the Civil War not every Southern soldier served in the Confederate
army because he believed in slavery or hated Yankees. Some shouldered
arms only because they had to.
That was the case with August Carl Weiss, one of 2,000 men who soldiered
for the South in Waul’s Legion, a unit raised at Brenham
by Thomas Neville Waul.
Born in Germany, Weiss and his family arrived by ship at Indianola
in 1853. The family traveled to the Brenham
area, where they settled near the small community of Salem. Weiss
grew to young manhood chopping cotton and doing other chores on his
family farm, including making furniture.
On July 9, 1861, he was married to Caroline Homburg. But before Weiss
had time to settle into family life, he ended up in the Confederate
army. Whether he volunteered under community pressure or submitted
to conscription is not reported in a family history published in 1964,
but he became a private in an infantry company. Weiss’ older brother
Fritz was in the same company.
August Weiss, as the family history put it, “was not a happy soldier.”
That’s not particularly surprising. Most German Texans had no interest
in the American political differences that led to the war, though
most of them opposed slavery.
The Weiss family book is surprising in its candor. Though Weiss reluctantly
shouldered arms for the Confederacy, family lore has it that he made
a personal vow that he would not shoot anyone. When ordered to fire,
he would deliberately aim high.
The unit went from Texas to Arkansas and then to Louisiana. Ending
up in Vicksburg, Miss., Waul’s Legion helped defend the vitally important
river town until its fall to federal forces on July 4, 1863.
Not all of Waul’s soldiers shared Weiss’ pacifism. A Yankee officer
whose troops faced the Texans at Vicksburg later wrote: “It was a
tornado of iron on our left, a hurricane of shot on our right. We
passed through the moth of Hell. Every third man fell, either killed
Forty-seven of Waul’s men also died in the fight, with another 195
wounded, but Weiss escaped unscathed. The young German happily signed
a federal parole that he would not take up arms again against the
North and walked all the way back to Texas. When Weiss finally reached
Washington County, he found his cabin had been destroyed in a fire,
though his wife had survived. War-weary but happy to be home, he rebuilt
his homestead and tried to go about his life as a farmer.
But the Southern military did not feel honor-bound to abide by federal
paroles. When Confederate conscription agents came looking for Weiss
to get him back in the Army, he went into hiding. This time, he told
folks he would shoot to kill if confronted. A sympathetic friend identified
someone with a club foot as being Weiss, sending the “recruiters”
on their way for a time, but Weiss eventually got caught and forced
into the military again.
Back in a reorganized Waul’s Legion, he spent the rest of the war
At least part of that time, the family history notes, he spent clapped
in ball and chain in the guardhouse, his offense not known. Soldiers
often got in trouble for drinking or some other form of rowdy behavior,
but Weiss was a devout Lutheran. A good guess would be that his incarceration
had something to do with his lack of investment in the Southern cause.
The Southern military might have been better off giving Weiss and
the other German Texans a buy in the war. Modern research has shown
that Civil War military units with significant cultural differences
did not make for the best fighting outfits. Germans and Irish tended
to keep to themselves, leading to disunity and discipline problems.
As one historian wrote of an artillery unit with a mediocre war record,
it “was more than a Rebel unit. They were a group of rebels.”
A better word for Weiss would be “principled.” After the war, Weiss
told his family and friends that so far as he knew, he had not wounded
or killed anyone. But the war itself had not been so generous with
the Weiss boys. His health ruined, one week after returning home Fritz
Weiss died, leaving a wife and two young children.
August made it past Reconstruction, farming and running a cotton gin,
but he died at the relatively young age of 48 on Sept. 3, 1883. Not
that he did not leave a legacy, one indicating that political convictions
had nothing to do with his manhood. He and his wife had 12 children,
the last a son born 10 days after his father’s death.
© Mike Cox
February 16, 2005 column
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