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Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Dissention and the Draft
in Civil War Texas

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

Not all Texans were in agreement about secession from the Union and many more were opposed to the Confederate Conscription Act. Historians estimate that nearly 30 percent of the Texas population had Unionist sentiments, though the great majority, like Sam Houston and James Throckmorton, remained loyal to Texas. However, as events would bear out, many dissenters paid a heavy price for expressing their doubt of the Southern cause and their opposition to the draft. Kangaroo courts were commonplace across the state and vigilante justice was administered without mercy. Generally the punishment meted out by the vigilantes was to burn the victim’s house or business or to apply a painful coat of tar and feathers, but even murder and lynching were far from uncommon. By 1863, most dissenters had either learned to keep their opinions to themselves or had packed up and fled south to Mexico or west to California.

Robert Edward Lee
Robert Edward Lee
General of the Confederate Army

Wikimedia Commons

After April 1862, much of the dissent throughout the South centered on the new Conscription Act and Texas was no exception. An incredible number of Texans had already volunteered for service with the Confederate army, but the ongoing slaughter in the east required a constant flow of manpower. To fill this void, General Robert E. Lee was instrumental in securing the passage of the Confederate Conscription Act, though the concept of the draft law was just as unpopular in the south as it was to later prove in the North. The Texans who were eager to fight had long since volunteered to serve, and there was insufficient manpower remaining in the state to protect the frontier from the depredations of the Comanches and maintain the agrarian economy.

To make matters worse, the draft law was both poorly drawn and even more poorly executed. Discrimination was rampant, and the law was applied unevenly. Even petty officeholders were exempt, as were all men “considered indispensable.” This poorly drafted phrase would be the cause of much abuse. Some exemptions like those for doctors and men assigned to frontier defense were sensible, but any man of means was permitted to pay a poorer man to stand in his place. Finally, the fact that the “indispensable” provision was interpreted to include almost all men of property was bitterly resented by both the civilian population and most of the men in the army—volunteers included.

Confederate General Paul Octave Hebert
Confederate General Paul Octave Hebert
Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of angry citizens across the state attended protests of the draft law. Many of the protests were near riots, and in May General Paul Octave Hebert, the recently appointed commander of the Military Department of Texas, declared all of Texas to be under martial law. Hebert was a West Point graduate who had spent much of his service in Europe where he developed a continental military style that Texans found displeasing in the extreme. Writer Thomas North described him as preferring “red-top boots, a rat-tail moustache, fine equipage, and a suit of waiters . . . He was too much of a military coxcomb to suit the ideas and ways of a pioneer country.”

General Hebert set about establishing martial law and administering the draft by appointing local provost marshals and providing them with virtually unlimited authority. Both Governor Lubbock and the Texas Supreme Court upheld Hebert’s actions, thus there was no appeal from the decision of a provost marshal. They were answerable only to General Hebert. Ruthless enforcement of the draft and the unpopular property confiscation codes drove some parts of the state into actual resistance and protests were commonplace. Age was always a question where birth certificates did not exist and records of any kind were rare. Provosts, often young and inexperienced second lieutenants, decided who was old enough to conscript and young boys who resisted were hunted down without mercy.

The taking of property under the confiscation codes may have aroused even more ire than the draft law. Under the codes, the property of all persons adjudged to be “disloyal” was subject to sequester. Of course, the local provost marshal had the power, if not the wisdom, to decide the question of loyalty. There were blatant cases where the lands of men who were imprisoned in the North were confiscated without the right of appeal, and even the lands of men who happened to be fighting for the Confederacy in another state were wrongfully seized. Those who were identified as loyal to the Union suffered the worst of all. On many occasions, the lands of individuals who expressed Unionist sympathies were forfeit even when it could not be proven that they had committed an overt disloyal act.

