Late in the fall of 1862, under the mistaken assumption that they had been offered a thirty-day amnesty by the Governor of Texas and allowed to depart Texas unmolested rather than take the loyalty oath, a party of Unionists gathered together at Turtle Creek in Kerr County. They elected a settler from Comfort named Fritz Tegener as their leader, and Henry Schwethelm as second. Their number included Phillip Braubach, who had served as the sheriff of Gillespie County, and Captain John Sansom, a Texas Ranger before and after the war, and also the sheriff of Kendall County, two sons of Edwin Degener, a prominent free-thinker from Sisterdale, Heinrich Steves, whose large family had helped establish Comfort, and the Boerner brothers, one of whom had married a Steves daughter. Heinrich Stieler was also one of them; he was Henry Schwethelm’s brother-in-law and son of Gottlieb Stieler, an early settler whose family later established a ranch between Comfort and Fredericksburg which still exists today.
The Unionists in the group were bound by ties of kinship, by community as well as personal loyalty. There were sixty-eight of them: all German, save four Anglos (including Sansom) and one Mexican. They intended to travel on horseback westward towards the Mexican border; most meant to go from there to the United States and join the Union Army. Having a three-day head start and no heavy baggage wagons to contend with, they should have been well over the Nueces and into Mexico but for their belief in the non-existent amnesty … and so they made their way across country in a fairly leisurely manner. Duff was enraged when he heard of their departure. To his mind, they were deserters in time of war and deserving of death. He sent word to Lt. C.D. McRae in San Antonio that Tegener’s party was to be pursued at all cost; implicit in his orders was an understanding that he didn’t want to hear much about survivors. McRae led out a company of more than ninety men after the Unionists and prepared to follow Duff’s orders to the letter.
On the evening of August 9th, 1862, Tegener’s party camped in thin cedar woods, not far from the Rio Grande, between present-day Brackettville and Laguna. The built campfires and set out four sentries a good way from the camp. Sometime early the next morning, McRae’s scouts encountered Tegener’s guards, and the exchange of shots alerted the Unionists. There followed a short and confusing firefight. Some sources claim that McRae’s company had overridden the sleeping Unionists and caught them by surprise in their bedrolls. Other accounts have it that nearly half of Tegener’s party had decided to give it up as a bad job, and go back to the Hill Country to defend their families … or scattered when it seemed clear that Tegener had chosen a bad defensive position. John Sansom, certainly no coward and not unaccustomed to dirty fighting was one of the survivors; he urged Hugo Degener to come away with him, but the younger man refused. Most of those who stood and fought were killed outright. Eleven of the wounded were executed upon capture, to the horror of one of McRae’s volunteers who left an account; one survivor was taken to San Antonio and executed there. Others were hunted down and executed a week later by McRae’s troopers as they tried to cross the Rio Grande. The survivors scattered, including Sansom and Schwethelm; who both made it safely over the border. Others fled back to the Hill Country, bringing news of the fight to the families of the dead.
Captain Duff refused to allow the families of the dead to retrieve the bodies. Minna Stieler, the sixteen-year old sister of Heinrich Stieler, and her mother managed to get permission to go to where the bodies of her brother and another comrade had been left unburied, and cover them with brush and stones, the ground being too hard to dig a grave, and the bodies too far decayed to remove. The other remains lay unburied for three years. Exactly three years to the day after the Nueces Fight, Henry Schwethelm returned with a party of kinfolk and friends from Comfort, and gathered up the scattered bones. They brought them to Comfort, and buried them in a mass grave, on a low hillside on what then would have been the outskirts of town.
The stone obelisk is plain and stark, shaded by a massive oak tree: panels on three sides list the names of the 36 dead of Tegener’s party, all of whom were True to the Union.
(Crossposted at my book blog, and at www.ncobrief.com)