Palmito Ranch

Though largely unknown by the public in general, the skirmish at Palmito Ranch on May 13, 1865 was the last battle of the Civil War. Most fighting had ended after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, but many Confederate commanders west of the Mississippi had not yet accepted the Union's victory. By this time, Confederate troops still controlled Fort Brown, Brownsville, and the surrounding mainland, while a small Union garrison occupied Brazos Island. On May 11, Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, commander at Brazos Island, ordered Lieutenant Colonel David Branson to lead 250 men of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry and fifty men of the 2nd Texas Cavalry toward the remaining Confederate strongholds. Branson’s force advanced to Palmito Ranch and on May 13, bolstered by Barrett himself and 200 men of the 34th Indiana Infantry, pressed steadily onward toward Brownsville. The arrival of John S. “Rip” Ford with 300 Confederate cavalrymen and several artillery pieces halted Barrett’s advance near the western edge of Palmito Ranch. The Union Infantry fell back to the coast and as darkness fell, an artillery bombardment by Union naval ships held the Confederates at bay and allowed the federals to escape. Casualties in the battle were relatively light: the Confederates counting ten men wounded and the Union six wounded and two killed. One of the dead was Private John Jefferson Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry who earned the sad distinction of becoming the final battlefield fatality in America’s bloodiest war.

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Aunque en su mayor parte desconocida para el público en general, la escaramuza que tuvo lugar en el Rancho Palmito el 13 de mayo de 1865 fue en sí el último enfrentamiento armado de la Guerra de Secesión estadounidense: la mayor parte de las confrontaciones habían cesado después de la rendición del general Robert E. Lee en el juzgado de Appomattox el 9 de abril de ese año, pero numerosos mandos confederados al oeste del Mississippi no habían reconocido aún la victoria unionista. Por aquel entonces, las tropas confederadas aún retenían el control del Fuerte Brown, en Brownsville, y de los terrenos circundantes en tierra firme, mientras que una pequeña guarnición unionista ocupaba la Isla de Brazos. El 11 de mayo, el Coronel Theodore H. Barrett, al mando del retén de la Isla de Brazos, ordenó al Teniente Coronel David Branson dirigir una columna de 250 efectivos de la 62 de Infantería del Regimiento Negro, y cincuenta unidades del 2º de Caballería de Texas en dirección hacia los últimos bastiones confederados. El contingente de Branson avanzó sobre el Rancho Palmito y el 13 de mayo, reforzado por Barrett en persona y 200 efectivos de la 34 de Infantería de Indiana, continuó su determinada progresión en dirección a Brownsville. La llegada de John S. «Rip» Ford con 300 unidades de caballería confederada y varias piezas de artillería detuvo el avance de Barret cerca del límite occidental del Rancho Palmito. La infantería unionista retrocedió hacia la costa y, según oscurecía, el cañoneo de los navíos de la Unión mantuvo a los confederados a distancia habilitando la retirada de los federales. El saldo de bajas en aquella batalla fue relativamente bajo, con diez heridos entre los confederados y seis heridos, además de dos víctimas mortales, entre los unionistas. Uno de los fallecidos fue el Cabo John Jefferson Williams, de la 34 de Infantería de Indiana, que recibió el lamentable honor de ser la última víctima mortal en el campo de batalla de la guerra
más sangrienta de la historia del país.

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Welcome. Operating on 16:30 AM, this is the Palmito Ranch Battlefield Historical narrative. The following recorded message is part of an interpreted project coordinated by the Texas Historical Commission. Created to encourage travelers to explore this significant site in Texas' Civil War History.


Funding was provided by US Fish and Wildlife Services, Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, part of the South Texas Refuge Complex. The Texas Historical Foundation, The Society of the Order of the Southern Cross, and the National Park Services Heritage Partnership Program. Radio broadcast services are provided by Information Station Specialists Inc.


Standing on historic ground and hearing the stories of those who came before us puts people in a perfect frame of mind to consider their cultural heritage and the importance of preserving it for future generations. As a result, the Texas Historical Commission began planning in 2009 for a radio broadcast repeater project here at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, to make available the historic context of the last land battle of the American Civil War to heritage tourists driving the length of Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark.