Dissent went far beyond mere protest in north Texas where many immigrants from the North had established prosperous farms and also in the German counties of the Texas Hill Country, especially Gillespie, Kerr, and Kendall. Many of the settlers in these counties were German intellectuals, Freethinkers who came to Texas in 1848 after attempting to stage a revolution. When the revolution failed, their choices were either immigration or prison. Of course such people opposed slavery. Only 33 slaves resided in Gillespie County in 1860. However, the Germans had refrained from public protest until secession finally forced their hand. Gillespie County’s strong opposition to secession—evidenced by a vote of 400 to 17 against—was not based solely on a hatred of slavery. The Hill Country was on the edge of the frontier, and the withdrawal of the U.S. Army meant renewed attacks by the Comanches.

The Confederate government in Austin did virtually nothing to protect the Texas frontier, and the state militia was of little help. Moreover, the hasty formation of the militia gave rise to some units that were more outlaws than soldiers, using the guise of the Confederacy to rob and terrorize the remote ranches and farms along the frontier. The Germans called these outlaw bands “Die Hagerbande” or the Hanging Bandits. With their homes and communities at risk, the Germans were not only opposed to the war on principal, but were also determined to resist conscription out of the need for self-defense. To meet this need, they organized their own militia called the Union Loyal League.

Hamilton P. Bee Confederate General
Confederate General Hamilton P. Bee
Wikimedia Commons

The Confederate government in Austin sent notorious Confederate irregular Captain James Duff to Fredericksburg, the county seat of Gillespie County, in April 1862 to enforce conscription and disband the Union Loyal League. Duff, a man of questionable character, had been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army. He demanded that all Unionists take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy or be declared traitors, stating that “the God damn Dutchmen are Unionists to the man,” and “I will hang all I suspect of being anti-Confederates.” Duff’s actions caused the Hill Country to erupt in turmoil, and General H. P. Bee, the commander of South Texas, virtually declared war on the entire area, causing hundreds of men to flee, some into the waiting arms of the Union army.

In early August, 1862, Fritz Tegener, a German language scholar, led sixty-five dissenters, men and boys, south from Fredericksburg and Comfort toward the Rio Grande. Once they crossed into Mexico, the Germans hoped to catch a ship for Union-held New Orleans. They were armed, but their immediate purpose was to flee the state, not fight the Confederacy. However, when Duff learned of the flight he sent Lieutenant C.D. McRae and ninety-four men after the Unionists. Not expecting close pursuit and with little military experience, the Germans set up camp on the Nueces River about twenty miles from Fort Clark in present-day Kinney County without choosing a good defensive position or posting a guard. McRae and his men came upon the camp late in the afternoon of August 9, but waited until early the following morning to launch their attack.

Nueces River between La Pryor & Uvalde,
Nueces River between La Pryor & Uvalde, TX
July 2010 photo courtesy Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia Commons

Firing began an hour before sunrise, as the confederates swept down on the sleeping camp. The fighting was hot and of the Unionists, 19 were killed—some trampled to death in their bedrolls—and 9 were wounded. Twenty-three of the remaining Germans escaped into the surrounding hills, but 8 more were killed by the Confederates on October 18, while trying to cross the Rio Grande. The battle was also a minor disaster for McRae, who suffered 12 killed and 18 wounded, including himself. McRae ordered his men to set up camp and tend to their wounded. At first, the Confederates also cared for the Germen wounded, but later in the afternoon the wounded Unionists were carried outside the camp and executed.

Both contemporary and eye-witness accounts of the incident on the Nueces River are conflicting. Some state that the wounded prisoners were executed on the spot, not later in the day as related here. Accounts also vary as to the number of participants in the fighting and the number of killed and wounded on both sides. Even the very nature of the tragic incident is in question. Confederate sympathizers consider the fight a military action against a band of insurrectionists, but many German residents of the Hill Country, focusing on the execution of the wounded, regard the event as a massacre of the innocent. Nearly all organized German resistance ceased when word of the “Battle of the Nueces” spread, and many men fled to the safety of the frontier where robbery, lynching and murder continued across the Hill Country until the end of the war. After the war a monument to the German dead was dedicated in Comfort.

