were among Anglos proportionately more Unionists than among the Germans.  Germans overwhelmingly voted for secession, and pre-draft enlistment figures bear this out.  It is far more likely that some modern Texas Germans are trying to “blend in” with political correctness.  It strains credulity to argue that the same Texas Germans praised by Maury Maverick, Jr., for their courage, the same people who produced Admiral Nimitz and General Eisenhower, would be so cowardly as to vote against their principles in secret ballot, fail to speak out publicly or join the Union Army, and even join the Confederate Army (before the draft) to shoot and be shot by Yankees—all out of fear of offending Anglo citizens.

While researching my thesis, I had to perfect my German in order to read the  dozen German-language newspapers circulating in Texas before and during the war.  I discovered that no one had ever read any of these archives between that time and mine.  I also read every German diary and private letter available, every letter to the Confederate and Reconstruction governors and legislatures in the State Archives, countless enlistment and unit rosters, and every published or unpublished primary source concerning the Texas Germans available at that time.  My conclusions echoed those of John Arkas Hawgood in his 1940 book The Tragedy of German America:

So many fallacious statements have been made concerning the Germans in Texas during the late 1840’s, the 50’s, and the early 60’s, that perhaps it is wise here to express quite clearly . . . that the Germans were not . . . Abolitionists, . . . that they believed in states[’] rights, and that . . . a majority of them were loyal to the Confederate cause, many fought for it, and quite a number died for it.

These Germans came over to Texas in response to emigration propaganda in Germany, all of which stressed that, if you were an abolitionist or of the political left, you should go to New York City; if you were neutral or undecided, go to Missouri; if you were a conservative, go to New Orleans or Texas.  Ferdinand Roem-er’s Texas, which was widely read in Germany and distributed by the Adelsverein, warned those who were radical or opposed to slavery to avoid Texas.

In addition, Germany at that time was a loose confederation of autonomous states, similar to the United States under the Articles of Confederation.  Those Germans were used to a system that respected states’ rights, and most were very leery of strong central government.

After 1850, Texas began receiving a trickle of refugees from the German Revolution of 1848—“die Gruene,” who were sometimes both radical and nationalistic.  These new arrivals were not well received by the Germans who had come under the Adelsverein or before.  Some of these Forty-Eighters formed the communistic Bettina Colony under the leadership of Gustav Schleicher, a friend of Friedrich Engels.  The collective failed within two years, and Schleicher soon became the leader of the conservative and pro-states’-rights element in the Texas legislature.

The Democratic Party (then conservative and pro-states’ rights) won the enthusiastic allegiance of the Texas Germans thanks to the sudden growth of the anti-immigrant Nativist Party, the Know-Nothings.  As the Know-Nothing Party became identified with nationalism, Unionism, and abolitionism, the Germans became more states’-rights and conservatively oriented.

There were occasional outbursts of radical sentiments (mostly on economic issues) among a few Forty-Eighters after that; a few singing societies were founded for political purposes; and one German newspaper editor, Adolf Douai, was chased out of San Antonio by the other Germans because of his abolitionist views.  Even he did not believe that the federal government had any business meddling with slavery in the states.

German social life centered on the Turnvereine (athletic clubs).  When the National Turnvereine denounced the South in 1859, all Texas Turnvereine immediately seceded, anticipating the Confederacy by two years.

The most influential German newspaper, the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, was edited by Dr. Ferdinand Lindheimer.  According to R.L. Biesele—the first, and greatest, Texas German historian—Dr. Lindheimer was “the political barometer of the Germans in Texas.”  His newspaper’s support for states’ rights, secession, and (through four difficult years) the Confederate war effort mirrored that of the Texas German population.

The first test of Texas German loyalty to the South was in the presidential election of 1860.  It was a four-way race, with John C. Breckenridge representing the Southern Democrats and supported by secessionists; John Bell representing the Constitutional Union party, which hoped to hold North and South together by retaining states’ rights; Stephen A. Douglas representing the regular and Northern Democrats; and Abraham Lincoln for the Republicans.

