Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Judgement at Bexar County

This is going to be another too-long post.

About a month ago I posted about the web of connections we start making when we research. I used, as a present example, the ramifications of my online search for data on the interpersonal violence in western Texas during the Civil War. The last time I tried, the index of Southwestern Historical Quarterly was still crashing me, but I could use the Table of Contents, so most of last week saw me scouring "The Records of the Confederate Military Commission in San Antonio, July 2-October 10, 1862," edited by Alwyn Barr, which are spread out over Volumes 70 (issues 2 and 4), 71 (issue 2), and 73(issues 1 and 2).

This Commission was the judicial organ of the martial law imposed in 1862 to stop depreciation of currency, enforce conscription, prevent a Mexican exodus, and head off a suspected Unionist uprising based in Gillespie County. I had hoped to find out something about the actions of the San Antonio Vigilance Committee and maybe some details about points south, but was disappointed in that. Not very, though - the records in their entirety are as juicy as any historian of the period could want, lacunae and all, and names familiar to me kept popping up, often accompanied by the closest thing to the sound of their voices I am likely to get.

Although the action of my story will be concentrated between Bandera, San Antonio, and Castroville, I found myself taking extensive notes on the Matter of Gillespie County. My attention, already engaged, was arrested when James P. "Weldrop" was sworn in to testify against a merchant on a charge of refusing to accept Confederate money. Unlike other names in the account, "Weldrop" was not footnoted; but misspellings are scattered throughout the record, and who could this be but James P. Waldrip, leader of the infamous Haengerbande, 25 men ostensibly recruited as a frontier defense unit but really engaged in murdering Unionists? His testimony doesn't stand out among that of others, and only a little arrogance and bad-temper presage his dire future: The hanging of former schoolmaster Louis Schuetze in 1864, for which crime among others he would be declared "vogelsfrei" (literally, bird free; figuratively, no more penalty for killing him than for a game bird in season) after the war. In 1867, when he dared to show his face in town and stay at the Nimitz Hotel, Schuetze's son-in-law Phillip Braubach would chase him through the hotel, try to hide in the yard behind a tree, and be gunned down by someone who would never publicly claim credit.

And who is the next defendant but "Phillipp" Braubach himself? The paper with the charges against him appears not to have survived. Never mind; I've done enough background reading to plunge into the testimony knowing he was, from the Confederate point of view, guilty as heck of being a loyal Union man and therefore a disloyal Confederate. The testimony is all about recruitment of a home defense unit suspected of being a cover for an armed resistance to the Confederacy, with a lot of reference to who and where he hung out, who he recruited and who he refused, what he did and did not do as sheriff, and how "everybody knew" he was for the Union.

Chas. H. Nimitz (if that name sounds familiar it's because you're thinking of his grandson, Admiral Chester William Nimitz), who put together a petition that the company Braubach raised not be commissioned, testifies that the company was raised in secret; that Braubach, when the petition went out, "denounced all who were engaged in it and said they were all a damned click, but he could bring 200 men to our doors and make us talk differently;" that Braubach was present and didn't interfere, though he was sheriff at the time, when a man was beaten for loaning a secessionist a horse. Not that Nimitz witnessed the beating, but he heard about it from at least 20 reliable men later. He admits that he and the accused have had "very strong difficulties."

He's not exagerrating either, if we may judge by Braubach's statement a few days later, when witnessing in the defense of his co-accused Mr. Radcliff, against whom Nimitz also testifies, that: "I don't believe Mr. Nimitz would swear a lie, when he is not interested." Which is as much to say: He'd only perjure himself if he had a reason to.

I am already talking too much, and I haven't even mentioned the person who interests me most. If I were writing a novel which included these men as characters, which I hope never to do, I would characterize Nimitz as a committed secessionist who sincerely feared that Braubach could have raised a viable guerrilla army and put a large portion of the frontier in rebellion against the Confederacy; and Braubach as a committed Unionist who would have done it if he could have. Either one, depending on the context of the novel, could be hero or villain. After all, in attempting to prevent a theortical guerrilla war which could have devastated the district, Nimitz and his petition brought in a real period of martial law which has gone down in history as extreme, violent, and unjust, with bodies floating in the Pedernales River and an aftermath of fear which allowed the Haengerbande to flourish. Braubach, for his part, if he behaved as Nimitz and several other witnesses claim, seems a hair away from becoming Waldrip's Unionist opposite number. Is it true that he stood by and let a young man be beaten for loaning a horse to a secessionist? What about other intriguing remarks in the testimony, about "the meeting when the man was killed" or "the same day the man fell from his horse and broke his head"? Were these incidents of Unionist violence, Confederate violence, random accident? Alas, the Commission was hunting down sedition and rebellion, not extrajudicial violence, and if they followed up on these remarks the testimony hasn't survived.