"Treue der Union" Monument, Comfort Texas
"Treue der Union" Monument in Comfort
TE photo, 2008

Yet another tragic Hill Country incident occurred in July 1863, when eight well mounted, well armed and well provisioned men and a young boy paused in the small settlement of Bandera on their journey from Williamson County to Mexico. The men made no secret of their intent to ride to Mexico to purchase prime ranch stock, and they all appeared quiet and peaceful, paying for everything before they departed. Ironically, two of the men were home on leave from Confederate service. Word of the small party's presence was soon carried to nearby Camp Verde, and a troop of 25 Confederates under the command of Major W. J. Alexander, misinterpreting the men's ride to Mexico as an attempt to avoid service in the war, started off in pursuit. In the pursuing party were several men well known to the local settlers of Bandera, but they all disappeared soon after the war.

Picking up the trail in Bandera, Major Alexander and his men followed it a few miles beyond the settlement of Hondo to Squirrel Creek where they came upon the small party. Not knowing they were being pursued, the Williamson County men had just finished their noonday meal and were quietly resting. The Confederates quickly surrounded the unsuspecting men and Major Anderson called upon them to surrender, giving them his word that if they would quietly submit, they would receive a fair trial by court-martial at Camp Verde. With little choice and with knowledge that they had committed no crime, the eight men freely surrendered their arms. After being relieved of the nearly $1,000 in cash they carried to purchase stock, the prisoners were forced to saddle their horses and immediately start back for Camp Verde.

All went well until the following evening when some of the Confederates suggested that the prisoners should be hung for attempting to flee the state. Some historians have suggested that the $1,000 the Williamson County men were carrying may have had a bearing on the decision to hang them. Whether or not this was true, what may have well started out as a prank quickly turned serious when Major Alexander turned a blind eye to the situation and did nothing to put a stop to the foul plan. A few Confederates refused to take part in the hanging and chose to mount up and ride out, but the others marched the prisoners a short distance from camp to a suitable live oak where they were hung one by one.

A noose was quickly tied at the end of a horse hair rope and tossed over the limb of the tree. Each of the Williamson County men died by strangulation, being slowly drawn off their feet until they choked to death. When the first man was dead, he was let down and the rope was cut, leaving the noose still about his neck. A new noose was quickly fashioned and the next man was hauled up. One of the victims begged to be shot, saying that he much preferred that manner of death to being slowly strangled. A Confederate complied by firing a rifle at the prisoner, but he fell only wounded. Another Confederate then shoved the muzzle of his rifle against the prisoner's chest and pulled the trigger. He had mistakenly left the ramrod in the weapon and it went through the prisoner, pinning his body to the ground. When the bodies were discovered the next day, the ramrod was mistaken for an arrow and at first the killings were blamed on Indians. The young boy was said to have escaped, but he was never heard from again.

Texas - Bandera Hanging Tree
Photo courtesy Irene Van Winkle, July 3, 2011
The Bandera Tragedy Tree

After the war, the atrocity was remembered and the incident was referred to a military tribunal. Major Alexander and his men were eventually indicted for murder, but no one was ever arrested or tried for the crime. Today, only the hanging tree, a fence and a simple tombstone inscribed with the names of the eight Williamson County men who lie beneath the tree in a common grave mark the site of the heinous crime. Below the names, the tombstone reads" "Remember, friends, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon will be; prepare for death and follow me."

The Gainesville-Sherman area north of Dallas was another center of dissent and was also perceived by some as a scene of tragedy. The Butterfield Overland Mail route that began in St. Louis ran through Gainesville and brought many new settlers into Cooke County from the upper South and the Midwest. By the start of the war, fewer than 10 percent of the area households owned slaves. As unrest over secession and the onslaught of the war grew, the slaveholders increasingly feared the influence of the newcomers, and in the summer of 1860 several slaves and a Northern Methodist minister were lynched on suspicion of launching an uprising. When Cooke County and a few other surrounding northern counties voted heavily against secession, the slave holders believed their fears were justified.