No Texas German voted for Lincoln.  Of the ten Texas counties that gave Bell and/or Douglas at least 40 percent of the vote, only one—Gillespie—had a substantial German population.  Gillespie County voted against the secession candidate by only 52 percent.  The other 17 heavily German counties, including Comal (which was the most populous and most German one), voted almost entirely for Breckenridge.  For that matter, the least secessionist area, western Gillespie County, gave a larger percentage of its votes to Breckenridge than did any non-German western county.  A fear, common in all the western counties, of frontier isolation in the face of savage Indians accounts for its hesitation toward secession.

Upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, Comal and Gillespie Counties called for a state convention to discuss secession, as did the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, which reminded Germans that, just as they had renounced their allegiance to European despots, they should do the same to Yankee ones.  All other German newspapers called for secession, except for one, the smallest, which called for caution and deliberation before such a step.  Every German delegate at the Texas Convention voted for immediate secession.

On February 23, 1861, the question went to the citizens of Texas.  Of the 17 German counties, only five voted against secession.  Five of them favored it by 90 percent.  Comal County—again, the most populous and most German—did so by 73 percent.  In Fayette County, which had a large Anglo Unionist element and a Unionist newspaper, only 10 of the 400 German voters voted against secession.  Of the 29 Texas counties that had a substantial unionist vote, only 5 had any German population to speak of.

Once the war broke out, Texas Germans joined the Confederate Army in droves.  As early as December 1860, Lindheimer had urged the Germans to organize military companies of minutemen to “protect the rights of the South.”  By the middle of July, two volunteer infantry and two cavalry companies had been formed in New Braunfels—one led by the mayor, Gustav Hoffman, a former Prussian officer.  Before the military draft was instituted, two thirds of the enfranchised population of Comal County were armed and in the field.

Gustav Schleicher organized units that would fight nobly in the Red River Campaign.  Many of the first companies in Galveston were German to a man.  The first Houston company to appear in the field was German.  Most of their flags were embroidered “Fuer die Constitution” and “Gott Mit Uns.”

Fayette County formed a company of Germans that joined and fought with the famed Terry’s Texas Rangers in all of its battles, including Perryville, where Colonel Terry was killed.  The last commander of Terry’s Texas Rangers was one of these Germans.

German units formed important parts of the New Mexico Campaign, the Battle of Galveston, the Red River Campaign, and even served in Hood’s Texas Brigade under General Lee in Virginia.

The ladies of German towns formed Southern Aid Societies, raising funds and making provisions for the troops.  One such group in Fredericksburg alone raised over $5,000 for the cause and made countless uniforms and bandages.

There were, of course, some who were disloyal to the Confederate cause in Ger  man as well as Anglo counties.  In Fredericksburg, the aforementioned Capt. Charles Nimitz was physically attacked and put in danger of his life by an Anglo-American bandit leader because some of his men had been drafted.  In the later suppression of Unionists, Confederate German troops were often sent to arrest disaffected Anglo citizens.

Maury Maverick, Jr., cited Duff’s Partisan Rangers as the greatest terror of Texas Unionists.  August Siemering, a German of Fredericksburg who had formerly been a Unionist, was Duff’s lieutenant.  R.H. Williams’ firsthand account of Duff’s partisans, With the Border Ruffians, recounts that even Duff’s fanatic scouring for Unionists in Gillespie County could only turn up “four or five men, and eight women with their little ones.”

This brings us back to the aforementioned Nueces Massacre.  On August 1, 1862, 61 men met in Kerr County, with the intention of leaving Texas.  Most of them were Germans and very recent arrivals in the State; some were Anglos, and a handful were Mexicans.  Ted Fehrenbach, in Lone Star, his definitive history of Texas, and many other historians have pointed out that this group had no particular ideology and no intention of joining the federal forces; they just wanted to avoid a war of which they’d had no advance notice.  Upon reaching the Nueces River, they were attacked by Duff’s Partisan Rangers, who were guided by a German, Charles Bergmann of Fredericksburg.  In the fight that followed, 19 of the refugees were killed, and 9 were wounded.  Several witnesses later reported that the wounded were murdered.  Thirty-three refugees escaped, of whom eight were killed later while attempting to cross the Rio Grande.  None of the survivors ever chose to join the federals after entering Mexico, where they were met by Union forces.