The United States of America was rife with conflict and controversy in the years leading to the Civil War. Perhaps, nowhere was the struggle more complex than in Texas. Some Texans supported the Union, but were concerned about political tax on Southern institutions. Texas has been part of the United States just fifteen years when secessionists prevailed in a state-wide election, then witness Texas secede on February 1st, 1861. Under the authority of an ordinance, the newly created secession convention passed, in which a popular vote confirmed on February 23rd. In that vote, the majority of the citizens of the state expressed support for secession.


Among the first six states to leave the Union, all of which were major cotton producers, Texas officially joined the Confederate States of America in early March, 1861. By the end of 1861, more then 25,000 Texans had joined the Confederate Army. During the course of the war, nearly 90,000 served in the military. They distinguished themselves in every major campaign of the War from New Mexico to Pennsylvania.


From the onset of the Civil War, the Confederacy recognized that Texas' expansive coastline was vulnerable to invasion. Noting this before a defense plan could be implemented, President Abraham Lincoln ordered a naval blockade at the Southern Coast. Although a number of Union blockaders grew modestly during 1861, they never aggressively attacked. The delay allowed Confederate troops and artillery to fortify the Texas Coast. Meanwhile, blockade runners skillfully slipped past United States warships to exchange Southern cotton for essential goods and foreign imports.

When the blockade finally tightened, overland freighters increased traffic to the Mexican border, from Eagle Pass, to Laredo, to Brownsville. As an international water way, the Rio Grande remained open to foreign traffic during the war. It allowed ships carrying of thousands of bails of Confederate cotton to sail to distant ports.

Throughout the spring of 1865, the plight of the Confederacy looked grim. Despite events of the Eastern Theater, General E. Kirby Smith, Trans-Mississippi Department Commander and General John Bankhead Magruder in charge of the Texas district, ordered in-state troops to remain in their post. Governor Pendelton Murrah implored the people of Texas not to waiver in support of the cause, but their determination to continue was short lived.

The Civil War came to an end in Texas when the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy surrendered at Galveston on June 2nd, 1865. Just a few weeks later on June 19th, General Gordon Granger, Commander of U.S troops in Texas arrived in Galveston and ended slavery in Texas by issuing an order that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect in Texas.

The Civil War was a major turning point in American history. Our growing nation was deeply divided and the resulting battles are legendary. The end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction marked a new era for the nation. Texas played an important role in the War and many historic sites, museums, monuments, and historical markers around the state tell the real stories of the real places of Texas in the Civil War.

Palmito Ranch Battlefield is listed in National Park Services and National Register of Historic Places at the National Level of Significance, under Criteria A and D for its importance as the site of the last land engagement fought during the Civil War. According to the 1997 National Park Service National Historic Landmark nomination, boundaries for the Palmito Ranch Battlefield, which consists a series of moving skirmishes encompass the expansive land where the most intense fighting of the conflict took place.

From its Western boundary to its Eastern boundary, the Northern edge of the National Historic Landmark running along State Highway 4, the Boca Chica Highway is approximately 4 and a half miles long. The Western Boundary of the Battlefield roughly follows a point from State Highway 4 Southward to the Rio Grande, which denotes the Landmark's Southern Boundary. This Western Boundary approximates the point in which the Confederate reinforcements, led by Colonel John S. Rip Ford arrived on the afternoon of May 13th, 1865 and began their counterattack of the Union drive toward Brownsville.

The Battlefield's Eastern boundary roughly extends from the Westernmost tip of Verdolaga Lake, Southward to the point on the Rio Grande just East of Tarpon Bend. This line marks the approximate location of a small levy referred to and written firsthand accounts of the battle as the scene of the final skirmish and the place where the Confederate Army ceased its pursuit of the Union troops on the evening of May 13th, 1865.

For several generations, historians virtually ignored Texas when it came to recounting the causes, battles, and aftermath of the Civil War. In particular, the last battle of the War, which occurred other a month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces commanded by future President of the United States, General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, was discounted as irrelevant to the war overall and, therefore left out almost altogether from the larger narrative. However, the last two decades have seen a relative surge in scholarly and popular interest in how the Civil War played out in Texas, and how Texas contributed and influenced the conflict.

