As the close results of the 1861 gubernatorial election showed, not everyone in Texas was in agreement about the war. Historians estimate that about 30 percent of Texans had Unionist sentiments. As events would bear out, many of these dissenters would pay a big price for their opinions. The vigilante justice that had broken out during the Texas Troubles in 1860 became common all over Texas, with mobs targeting dissenters.
The most common tactic of the vigilantes was to torch the homes or businesses of those with unpopular opinions, but murder was not uncommon. Sometimes an offender didn’t have to do much to become a target. In San Antonio, a drunk man was hanged by a group calling itself the Minute Men simply for vandalizing a few chili stands in the Alamo Plaza.
By 1863, most dissenters had either learned to keep quiet or had packed up for Mexico, New Orleans, or the West.
Dissent was strongest in the German counties of the Texas Hill Country, particularly Gillespie, Kerr, Kendall, Medina, and Bexar. These counties had been settled by some of Texas’ most unlikely pioneers. In 1848, German intellectuals—professors, scientists, clergymen, and philosophers—had staged a revolution against that country’s repressive government. When the revolution failed, the intellectuals and their families wanted to emigrate rather than face imprisonment, but where? Texas, which was already home to several thriving communities of German immigrants, was one place that welcomed these utopian freethinkers.
The “Forty-Eighters” stood out from the crowd in a number of ways, not least in their opposition to the slavery practiced by their American neighbors. But for the most part, the Germans stayed out of Texas politics until secession forced them to take a public stand. Not only did they abhor the Confederacy and the reasons behind it, but they and their families lived on the raw edge of the Indian frontier, an area that became prey to renewed attacks after the withdrawal of the U.S. Army. Both out of principle and for self-defense of their communities, they were determined to stay out of the conflict and to resist conscription into the Confederate army.
The rapid organization of state militia troops in Texas spawned a number of bands of outlaws, who claimed allegiance to the Confederacy as a cloak for robbery and terror on the roads and remote ranches and farms of the state. To resist the group they called “Die Hangerbande” (The Hanging Bandits), the Germans organized a militia they called the Union Loyal League.
In April 1862, Confederate troops under James Duff were sent into the Texas Hill Country to enforce conscription laws and disband the Union Loyal League. Duff, a disreputable character who had earlier been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army, announced that Unionists would take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy or be declared traitors. When few stepped forward, Duff declared the Hill Country in open rebellion. Dozens of men were arrested and their homes burned, and at least 20 were shot to death.
In August, 68 German dissenters under Fritz Tegener, a language scholar, decided to head for Mexico, where they hoped to get a ship for Union-held New Orleans. Tegener’s men lacked military discipline, and Duff’s rangers got wind of the plan and set off in hot pursuit. On August 10, Duff’s men caught the Germans in camp by the Nueces River.
In the battle that ensued, 19 of the Germans were killed and 15 were wounded. Under heavy fire, the Germans retreated into the surrounding hills. Nine of the wounded had to be left behind.
The battle was also a disaster for the Confederates, who lost 12 killed and 18 wounded. The Confederates set up camp to care for their own wounded. At first, they also cared for the Germans. However, late in the afternoon, some of the Confederates rounded up the nine Germans, took them outside the camp, and shot them.
News of the so-called “Battle of the Nueces” crushed the organized German resistance in the Texas Hill Country. The rest of the war was spent simply trying to endure; lynchings and murders continued until the end of the war.
Another center of dissent was Northeast Texas, where the Texas Troubles had originated in 1860. The settlers of counties like Cooke, Hunt, Hopkins, Lamar, Fannin, and Delta were exceptionally mixed in their origins. About half the immigrants came from the Deep South—places like Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana—and were trying to establish an Old South planter lifestyle. The other half came from the Upper South—places like Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas. They were mostly stockmen raising cattle in the rough brush country. Very few African Americans lived in the area; less than 10 percent of the settlers were wealthy enough to own any slaves.
When the statewide vote on the Ordinance of Secession was held in February 1861, the measure was actually defeated in the northeast counties. E. Junius Foster, the editor of the Sherman Patriot, called for North Texas to secede from Texas and stay in the Union as a free state. But after secession became a reality, many Unionists realized that their opinions put them in danger. Fearing another outbreak of frontier justice, they loaded up their wagons for Kansas or California. Those who remained became exceptionally vulnerable.
In April 1862, when the Confederacy began to draft men into service, thirty Cooke County men signed a petition protesting the exemption of large slaveholders from conscription and sent it to Jefferson Davis. A few months later, the petitioners began to try to form a Union League to resist the draft.
On October 1, the local authorities conducted a mass arrest of suspected Unionists and took them to Gainesville, the county seat, to be tried for treason and insurrection. Seven were sentenced to hang. At that point, the citizens grew weary of the slowness of the legal process and lynched 14 more without trial.
A few weeks later, William C. Young, a respected old settler who was one of the driving forces behind the arrests, was assassinated. The killer was dragged to the Young farm where the family slaves were forced to hang him. But he was not the only one blamed for the killing. Nineteen more men were lynched in Gainesville. In Sherman, five men were hanged, and Junius Foster, the outspoken editor of the Sherman Patriot, was also murdered. Five more died in Decatur and one in Denton before the madness ran its course.
The Great Hanging at Gainesville, as it became known, may have been the largest single outbreak of vigilante violence in the history of the United States. When he learned what was happening, Jefferson Davis fired Paul Hébert, the military commander of Texas, and sent a new commander, John Bankhead Magruder, to get control of the state. But most newspapers and many Texans, including Governor Lubbock, publicly applauded the hangings as justice.
Decades later, a witness to the hangings recalled them this way: “These men shouldn’t have been hanged. They were just expressing their own opinions, and they had a right.”
Page last modified: August 5, 2011