The Battle of Palmito Ranch, also known as the Battle of Palmito Hill and the Battle of Palmetto Ranch, was fought on May 12 – May 13, 1865, during the American Civil War. It was the last major clash of arms in the war.
The battle was fought on the banks of the Rio Grande about twelve miles east of Brownsville, Texas. In the kaleidoscope of events following the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army on April 9, Palmito Ranch was nearly ignored.
Early in 1865, both sides in south Texas honored a gentlemen's agreement that there was no point to further hostilities. After July 28, 1864, most of the 6,500 Union troops pulled out of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, including Brownsville, which they had occupied on November 2, 1863, for other campaigns. The Confederates sought to protect their remaining ports for cotton sales to Europe, as well as importation of supplies. Mexicans tended to side with the Confederates due to a lucrative smuggling trade.
Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace proposed a negotiated end of hostilities in Texas between his forces and those of Confederate Brig-Gen. James E. Slaughter, and met with Slaughter's subordinate Col. John Salmon Ford at Port Isabel in March 1865. Despite Slaughter's and Ford's concurrence that further combat would prove tragic, the negotiations were repudiated by their superior, Confederate Gen. John G. Walker, in a scathing exchange of letters with Wallace. Despite this, both sides appeared to honor a tacit agreement not to advance on the other without prior notice in writing.
A brigade of 1,900 Union troops commanded by Col. Robert B. Jones of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry garrisoned Brazos Santiago island at the mouth of the Rio Grande River. The 34th Indiana, 400 strong, was an experienced infantry regiment that had seen combat in the Vicksburg campaign and had been reorganized in December 1863 as a "Veteran" regiment, re-enlisting veteran troops of several regiments whose original enlistments had expired. It deployed to Brazos Santiago on December 22, 1864, replacing the 91st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which returned to New Orleans. The brigade also included the 87th and 62nd United States Colored Infantry Regiments ("United States Colored Troops", or U.S.C.T.), with a combined strength of approximately 1,100. Shortly after Walker rejected the armistice proposal, Jones resigned his commission to return to Indiana, replaced in command of the 34th Indiana by its lieutenant colonel, Robert G. Morrison, and at Brazos Santiago by Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, commander of the 62nd U.S.C.T.
Barrett, 30, had been an officer since 1862, but was without combat experience. Eager to advance in rank, he had volunteered to command one of the newly-raised "colored" regiments in 1863 and was appointed colonel of the 1st Missouri Colored Infantry, which in March 1864 was federalized in Louisiana as the 62nd U.S.C.T. Barrett contracted malaria in the summer of 1864, and while he was on convalescent leave, the 62nd was posted to Brazos Santiago, where Barrett rejoined it in February 1865.
Why the battle happened remains something of a mystery. Barrett's detractors among the brigade suggested soon after the battle that he had desired "a little battlefield glory before the war ended altogether." Others theorized that Barrett needed horses for the 300 dismounted cavalry in his brigade and for other purposes. Historian Louis J. Schuler, in a 1960 pamphlet entitled The last battle in the War Between the States, May 13, 1865: Confederate Force of 300 defeats 1,700 Federals near Brownsville, Texas, asserts that Brig-Gen. Egbert B. Brown of the U.S. Volunteers ordered the expedition with the object of seizing for sale as contraband 2,000 bales of cotton stored in Brownsville. However, Brown was not appointed to command at Brazos Santiago until later in May.
On May 11, Barrett instructed his lieutenant colonel, David Branson, to attack the Confederate encampments commanded by Ford at White and Palmito Ranches near Fort Brown, outside Brownsville. Branson's Union forces consisted of 250 men of the 62nd U.S.C.T. in eight companies and two companies of the (U.S.) 2nd Texas Cavalry Battalion, 50 men without mounts. They crossed from Brazos Santiago to the mainland across the Boca Chica Pass during a storm on the evening of May 11 and made a night march upriver to attack the Confederate encampment. At first Branson's expedition was successful, capturing three prisoners and some supplies, although it failed to achieve the desired surprise. During the afternoon, Confederate forces under Captain William N. Robinson counterattacked with less than 100 cavalry, driving Branson back to White's Ranch, where the fighting stopped for the night. Both sides sent for reinforcements: Ford arrived with the remainder of his cavalry force and six guns (for a total of 300 men), while Barrett came with 200 troops of the 34th Indiana in nine understrength companies.
The next day, Barrett started advancing westward, passing a half mile to the west of Palmito Ranch, with skirmishers from the 34th Indiana deployed in front. Ford attacked Barrett's force as it was skirmishing with an advance Confederate force along the Rio Grande about 4 p.m. Ford sent a couple of companies with artillery to attack the Union right flank, sending the remainder of his force into a frontal attack. After some confusion and fierce fighting, the Union forces retreated back towards Boca Chica. Barrett attempted to form a rearguard but Confederate artillery prevented him from rallying a significant force to do so. During the retreat, 50 members of the 34th Indiana's rear guard company, 30 stragglers, and 20 of the dismounted cavalry were surrounded in a bend of the Rio Grande and captured.