An excellent resource in mind for the preparation of this narrative is the papers of Colonel John S. Rip Ford: Texas Ranger, Politician, Cessationist, and Commander of the Texas Expeditionary Forces during the Civil War, which had long been under the care of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. As of 2011, this resource is archived and fully cataloged at the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library and J. Evetts Haley History Center in Midland, Texas.

Less than a handful of scholars have laid eyes on these documents hereafter referred to as the Ford Papers, and until now no one has specifically mined them for information related to Battle of Palmito Ranch. That effort, spearheaded by the Texas Historical Commission and the friends of the Texas Historical Commission, underwritten by grant funding from The Society for the Order of the Southern Cross has proven successful, further eliminating the significance of the Palmito Ranch site.

The Battle of Palmito Ranch, on May 12-13th, 1865 has recently received much overdue examination and acclaim as the Last Battle of the Civil War. However, that conflict was not the first to have occurred at this site. The Ford Papers revealed that the May 1865 battle was actually the second at this location. The first occurred over the course of a week in September 1864 and is the only documented case of foreign troops having engaged on one side or the other during the Civil War.

Furthermore, they make it clear that it was no mere accident or happenstance that the battles of Palmito Ranch occurred at this point along the Rio Grande as the Confederates regularly use the site as a forward outpost to defend Fort Brown and the City of Brownsville, protecting both land-based approaches along the Military road between Fort Brown and the Boca Chica pass to cross into the Union base on Brazos Santiago Island and monitoring water-born traffic traveling up the Rio Grande for the cross border cotton trade.

The Ford Papers also debunk a major, long standing myth regarding the makeup of Ford's forces in South Texas. For generation, scholars have repeated the claim that Ford's expeditionary force consisted almost entirely of old men and young boys. However, several muster rolls in the Ford papers provide the names and dates of birth of several hundred of Ford's troopers. Only a handful of which are outside of draft age. These rolls document the mens' status as conscripts and the diversity of those men serving the Confederacy which includes Tejanos, Native Americans, Anglos, Portuguese, Irish, Germans, Africans, and even Danes.

According to the 1997 National Register Nomination for the Battle of Palmito Ranch, of the major geographic locations associated with the Battle of Palmito Ranch this Battlefield, Fort Brown, and Brownsville, Brazos Santiago, the Union Army base of operations during the Civil War, and Matamoros and Bagdad, Mexico. Only the battlefield itself remains relatively unaltered since the battle. The lack of extensive development of the battlefield is due mainly to the unstable nature of both the topography and the climate. This battlefield lies on a somewhat barren plain, where the primary vegetation consists of marsh plants and chaparral. The area's name is derived from the small palmetto trees that appear on the landscape. The only significant difference is the course of the Rio Grande, which continues to alter its path during the almost 146 years since the time of the battle.

Although both the Union and Confederacy maintained armed forces at Brazos Santiago and Fort Brown respectively during May 18, 1865, the leaders of both armies realized that the Civil War was essentially over and continued fighting in Texas would do little to change the final outcome of the war. In fact, until the Battle of Palmito Ranch began on May 11th both armies honored an informal truce agreement negotiated about two months earlier between Union General Lew Wallace and Confederate Commanders General John E. Slaughter and Colonel Rip Ford.

This changed when Union Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, Commander of the U.S. Forces stationed at Brazos Santiago ordered a Union force consisting of African American troops of the 62nd USCT and white soldiers from the Second Texas Cavalry Unmounted. Pro Union Texas residents who joined the Federal Army at the start of the Civil War to land at Point Isabel just North of Brazos Santiago across the Laguna Madre. An intense storm thwarted the expedition and forced the troops to return to their camp.

Later, they made a crossing at Boca Chica, a narrow inlet at the south tip of Brazos Island. Upon reaching the mainland, the force march all night in the direction of Fort Brown. Very early on the morning of May 12th, Lieutenant Colonel David Branson's troops surrounded White's Ranch, a small settlement East of Palmito Ranch in hopes of capturing this Confederate outpost. White's Ranch is annotated as location number 1 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road. They discovered instead that the outpost had been deserted one or two days prior to their arrival. Hiding themselves in a thicket of tall weeds, the troops camped out for the rest of the night on the banks of the river.