How you spin this depends on the story you want to write, and it's customary, in historical novels, to emphasize certain points of fact and de-emphasize others in order to render a story more dramatic. These two men leap vividly off the page; for good or ill, they demand starring roles. But let me direct you to someone in the background, a certain E. Krauskopf. Compared to Nimitz, his testimony for the prosecution is short and lacking in detail. "I have heard accused make remarks which led me to believe that he was opposed to us. He always went with the opposition or Union party. I know one time there was a Methodist Preacher, who came in and spoke about the war, and said he believed the war would be over in six weeks. He always meets with the party who halloes for the Union." That's the entirety of his testimony against Braubach.

In a subsequent case, against Ferdinand W. Doebbler for acting as agent of an abolitionist paper, writing a seditious letter to it, and maintaining his saloon as a meeting place for Unionists, Krauskopf testifies at greater length, in a singularly undamning way, and presents Doebbler (who defends himself - ably, presenting a persona not at all like modern notions of saloonkeepers) with several useful points. To one focusing on trying to understand what he himself felt, thought, or believed, he provides fewer hints, but it is not out of line to read him as a reluctant witness, testifying less out of conviction than fear. When he says that "some good loyal men" read the "abolitionist" paper because it had European news, is he shielding himself, or someone else, against accusations of reading it? It seems likely. And in this context, is it not fascinating to know that two years later, he would step into the leadership of a new frontier defense unit on the death of the man who organized it - Braubach's intended father-in-law, Louis Schuetze? That he made ammunition for the Confederacy? That the Krauskopfs and Nimitzes intermarried?

A novelist has a lot of leeway with the character of Krauskopf, because these two paragraphs of testimony seem to be all that he says for himself, on the record, ever. It would be easy, in either the hero-Nimitz or the hero-Braubach mode, to cast him as a coward; or as a sidekick; or as an opportunist; but I would never do so.

For one thing, it would be a base ingratitude against his great-great-grandson Ben (did I miss a great? I might have), who went miles out of his way this weekend to help me run my errands while my car was unavailable, and who trusted me with his file of geneological material so I could mine it for research leads.

For another, I don't believe it. The coward, the sidekick, and the opportunist are stock characters for this sort of novel, as are the hero and the villain. None of them is a real person.

Not even the Krauskopf family knows where Englebert Krauskopf stood on the issue of secession. Certainly, if he voted against it, he accepted the status quo when the results came in; but if he voted for it, he didn't go around crowing about that, either. It's clear from the testimony and the family connection that he was friends with Nimitz, but if you can only be friends with folks who agree with you, you're going to be lonesome. There's also a family story (documented in a newspaper article neither of us has tracked down yet) about his daughter extracting him from a meeting with a story that his son Oscar was sick, when he was really being summoned to talk to a Unionist who would have been hung if caught in town.

Our working assumption is that Union and Secession were abstract matters he didn't care much about. We are sure he cared about the community he'd been so much a part of creating (read the Handbook entry I linked to; the man wasn't a leader, but he was busy!), and his family. We presume he cared about his friends and neighbors. If I absolutely had to put him in a story, I'd portray him as someone who avoided political conflict, whom his friend Nimitz had convinced for awhile that there was a real danger of violent insurrection that would endanger everyone, but who wasn't nearly as sure of it at the time he testified; who wouldn't lie, but who would do his best not to harm anybody.

I'd probably also give him some of Ben's mannerisms; it's only natural.

So, do I have a point here? Mostly I'm sorting all this out in my head. Having refused to judge Englebert because I happen to know Ben, have I the right to judge anybody whose descendents I don't know?


Not even Waldrip?

Mmmmm...I guess not; though he sure did some evil things in his time. I will never be so neutral as to let a lynching go with a shrug and an "I wasn't there." But I will concede, I don't know how he got from the guy with a chip on his shoulder who testified, to the head of a mob hanging a middle-aged schoolteacher. And only when I understand that process can I be positive of avoiding it myself.

I won't use any of these people as characters unless the story gives me no option, but part of the reason for all this reading is to make my fictional characters realistic in the context of their times. My heroines, my villains, and my support characters are gestating in an amniotic sac into which are distilled my conceptions of Braubach, Nimitz, Krauskopf, and Waldrip; as well as dozens of other individuals who rise from the documents like dolphins from the Gulf - a shadowy bulk under the water, a fin, a bright leap into the air half-obscured by splash.

Just because we can't see them clearly doesn't mean they weren't real, or that the selves they knew themselves to be don't matter. It behooves us to remember that as we are, so they were; that not one of us knows how we would behave in the situations in which they found themselves.

No, you don't. You're kidding yourself if you think you do. No one ever knows what they would do, until they do it.

1 comment:

  1. My sister has the article you mentioned, Ben is our cousin. If you are still interested contact me and I will forward to her your message.