In Barrett's official report of August 10, 1865, he reported 115 Union casualties: one killed, nine wounded, and 105 captured. Confederate casualties were reported as five or six wounded, with none killed. Historian and Ford biographer Stephen B. Oates, however, concludes that Union deaths were much higher, numbering approximately 30, many of whom drowned in the Rio Grande or were murdered by French troops on the Mexican side. He likewise estimated Confederate casualties at approximately the same number. However, using court-martial testimony and post returns from Brazos Santiago, Texas A&M International University historian Jerry D. Thompson determined that the 62nd U.S.C.T. incurred two killed and four wounded; the 34th Indiana one killed, one wounded, and 79 captured; and the 2nd Texas Cavalry Battalion one killed, seven wounded, and 22 captured, totalling four killed, 12 wounded, and 101 captured.
Like the war's first big battle at First Bull Run, which also yielded little gain for either side, the battle is recorded as a Confederate victory. Two weeks later, Texan forces surrendered formally on May 26, 1865; Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered his forces in the Trans-Mississippi Department on June 2. Most senior Confederate commanders in Texas (including Smith, Walker, Slaughter, and Ford) and many troops and equipment fled across the border to Mexico, possibly to ally with Imperial Mexican forces.
The Military Division of the Southwest (after June 27 the Division of the Gulf), commanded by Maj-Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan, occupied Texas between June and August. Consisting of the IV Corps, XIII Corps, the African-American XXV Corps, and two 4,000-man cavalry divisions commanded by Brig-Gen. Wesley Merritt and Maj-Gen. George A. Custer, it aggregated a 50,000 man force on the Gulf Coast and along the Rio Grande River to pressure the French intervention in Mexico and garrison the Reconstruction Department of Texas.
In July 1865, Barrett preferred charges of disobedience of orders, neglect of duty, abandoning his colors, and conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline against Morrison for actions in the battle, resulting in the latter's court martial. Confederate Col. Ford, who had returned from Mexico at the request of Union Gen. Frederick Steele to act as parole commissioner for disbanding Confederate forces, appeared as a defense witness and assisted in absolving Morrison for responsibility for the defeat.
Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana was the last fatality during the Battle at Palmito Ranch, making him likely the final combat death of the war. Fighting in the battle involved Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, and Native American troops. Reports of shots from the Mexican side, the sounding of a warning to the Confederates of the Union approach, the crossing of Imperial cavalry into Texas, and the participation by several among Ford's troops are unverified, despite many witnesses reporting shooting from the Mexican shore.
Palmito Ranch Battlefield
- Marvel, p. 69
- Comtois, p. 51
- Trudeau, p. 301.
- "Historical Landmarks of Brownsville (Number 47)". University of Texas Brownsville. http://blue.utb.edu/localhistory/historical_landmarks_page%204.htm. Retrieved 29 Apr 2010.
- Hunt, Jeffrey William (2002). The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch, University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-73460-3, p. 46.
- The 300-man 2nd Texas Cavalry Battalion, like the earlier-formed 1st Texas Cavalry Regiment (U.S.), was composed of Texans largely of Mexican extraction who remained loyal to the United States.
- Kurtz, p. 32.
- Branson, David. "No. 2". The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Cornell University Library. http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;rgn=full%20text;idno=waro0101;didno=waro0101;view=image;seq=00289;node=waro0101%3A1. Retrieved 26 Apr 2010. .
- Marvel, p. 70. Fully 25% of the 34th was ill with fever and another 25% detailed to labor duties.
- Kurtz, p. 33.
- Comtais, p. 53.
- Trudeau, p. 308-309.
- Official Records Part 1, Volume 48, pp. 265–67. He also claimed to have written a report on the battle on May 18 but stated that "it may not have reached" higher headquarters.
- Marvel, pp. 72–73.
- Oates, Stephen B. (1987). Rip Ford's Texas (Personal Narratives of the West), University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-77034-0, p. 392.
- Thompson, Jerry, and Jones, Lawrence T. III (2004). Civil War and Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier: A Narrative and Photographic History, Texas State Historical Association, ISBN 0876112017, Note 78 p. 152.
- Marvel, p. 73.
- "Find a Grave". http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6805019.
- Marvel, p. 72.
- "Battle Summary: Palmeto Ranch, Texas". CWSAC Battle Summaries. National Park Service. http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/tx005.htm. Retrieved 2007-01-04.
- "Manuscript: Letter by John Salmon "Rip" Ford describing the last battle of the Civil War". The Littlejohn Collection on Flickr. [Wofford College], Sandor Teszler Library. http://www.flickr.com/photos/littlejohncollection/sets/72157608709983272/. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- Comtois, Pierre. "War's Last Battle." America's Civil War, July 1992 (Vol. 5, No. 2)
- Kurtz, Henry I. "Last Battle of the War." Civil War Times Illustrated, April 1962 (Vol. I, No. 1)
- Marvel, William. "Last Hurrah at Palmetto Ranch." Civil War Times, January 2006 (Vol. XLIV, No. 6)
- Trudeau, Noah Andre. Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April - June 1865. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1994. ISBN 0-316-85328-3
- John "Rip" Ford on the last battle of the American Civil War: Palmito Ranch
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