It is not excusing such barbaric, behind-the-lines persecution to point out that this murderous slaughter of harmless, multiethnic draft evaders has no bearing on the question of whether Germans were, as a group, enthusiastic supporters of the Confederacy.  But, somehow, an inscribed monument was recently built in Comfort, Texas, which honors these victims as being “Loyal to the Union.”  A novel, Rebels in Blue, was even written about them, ignoring the refugees’ equal avoidance of both the Blue and the Gray.

It is often forgotten that Texas was under martial law throughout most of the war.  This constitutional atrocity has turned out to be a windfall for historians, because my old mentor, Dr. H. Bailey Carroll of the University of Texas, managed to turn up the court-martial records of civilians, which accompany martial law.

The court-martial trials were convened in San Antonio, beginning on July 2, 1862, continuing through the greatest Unionist activity, and concluding after the Nueces Massacre.  The court tried all those arrested in the Hill Country and Bexar County.  Seventeen Anglo-Americans were tried, and over two thirds were found guilty of disloyalty.  Only 12 Germans were prosecuted, and of these, only 5 were found guilty.  Their punishment was imprisonment for the duration of the war.  Prominent Germans testified for both the defense and the prosecution.  In most of the cases, the evidence was all hearsay, and even that was nebulous.  Julius Schlickum was accused of singing a Yankee song while drunk.  In one case against a German, the charge of disloyalty rested on the accusation that the defendant appeared happy upon reading of a Confederate defeat.  His accuser could not remember having heard the defendant actually say anything; instead, he judged by the latter’s facial expression.  One German was charged with having had a New York German newspaper at his store.  He answered that his customers could read no English, and local German papers had no European news.  Another German, accused of having spoken only of Confederate defeats, explained that, during the week the witness knew him, the South had had no victories.

Again, it is no defense of such police-state tactics to point out that these trials show less disloyalty to the Confederacy among Germans than among Anglos—insofar as they show anything, save that no government should really be trusted.  It should, in fairness to Confederate authorities, be mentioned that such arrests and trials were much more common in the North.  President Lincoln managed to arrest the legislature of Maryland, and Northern prisons were full of suspected Copperheads, who enjoyed no right of habeas corpus (it was suspended by Lincoln), let alone a hearing of any sort, military or otherwise.

Before, during, and after these trials in San Antonio, hundreds of Texas Anglos fled Texas to join the Union Army.  They were not so unfortunate as the group caught on the Nueces River, however, so they have been largely forgotten.  I would welcome any evidence that one Texas German ever wore the Blue.

Once, when a former member of the Know-Nothing Party made a slighting reference to Germans, the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung replied that, proportionately, German-speaking soldiers were more numerous than any other language group among Confederate Texans and urged that a survey be made to determine German participation in and support for the Confederacy in order to prove their loyalty forever.  Unfortunately, no such survey was ever conducted—a fact that might be the only one that matters for modern Americans, who are accustomed to weekly polls of the population on every question or opinion imaginable.  However, at the time, there was a war going on.

The privation suffered during wartime had no relation to nationality, and the German families left behind while their men were off fighting had their share.  In some areas, the women did all the farm work; in others, German families had to depend on the charity of their neighbors to survive.  The well-known thrift of German families was ineffectual in the face of a rapidly depreciating currency.  Indian depredations and bandit raids increased dramatically during the war, and many German soldiers who went to war to protect their homes against the Yankees returned to find their homes burned and livestock stolen by Indians or thieves.

As late as the close of May 1865, Ferdinand Lindheimer was still writing editorials in the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung urging greater sacrifices for the survival of the Confederacy.  Finally, on June 2, 1865, he printed a letter in German that he had received from a Lieutenant Bitter, CSA.  In translation, it states:

As you should know, our company F, 32 Texas Cavalry is coming back home today.  It is true we are not coming back as everybody wished, as victors in the cause for which the county sent us, but our conscience is clear that we have done at every occasion our full duty, and that our behavior and good German honor gave us the respect of all our war companions, as of the citizens in that part of the country in which we have been.  We have earned this honor and still hold it.  Even in the last time of common demoralization of the Army, every citizen felt protected as long as Company “F” was near.

He closed the letter with the slogan inscribed on his battle flag: “Gott mit uns.”  God be with us.

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