In April 1862, the new Conscription Act gave rise to the first actual opposition to the Confederate government in Cooke County. A provision of the draft law exempting large slaveholders from conscription angered many people who believed that since the slaveholders were the cause of the war in the first place, they should be among the first called to service. In an act of protest, a group of thirty men signed a petition and sent it to Richmond. When word of the petition reached Gainesville, the local militia commander General William Hudson exiled the leader of the group, but the other members began to organize a Union League. Not many men joined the league and the effort was unorganized, but rumors began to spread of a membership of more than 1700 and plans to attack the local militia arsenal.

Gainesville TX - Hanging Union Men
Hanging of Union Men in Gainesville
From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Prints and Photographs Collection 1993/202-5-4.
Texas State Library & Archives Commission

On the morning of October 1, state troops under the command of Colonel James G. Bourland, a slaveholder, arrested 150 men in Gainesville. With the assistance of Colonel William C. Young another slave owner who was home on sick leave from the 11th Texas Cavalry, Bourland organized a hasty “citizen’s court” of twelve jurors, seven of which were also slaveholders. On a majority vote, the jury condemned seven influential Unionists, but the angry mob was impatient and lynched fourteen more men without the benefit of a trial. Things got even worse for the Unionists the following week when an unknown assassin killed Colonel Young. Nineteen more Unionists were quickly convicted and hung. Their execution was supervised by the Colonel’s son.

Jefferson Davis Portrait
Postwar portrait of Jefferson Davis by Daniel Huntington
Wikimedia Commons

Texans in general and every newspaper in Texas celebrated the hangings. The Unionists were compared to traitors and common thieves and branded as in league with Kansas abolitionists and the Lincoln Administration. Texas Governor Francis Lubbock, known to all as an ardent secessionist, lauded the actions taken by the citizens of Gainesville. However, not all southerners were pleased with the hangings. President Jefferson Davis was so embarrassed that he withdrew his enquiry into a similar incident involving Union soldiers in Missouri. Davis also relieved General Paul Octave Hebert the military commander of Texas for abusing the concept of martial law and replaced him with General John Bankhead Magruder.

Drawings of the flogging and hanging in Gainesville, TX
Hanging and Flogging in Gainesville
From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Prints and Photographs Collection 1993/202-5-6.
Texas State Library & Archives Commission

The hangings in Gainesville were not the end of the violence or the dissent in Texas. Many Unionists fled to the North, to Mexico or to California, and the ones who remained in Texas did their best to keep a low profile, although that did not always keep them safe. Captain Jim Young continued his pursuit of revenge when he killed E. Junius Foster for applauding his father’s death and tracked down Dan Welch, the man he accused of his Father’s assassination. Young returned Welch to Cooke County and had him whipped and lynched by a few of the family slaves. A company of north Texas Confederate soldiers serving in Arkansas nearly mutinied when they got word of the hangings, but their commander General Joseph Shelby managed to diffuse the situation. Several of the soldiers later deserted and returned home, but Shelby's actions had prevented a mass attack on Gainesville. However, ill feelings over the incident would continue to simmer until the end of the war.

© Jeffery Robenalt
"A Glimpse of Texas Past" May 1, 2013 Column


References for "Dissention and the Draft in Civil War Texas"

  • Sam Hanna Acheson and Julia Ann Hudson O'Connell, eds., George Washington Diamond's Account of the Great Hanging at Gainesville, 1862 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1963).
  • Walter F. Buenger, Secession and the Union in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984).
  • L.D. Clark, A Bright Tragic Thing (El Paso: Cinco Punto Press, 1992).
  • Claude Elliot, "Union Sentiment in Texas, 1861-1865," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 50:4 (April 1947).
  • Robert Pattison Felgar, Texas in the War for Southern Independence, 1861-1865 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1935).
  • Richard B. McCaslin, "GREAT HANGING AT GAINESVILLE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jig01), accessed December 19, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Stanley S. McGowen, "Battle or Massacre?: The Incident on the Nueces, August 10, 1862," Published in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 104, July 2000-April 2001.
  • James Smallwood, "Disaffection in Confederate Texas: The Great Hanging at Gainesville," Civil War History 22 (December 1976).
  • Rodman L. Underwood, Death on the Nueces: German Texans Treve der Union (Austin, Eakin Press, 2002).

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