Texas HistoryToday in Texas History: Battle of Palmito Ranch, Last Major Clash of the Civil War

The last major land battle of the Civil War occurred just a few miles from Brownsville in South Texas.
May 12, 2022
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Communication during the Civil War didn’t move like it does today.

More than a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and three days after President Andrew Johnson’s ceasefire declaration, Confederate and Union forces clashed just outside of Brownsville at Palmito Ranch.

A large-scale battle happening after the formal conclusion of a war is not unheard of — the Battle of New Orleans, which made nationally famous then-general and future president Andrew Jackson, occurred after the Treaty of Ghent was signed by the American and British sides.

Confederate forces under Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith occupied the City of Brownsville in 1865, something the Union army only occupied at an earlier stage of the war.

Union commanders in the area wanted to take Brownsville, which was still able to receive supplies from up the Rio Grande. That commerce had not been stunted by Union forces because of the Mexicans’ siding largely with the Confederates.

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After an attempted ceasefire negotiation collapsed in March that year, hostilities rose as the commanding ranks of the Union army rankled with one another. In those negotiations, Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace of the Union army met with Confederate officers Brig. Gen. James Slaughter and Col. John Salmon Ford. Wallace’s terms included an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and the option to leave the country in exchange for a ceasefire.

The trio agreed on the terms, but it fell apart when relayed up the Confederate ranks — not ready to abandon the fight. Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby of the Confederacy exclaimed that despite Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he was determined to fight on.

The Texas State Historical Association says that Confederate forces in South Texas were aware of Lee’s surrender, having just received a newspaper relaying the news. The news sparked some attrition within the Confederate ranks, with hundreds of Confederate soldiers departing for home.

On the flip side, the Union soldiers were informed, errantly, that Confederate forces were abandoning Brownsville.

Union Col. Theodore Barrett ordered up and moving the 250-man 62nd United States Colored Infantry along with 50 dismounted cavalry to try and seize on the believed Brownsville vacuum.

The detachment, now under the command of Lt. Col. David Branson, crossed the Rio Grande at dawn and tried to conceal themselves in the foliage but were spotted.

On their march to Brownsville, 190 confederate soldiers under the command of Capt. W. N. Robinson intercepted the Union mass at Palmito Ranch. After a brief scuffle, the Confederates retreated only to return in the dead of night.

The main conflict, which only lasted about four hours, bubbled over on May 13 when 500 Union troops clashed with 490 Confederates throughout the course of the day. In addition to the mounted cavalry, the Confederates had another advantage: artillery.

The artillery, combined with a pincer maneuver against both of the Union forces’ flanks, the Confederates caused their opposites to turn and flee to Brazos Island, where their reinforcements were stationed.

At that point, a small victory in hand, Ford ordered his forces to halt, saying, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone and retire.”

In all, Barrett’s forces lost 111 men while Ford’s casualties numbered a few dozen — and at that, a battle that didn’t need to be fought had concluded.

Historian Jerry Thompson chalked the cause of the battle up to personal pride.

“What was at stake was honor and money,” he said in a 2003 edition of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. “With a stubborn reluctance to admit defeat, Ford asserted that the dignity and manhood of his men had to be defended.”

Yet, Barrett had also seen the writing on the wall even if news of President Johnson’s declaration hadn’t reached his frontier. The reward for that obstinance was a pride-wounding defeat.

And just like that, the intra-nation war that began with a pre-dawn bombing at Ft. Sumter went out with a pre-dawn South Texas skirmish.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.