The Battle of Palmito Ranch, also known as the Battle of Palmito Hill and the Battle of Palmetto Ranch, was fought on May 12–13, 1865, shortly after the end of the American Civil War. It was the last major clash of arms of the war. Many historians, as well as the Official Record of the Civil War, consider the Battle of Palmito Ranch to be a post-Civil War encounter, with the Battle of Columbus in April being the recognized last battle of the Civil War. However, the last Confederate general to surrender was Brigadier General Chief Stand Watie of the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles in Doaksville, Indian Territory on 23 June 1865.
The battle was fought on the banks of the Rio Grande about 12 miles (19 km) east of Brownsville, Texas, and a few miles from the seaport of Los Brazos de Santiago, which was located on the present-day ship channel of the Port of Brownsville. 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 prior notice in writing.
A brigade of 1,900 Union troops commanded by Col. Robert B. Jones of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry were on blockade duty, garrisoned at the Port of Brazos Santiago, on the mouth of the current ship channel of the Port of Brownsville. 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 the Port of Los Brazos de 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 Los Brazos de 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. The French Foreign Legion was occupying neighboring Matamoros, Mexico, at the time, and was said[by whom?] to have reinforced the Confederate forces in Brownsville. 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 French 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, which lasted until the 14th, 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 attacked and killed by French border guards 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:
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 French forces, or Mexican forces with Benito Juárez.
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 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.
The following material is from first-hand and published sources. They are recounts of the role of Hispanic Confederate veterans and the treatment of black POWs in South Texas.
There were Hispanic Confederate veterans at Fort Brown in Brownsville and on the field of Palmito Ranch. Col. Santos Benavides, who was the highest ranking Hispanic in either army, led between 100 and 150 Mexicans in the Brownsville Campaign in May 1865.
"Some of the Sixty-Second Colored Regiment were also taken. They had been led to believe that if captured they would either be shot or returned to slavery. They were agreeably surprised when they were paroled and permitted to depart with the white prisoners. Several of the prisoners were from Austin and vicinity. They were assured they would be treated as prisoners of war. There was no disposition to visit upon them a mean spirit of revenge."-Colonel John Salmon Ford, May 1865.
When Colonel Ford surrendered his command following the campaign of Palmito Ranch he urged his men to honor their paroles. He insisted that "The negro had a right to vote."
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.