By Jordan Schermerhorn
The political turmoil in Germany during the 1840s coincided with Texas statehood, and the political and artistic centers established by the Spanish made the area attractive to the German intellectual elite. From 1847 to 1861, a total of 7,634 German immigrants reached Bexar, and after this initial period of settlement, Germans made up roughly one-third of the population of the county (Benjamin).
During the 1850s, San Antonio developed a healthy German population – one socially isolated, as was customary for immigrant communities, but also possessing a highly developed ethnic identity (Jordan).
During the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers were present among Germans in only small numbers; the largest German slave-holding organization at the time, the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, possessed only twenty-five slaves in 1848 – a paltry number compared to neighboring plantations (Biesele 196). The most voluble spokesmen for the group were those who immigrated to Texas for the primary purpose of escaping the political oppression they faced in their homeland: the Forty-Eighters (Biesele). The presence of the highly liberal, fervently abolitionist Forty-Eighters in Texas resulted in the formation of well-defined pockets of Unionist sympathizers in the Confederate South (Biesele).
The German communities of Texas adopted a solid platform on the issue of slavery in 1854, when political figures from various regions of the state convened in San Antonio at the Staats-Saengerfest to issue a condemnation of slavery and a call for abolition, stating that “slavery is an evil, the removal of which is absolutely necessary according to the principals of democracy” and “if a state determines the removal of this evil, it may call on the federal government for aid” (Biesele). This platform presented ideals not only contrary to the principles of many slaveholders, but also those of states-rights advocates common in the state. German journalists such as Carl Adolph Douai and Ferdinand Lindheimer heralded the meeting, claiming it would unite Germans in a manner that would develop the political power of the group (Benjamin).
Further organized dissent was evident in academic circles commonly dominated by Germans. Dr. Douai, alongside others, served as one of the primary spokesmen for the Southern abolitionist movement as editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, which published anti-slavery editorials alongside a variety of literary and scholarly articles (Sibley). His editorial attacks contributed to the zeal of the pro-confederate populace in persecution of the Germans, and the resulting ostracism led his fellow immigrants to call for his resignation as editor in 1856; he sold the paper to Gustav Schleicher and fled to Boston (Sibley).
Disagreement with the German populace became particularly evident in the June 8, 1854 edition of Austin’s Texas State Gazette, following the Staats-Saengerfest convention. The editor wrote that if Germans were holding such political organizations, retaliation by their fellow Texans was well deserved (Biesele). Retorts of argumentative nature continued throughout the year between the Zeitung and the Gazette – and, despite the common division along ethnic lines, a large portion of the dispute involved articles written by other German immigrants. An editorial in the June 16 Neu Braunfelser Zeitung called notice to the stereotypical perceptions of Germans garnered from radical newspaper publications, emphasizing the imperfections of the stereotype by claiming that many Germans rallied against slavery to preserve union, rather than to support strict abolitionism (Biesele). While contrary to the statements of more vocal German writers, the opinions presented in the article were also justified: immigrants had deserted a place of political discord and likely strived to curtail it in their adopted nation. The line between the staunch Forty-Eighters and their more willingly integrated fellows was further emphasized by another article in the Zeitung, which called for protest of the San Antonio platform and stated that it misrepresented the German population. The issue of slavery thus split Germans into two groups: the moderate unionists, and the fiercely abolitionist Forty-Eighters.
On February 23, 1861, the effectiveness of both campaigns was brought to the test when the citizens of Bexar County voted on Texas secession. The results totaled 827 votes for secession and 709 votes against: a healthy margin which spurned the widely known sentiments of the outspoken unionists (Long). The turnout, however, reflected the comparatively strong German influence in Bexar county: the state election totaled 60,826 votes with 46,129 favoring secession, constituting a 75.8% majority rather than Bexar’s 53.8% (Evans).
In the aftermath of this election, zealous Confederate citizens oftentimes antagonized Unionist dissenters, the German community in particular. Common measures of harassment led to accusations on behalf of the minority party of ballot fraud in the election that determined secession (Baum 201). Though these accusations were eventually declared unfounded, they indicated strong remnants of active discord, despite the actual outcome of the vote. Later, this dissension manifested when some German radicals faced with a draft were unwilling to serve and organized widespread desertions, resulting in ostracization of the German community as a whole and angering its less extremist members (Biesele, Fehrenbach). The results of these blanket prejudices on immigration as a whole are likewise clear: during the war, immigration dropped off entirely, though the influx gradually resumed after reconciliation.
The German Forty-Eighters remained an outspoken political force in San Antonio throughout the existence of the Confederacy by utilization of their commonly lauded prowess in journalism and academia. Their initial opposition to the practice of slavery, and maintenance of the ideals by which they immigrated to Bexar, did not win over the mindset of the majority, but maintained a flourishing movement throughout the war and facilitated reconciliation with the Union in following years.
Baum, Dale. “Pinpointing Apparent Fraud in the 1861 Texas Secession Referendum.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1991: 201-221.
Benjamin, Gilbert Giddings. The Germans in Texas: A Study in Immigration. San Francisco, California: R and E Research Associates, 1909.
Biesele, Rudolph. “German Attitude Toward the Civil War.” Handbook of Texas Online. 26 November 2006 <https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/png01>.
Biesele, Rudolph. The History of the German Settlements in Texas, 1831 – 1861. Austin, Texas: German-Texan Heritage Society, 1930.
Evans, Clement A. Confederate Military History Vol. 11: Texas. Atlanta, Georgia: Confederate Publishing Co., 1899.
Fehrenbach, T.R., et al. The San Antonio Story. Tulsa, Oklahoma: Continental Heritage Press, 1978
Jordan, Terry. “Germans.” Handbook of Texas Online. 26 November 2006 <https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/png02>.
Long, Christopher. “Bexar County.” Handbook of Texas Online. 26 November 2006 <https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcb07>.
Sibley, Marilyn. “Douai, Carl Daniel Adolph.” Handbook of Texas Online. 26 November 2006 <https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdo30>.