Later that morning, persons on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande spotted the Union camp and promptly brought the concealed soldiers to the attention to the Confederates. The Imperial Mexican Army was sympathetic to the Confederate cause and its presence, no doubt caused concern among the Union soldiers. Union soldiers immediately started for Palmito Ranch, annotated as location number 2 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road.

Skirmishing most of the way with Gidding's Regiment of Confederate Cavalry under the command of Captain Robinson driving them by noon from their camp. By this point, the Union force had reached Sam Martin Ranch annotated as location number 3 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road.

Colonel Ford sent a message to Robinson urging that his force hold their ground and that Ford would bring reinforcements as soon as possible. After the brief skirmishing West of Palmito Ranch, Union troops retreated to what has become known as Palmito Hill, South of location number 7 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road, to rest and feed their animals. At approximately 3p.m., a reinforced Confederate force appeared and the Union force considered its position on Palmito Hill to be indefensible. So Branson led his troops back to White's Ranch for the night. At White's Ranch Branson sent a message to Barrett requesting additional support. At daybreak, the next morning May 13th, 1865, Branson and his men were joined at White's Ranch by 200 men of the 34th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, also known as the "Morton Rifles," under the command of Lieutenant Colonel  Robert G. Morrison. Union Colonel Theodore H. Barrett joined the troops.

By about 4 p.m on May 13th, 1865 Colonel Ford concluded their long march from Fort Brown and had reached a point near Sam Martin Ranch annotated as location number 3 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road. The Union Army was in sight, although not yet aware of the Confederate's presence Ford issued directions for a two-pronged attack annotated as locations number 5A and 5B on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road. Colonel Barrett and Union troops abruptly found themselves facing a largely reinforced Confederate Army possessing several cannons, which the Union force did not have advancing towards them not only in the front but also on their right flank and attempted to gain their rear.

The Union soldiers prepared for the imminent attack by forming an oblique skirmish line, annotated as location number 6 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road, extending from the Rio Grande on the Union's left stretching North to cover the Union retreat.

The heaviest fighting of the battle commenced. The Confederate cavalry charged and regardless of how well the small number of Union skirmishers performed their duty to hold off the Confederates and give their fellow troops time to retreat and regroup, too few had deployed to mount an effective challenge to the approaching Confederate troops. The Confederates had pursued the Union troops out of the core battlefield area, annotated as location number 7 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road, in a North and an East direction, annotated as location number 8 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road, for approximately 7 or 8 miles.

The Union troops were driven back to Cobb's Ranch, annotated as location number 9 on the roadside sign associated with this broadcast positioned next to a Texas Historical Commission marker near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road, approximately 2 miles from Boca Chica where Ford ordered his troops to halt. In sum, approximately 270 Confederate cavalry men and 30 artillery men later reinforced by 120 cavalry men after driving the Union soldiers in a full retreat, defeated 450 Union infantry men and 50 dismounted cavalry men in a two day engagement that left 114 Union casualties, including two killed, six wounded, 102 prisoners, and two missing.

Due to the overall lack of development in the area, Palmito Ranch Battlefield retains its integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association. The land's virtually unchanged physical features still convey the battlefield's appearance during the Civil War. As the site of the last land engagement of the American Civil War, Palmito Ranch Battlefield hold significance at the national level.

Palmito Ranch in its aftermath mark one of the opening salvos of the struggles during Reconstruction. Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, the department's commander, as well as General John G. Walker, regular General James E. Slaughter, and the immediate commander of Confederate troops at Palmito Ranch, Colonel John Salmon Ford fled to Mexico following the conflict joined by a number of officers and soldiers from across the defeated Confederacy. They were welcomed by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico who hoped the Southerners would establish successful colonies alongside other immigrants and help him main control of the country. However, by the time Maximilian was capture and executed in 1867 by the Revolutionary forces aligned with Benito Juárez, most ex-Confederates have grown frustrated with living conditions in Mexico and had returned to the United States, where the politics of Reconstruction were becoming more favorable to white Southerners.

