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August Carl Weiss

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
During 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 or wounded.”

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 in Galveston. 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

"Texas Tales" - February 16, 2005 column
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