In early 1861, prior to the outbreak of hostilities in America, the U.S. Army’s headquarters in Texas was located in San Antonio, at the Alamo, under the command of Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs, a Georgian whose state had already seceded from the Union. Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, a Virginian who was in charge of the cavalry at Fort Mason, located on the frontier, was a member of Twiggs’ command.
San Antonio was a town of 8,200 people, including Anglos or Americans, Hispanics and Germans, as well as about 300 slaves. The Hispanics and Germans were predominantly pro-Union, the Germans having immigrated to America to escape political turmoil. After Texas decided to secede on Feb. 1, 1861, many of these people fled to the German settlement of New Braunfels in the Hill Country, or south to Mexico.
In early February 1861, a Confederate secession committee ordered Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch to lead 1,000 volunteers into San Antonio to demand that Twiggs turn over U.S. Army property there. The pro-South Twiggs readily surrendered his command to McCulloch without a fight.
The surrender included some 2,500 U.S. troops spread out at forts along the Rio Grande and the frontier, where the Stars & Stripes came down, replaced by the Lone Star flag. That occurred two months before the fateful bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina that triggered the long and bloody Civil War.
On the day of the surrender, Robert E. Lee arrived in San Antonio from his frontier post, en route to Washington in response to a summons from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, and McCulloch’s men demanded that Lee resign his commission in the U.S. army and join the Southern forces. However, Lee was outraged at this treatment, and pledged not to resign until he learned Virginia’s intentions regarding secession.
After hostilities between North and South began at Fort Sumter on April 12, Confederate Col. Earl Van Dorn went to San Antonio to assume command and arrest the remaining U.S. troops, numbering about 300. Van Dorn paroled the officers but held the enlisted men as prisoners-of-war.
San Antonio did not witness the horrors that took place elsewhere during the war, because of its location in the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, west of the river. The distance of Texas from the main theaters of battle kept it out of the line of fire.
A concern for Texas, however, was dealing with disaffected citizens — particularly the Germans. In mid-1862, the leader of the Rebel troops in San Antonio, Capt. James Duff, traveled into the Hill Country north and west of the city to arrest anti-secession suspects and bring them back to the San Antonio guardhouse in chains.
During the roundup, Duff, a harsh enforcer, learned that some 80 Unionists from the German community, located west of Kerrville in the Hill Country, had decided to escape to Mexico. He sent a detachment of partisan rangers, who intercepted the Unionists at the Nueces River and killed them all — even to the point of executing the wounded. A monument at Comfort, Texas near Kerrville, about 50 miles northwest of San Antonio, memorializes the victims of the “Nueces Massacre.”
During the ongoing Civil War, San Antonio served as the center for the vital cotton trade from central and western Texas that was transshipped 200 miles south to Brownsville through the King Ranch, then across the Mexican border to Matamoros. That trade provided access to scarce items, such as medicine and coffee.
San Antonio was also a stop on the “Underground Railroad” that headed south instead of north. Since slavery was illegal in Mexico, that country became a haven for escaped slaves.
San Antonio survived the four years of conflict in relatively good condition. Following the Confederate surrender in 1865, the U.S. Army returned and reestablished its headquarters at the Alamo, where it once again raised the Stars & Stripes.
During a visit in 2005, 10 years after my initial travels there in 1995, the staff of the San Antonio Public Library provided research assistance. I toured the Alamo and surrounding area, the U.S. Arsenal, and a number of Civil War-related sites in the San Antonio area and the Texas Hill Country.
To learn more, see “The Lone Star State Divided: Texans and the Civil War” by Merle Durham, or contact San Antonio’s Official Visitor Information Center by calling 1-800-447-3372.