Texas Unionists in the Civil War

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, the United States headed relentlessly toward civil war.  Not all southerners

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

supported secession.  Almost 2,000 Texans were sufficiently opposed to separating from the Union that they joined the federal army. Other Unionists, those who did not want to break up the United States, handled their positions in different ways. For instance, Sam Houston was adamantly opposed to destroying the Union.  He had been elected governor of Texas in 1859 despite campaigning vigorously against secession.  He had worked for years after Texas won its independence from Mexico to secure statehood for Texas, and after the Secession Convention voted to secede on February 1, 1861, he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Confederacy.  He was removed from office on March 6, and returned to his home in Huntsville where he died in July 1863.

Sam Houston, photo by Mathew Brady

Sam Houston, photo by Mathew Brady

Robert E. Lee was a Unionist who was heartsick over secession.  But, when he was offered a generalship in the U.S. Army, he turned it down because he could not bring himself to fight against his beloved state of Virginia.  General Robert E. Lee, like so many others, remained in the Confederacy.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Edmund J. Davis

Edmund J. Davis

Edmund J. Davis, a judge in the Brownsville district, opposed secession, and his views probably caused him to lose his bid to represent his district at the Secession Convention.  After Texas seceded Davis refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, and like Sam Houston, the state vacated Davis’ judgeship.  He fled to Louisiana and then with John L. Haynes and Andrew Jackson Hamilton, Texans who also opposed secession, he went to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. With Lincoln’s support for providing arms, the first and largest unit—the First Texas Cavalry Regiment—was organized on November 6, 1862, in New Orleans under the command of Edmund J. Davis (who later served as Texas governor during the period of reconstruction).  The regiment remained in Louisiana, except for brief forays into Texas, until November 2, 1863, when it landed on the south Texas coast as part of the 6,000-man Rio Grande Campaign.  The invasion force was tasked with stopping the Confederate wagons loaded with cotton that came down through Texas to reach the old port at Bagdad on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.  Waiting off shore were hundreds of European (mostly British) ships eager to receive the cotton in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and other essentials for the Confederate Army.

Confederate cotton across the Rio Grande from Brownsville

Confederate cotton across the Rio Grande from Brownsville

After only a month on the Rio Grande, the regiment’s ranks grew by more than 50 percent as refugees, Unionists, and Confederate deserters fled south. Texas was the only southern state that bordered a neutral country, and the Rio Grande served as the dividing line that offered an escape route.  Although the officers of the First Texas Cavalry were primarily men from mainstream southern backgrounds, the rank and file consisted in large part of Spanish-speaking Texans and first-generation immigrants, including German Unionists from settlements in the Hill Country. Most of the troops did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for those that did.

Tejanos in the Civil War

Tejanos in the Civil War

With the occupation of Brownsville and the increase in the number of volunteers, the Second Cavalry Regiment was formed and then both regiments merged into the First Texas Volunteer Cavalry.  In preparation for a federal invasion of Texas from Louisiana, most of the Union troops were pulled out of the Rio Grande Campaign and only a few hundred were left in the area between Brownsville and Brazos Santiago, a port across from the southern tip of Padre Island on the Gulf coast.

Seizing the opportunity, Confederate troops retook Brownsville on June 29, 1864, and chased the remaining federal troops, including the remaining Texas Volunteer Cavalry, to Brazos Santiago.

One month after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the federal infantry on Brazos Santiago made an ill-advised decision to advance toward Brownsville.  The Confederates who had been keeping a watchful eye on the Union troops met them at Palmito Ranch on May 12, 1865, killing, wounding and capturing more than two-thirds of the Yankee force to win what has been called the last battle of the Civil War.

War Clouds Gather Over Indianola

Indianola was a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the broader cosmopolitan world of commerce, business

Indianola Port in 1860

Indianola Port in 1860

cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe.  The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing.  The vast slave plantations thrived much further east and north in the rich bottomlands of East Texas.  The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies.  Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake.  Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off.  However, after a newly arrived gentleman was forced onto an outbound ship following accusations of being an abolitionist, the city appointed a “vigilance committee,” a patrol to maintain order in the town.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

News trickling in of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas.  Caution was thrown aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade.  Sam McBride, who owned one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas.  Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candle or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. Judge J.J. Holt gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action.  Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens.  While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution.  After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood.  The dye was cast.

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.  It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861.  From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas. It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away.  Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede.  First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor.  Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores.  Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered.  But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual.  The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition.  The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic.  Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.


If you have heard of the Texas prickly pear cactus, the Texas yellow star daisy, milkweed and loco weed, or the Texas rat snake, you may be surprised to know all five derive their scientific name from Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer—a botanist who scoured the wilds of Texas in the 1830s and 40s to discover several hundred new plant species.  His imprint on Texas history goes far beyond botany.

Raised in a wealthy German family and university educated, Lindheimer taught at Frankfurt’s Bunsen Institute where he became affiliated with a group seeking government reforms.  Finding himself at risk for his political associations, which alienated him from his family, he fled to the United States. Lindheimer settled first in Illinois where he joined some of his former German colleagues.  From there he joined another German group on a plantation near Vera Cruz, Mexico, where he began his lifelong fascination with collecting plants and insects.

Excited by reports of the Texas Revolution in 1836, Lindheimer joined a company of volunteers heading to Texas.  They missed the action, however, arriving the day after the final battle at San Jacinto.  For the next year Lindheimer served in the Texas army.

