Monday, March 9, 2015

Not North vs. South in Kerr County

I've enjoyed the radio series about the American Civil War on Texas Public Radio, which are sponsored by Schreiner University. "This week in the Civil War" has been a feature on the station since March 2011, and many (if not all) of the spots have been written by Dr. John Huddleston.
With the approaching sesquicentennial of the beginning of the end of that war, when Lee surrendered on Palm Sunday 1865 at Appomattox, I suppose the series will end, which is a shame. The series offered a brief glimpse of national historical events, and I've enjoyed them.
What was happening here during the Civil War?
In Kerr County, the Civil War was not North versus South; it was Kerrville versus Comfort.
And while it was not town against town, it was a conflict between two very different cultures.
If we had the opportunity to ask the Kerr County residents of 1860 what they thought about the approaching war, and if they trusted us enough to tell us the truth, I would imagine a majority would say there were problems a lot closer to home.
Kerrville at that time only had a population of 68; Comfort, 91. (Comfort, in those days, was in Kerr County.) The whole county only had 634 people. The Civil War would pull men away from both communities, and both needed as many able-bodied men as possible.
There was a lot of work to be done building a community, of course. Power tools did not exist, except for the occasional water-powered mill. Simply building shelter took a tremendous amount of work. Everything was done by hand. Every manufactured good had to be hauled over rocky trails and rutted roads. Every necessity of life required hard labor.
Service in the war would pull men away from that labor.
But there was more to worry about: at that time, Kerr County was on the extreme edge of the frontier. Hostile native tribes were a constant threat. Frontier defense would suffer if men left to fight a distant war, a war in which many believed they had no part.
That sentiment was probably true in both parts of Kerr County in 1860, in both Kerrville, which was settled mainly by immigrants from the United States, and in Comfort, which was settled mainly by immigrants from Germany.
The division between the two communities was more than just a division between languages, cultures, traditions, and even religions. There was also a division between the two communities about the issue of slavery.
Most (but not all) of the German settlers were opposed to slavery. Most (but not all) of the American settlers were in support of slavery.
And while the War Between the States was about more than that one issue, slavery was a fault line between the little towns of Comfort and Kerrville.
After secession there were several attempts in the largely German communities to organize armed companies for frontier defense. Those in the companies might be able to serve in that capacity without ever having to fight in the distant war, and this appealed to many of the German immigrants. Many of them did not want to fight against the federal government.
This was seen as an anti-Confederate ploy by some of the more ardent supporters of secession, who complained to the authorities. Many of the frontier defense companies were disbanded.
On April 28, 1862, a new commandant for South Texas was named: General Hamilton Bee. Bee almost immediately declared martial law, and later declared Gillespie, Kerr, and Kendall counties in "open rebellion."
He also ordered a detachment of "partisan rangers," led by Captain James Duff, back to our area, to "take such prompt and vigorous measures as in his judgment were necessary."
By July, Duff had established himself at Camp Davis, near the Pedernales River north of Kerrville. His troops were ordered to arrest anyone considered disloyal. Every citizen was expected to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy within three days at Camp Davis.
Considering the roughness of the terrain, the lack of good roads, and the limited communication with parts of the county, such a demand with such a deadline was almost impossible to satisfy. Given the choice between dropping everything to travel to the camp and take the oath, or staying in place on their distant farms and ranches, many chose to stay put.
Arrests were made, men were hung, farms destroyed, goods stolen and women and children left homeless. And things were about to get a lot worse, if you can believe it.
Those with Union sympathies suffered greatly here during the Civil War, mostly at the hands of neighbors. While there were crimes committed on both sides, the brunt of the hostilities was focuses on the German immigrants and their communities.
It's hard today to imagine the murderous divisions between communities within our county, or between our community and nearby communities, but a mere 150 years ago those divisions were not only real, they were dangerous.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is thankful to live in today's Texas Hill Country.

This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times March 7, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard about any of this. Intriguing. Nice piece


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