At the invitation of George Engelmann, a botanist and friend from Frankfurt, Lindheimer traveled to St. Louis where he agreed to collect plant specimens in Texas for Engelmann and Asa Gray, a Harvard botanist. Lindheimer roamed the Texas coast and hill country for nine years with his botanical cart and his dogs collecting plants, which he identified, dried, and shipped to Englemann at the Missouri Botanic Gardens and Asa Gray at Harvard.

When a group of German noblemen organized the Adelsverein in 1844 to settle immigrants in Texas, Lindheimer helped their leader Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels find the settlement site, which became New Braunfels, at the confluence of the Comal and Guadalupe rivers.  Prince Carl awarded Lindheimer a piece of property on the Comal River where Lindheimer built his home.

Lindheimer collected his first specimen of the nonvenomous Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) in New Braunfels.  Reaching lengths of more than six feet, the Texas rat snake consumes large quantities of rodents, birds, frogs and lizards.

Because of his years roaming through Texas, Lindheimer held the respect of area Indians and occasionally hosted Santana, war chief of the Comanche, in his home.

Married and raising a family of four children, Lindheimer gave up his travels in 1852 and for the next twenty years served as editor and then publisher of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. He also ran a private school for gifted children and served as the first justice of the peace for Comal County.

Believing a lack of bees needed to pollinate the fruit in the area accounted for the low fruit production, Lindheimer convinced Wilhelm Brückisch, a scientific beekeeper from Silesia (Prussia) to come to Texas.

Brückisch arrived with his wife, three sons, two daughters, and several hives of Italian black bees and settled across the Guadalupe River from New Braunfels.  Credited as the first person in Texas to begin the commercialization of bees, Brückisch established an apiary on the river and published numerous books and articles on beekeeping.

As rumblings of secession from the United States grew in intensity, Lindheimer is credited with keeping down much of the discontent felt in other German communities with his editorials admonishing his German readers opposing the Civil War to support the Confederacy as a means of maintaining regional stability. Historians say his postwar writings indicate his true loyalty lay with the Union.

Not all his readers agreed with Lindheimer’s views, among them the “Freethinkers” such as the three Brückisch sons, young intellectuals who came to Texas to get away from political and religious tyranny.  The family tells the story of how, while visiting a neighbor, the three brothers escaped detection when Confederate troops came looking for Union sympathizers.  The boys crawled in the cellar under the front porch.  The neighbor placed her rocking chair over the trap door, sat down, and began shucking corn, letting the shucks fall over the door.

The Brückisch sons joined other young men from around the Comfort area who headed to Mexico in 1862 (See True to the Union) to avoid conscription.  Confederates attacked them on the banks of the Nueces River about fifty miles from the Mexican border. Two Brückisch sons were killed; the third escaped, only to be caught and executed later.

At least twenty institutions hold Lindheimer’s plant collections, including the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the British Museum, the Durand Herbarium and Museum of Natural History in Paris, and the Komarov Botanic Institute in St. Petersburg.

Lindheimer died in 1879 and is buried in New Braunfels.  Today, the Lindheimer home on the banks of the Comal River serves as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Visitors see framed botanical specimens, the sword given to Lindheimer by Prince Carl, the family Bible published in 1701, Lindheimer’s desk and several pieces of furniture made by some of the New Braunfels cabinet makers.  


One of the few Union monuments south of the Mason-Dixon Line stands in Comfort, Texas, honoring a group of Union sympathizers killed by Confederate troops.  Most of the Unionists, young German immigrants recently arrived in the United States to escape oppression in their native country, saw themselves as freethinkers, intellectuals who did not believe in slavery.  They did not own land of sufficient size to need slave labor, and they did not want to separate from the country that recently welcomed them to its shores.

The young freethinkers established Comfort and several communities on the western edge of the Texas frontier.  Their mercantile businesses supplied the United States army outposts, and they opposed secession because of the disruption to their lucrative trade.

The Germans were not alone in opposition to secession.  Many prominent Texans, including Governor Sam Houston, were Unionist who fought a losing battle to convince Texans and the legislature of the dire consequences of secession.

After Texas seceded from the Union, all the federal troops manning the posts along the western frontier were called back to the United States, leaving the western communities exposed to Indian and outlaw attack.  A group of young men formed a militia claiming as their intent to protect the western counties.

The Confederates, suspecting the group posed a serious threat to the government, declared martial law. When Confederates demanded that all men 16 years and above join the army, about 68 young intellectuals under Major Fritz Tegener headed to Mexico, which remained neutral during the Civil War.

Failing to select a defensive position or even post a guard, the young Germans camped along the west bank of the Nueces River about 50 miles from the Mexican border.  Lt. C.D. McRae and his Confederate force of 94 followed the retreating Unionists and attacked before dawn on August 10, 1862.   After holding off three charges, the Unionists realized the impossibility of their position.  The survivors crawled through the Confederate line, leaving behind 19 dead and nine wounded.  Lt. McRae’s men executed the wounded a few hours after the battle.

Two Confederates were killed and 18 wounded, including McRae.  Of the Unionists who escaped, Confederates later killed seven, and six more drowned as they tried crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico.  Eleven returned home, and most of the others made it to Mexico and California.

In 1865 a group of German Texans traveled to the battle site, gathered the bones of the dead in tow sacks, and carried them back to Comfort for burial in a common grave.  The following year the community erected a monument at the gravesite titled “Treue der Union” (Loyalty to the Union).