The Aftermath of Palmito Ranch brought sweeping changes for the enemies of the Confederacy. The most famous was the arrival of Union General Gordon Granger up the coast in Galveston in June 1865. When on June 19th he announced the People of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States: "All slaves are free." The resulting celebrations of thanksgiving among African Americans became a ringing symbol of the transformation marked annually thereafter as Juneteenth, a holiday of emancipation.

The changes to come were also evident to the 62nd, 63rd, and 65th Regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops who had served in South Texas and included some killed or wounded in the Battle of Palmito Ranch. These regiments formed and admitted barracks in St. Louis remained on occupation duty not mustering down until January 1866. In the long, uneventful stretches, these troops spent nights around the campfire learning to read and write under the supervision of the Regiment's First Lieutenant Richard Baxter Foster.

At  Fort McIntosh in Laredo, Texas as the units were ordered to disband, Forster remarked that it was a pity these men should find no schools where they return to Missouri and that the education so happily commenced should cease. And he wondered whether that needed to be the case. The past was dead and must soon be buried, Foster recalled thinking in those first days after Palmito Ranch. An era had commenced in which all things should become new.

The 62nd Regiment would establish a school in Missouri for the special benefit of freed blacks with the goal that emancipated slaves, who have neither capital to spend nor time to lose may obtain an education. Both black troops and their white officers contributed to this completely new proposition. An institute of higher education for African Americans not only by signing commitments but also by offering up funds. 

One month later, Foster took the funds to St. Louis to search for a school that would take the African American veterans as students. Yet existing schools for whites were not interested and Foster soon found himself in the business in founding a University. Lincoln Institute, now Lincoln University opened for classes on September 16, 1866. Lincoln University became the Nation's only institution of higher education established by the United States Colored Troops, financed by former slaves, and open to all men.

Today the majority of Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark resides within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The goal of the refuge is to connect tracks of land and create a wildlife quarter that allows wildlife to live and travel to new areas. It's a place where wildlife can rest, nest, and feed.  Starting at Falcon Dam, in Zapata County, the 19,000 acre refuge primarily follows the final stretch of the Rio Grande until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. These refuged lands compliment important habitat protected by private landowners, non-profit organizations, the State of Texas, the Civil War Trust, and two additional National Wildlife Refuges, Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana.

As you drive through this track to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge notice how the landscape changes and watch for the many unique wildlife species. From the entrance at Boca Chica, you will see the unique wind-blown clay dunes known as lomas covered in dense vegetation. These lomas provide shelter for many wildlife species like the elusive ocelot. During the summer, snowy plovers crowd the salt flats with their nests and small wandering chicks. The shallow, turquoise colored bay has important nurseries for oysters, shrimp, redfish, and many other sportfish. And when you arrive beach, watch for peregrine falcons hunting the dunes and sea turtles swimming in the surf.  This site played an important role in history and today it is home to many wildlife species. Please respect it and remember to carry out your trash, drive slowly, and stay off the dunes.

For more information, please visit the information kiosk next to the roadside sign associated with this broadcast and a Texas Historical Commission marker to the Battle of Palmito Ranch near the intersection of State Highway 4 and Palmito Hill Road. To learn more about the donors who made this broadcast a reality, visit the National Park Service National Heritage Program at www.nps.gov, g-o-v. The Texas Historical Foundation at www.texashistoricalfoundation.org, and the Society of the Order of the Southern Cross at www.orderofsoutherncross.org. To learn more about the Texas Historical Commission's Texas Sequential of the Civil War initiative at www.thc.state.tx.us. As more information has gathered regarding the history of the Battle at Palmito Ranch, The Texas Historical Comission will correspondingly update this narrative. Thank you.

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Details

Location:  12 miles east of Brownsville on Texas Highway 4 (Boca Chica Boulevard), 43794 Palmito Hill Road. Brownsville, Texas, 78521.
Do not miss the wayside exhibits located just off Hwy 4 on Palmito Hill Road.

Access:  8 am-5 pm

Contact:  Doug Murphy

GPS Coordinates

Photos

Palmito Ranch Battlefield today - Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Scot Edler
Palmito Ranch Battlefield today - Courtesy of
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Scot Edler
Palmito Ranch Battlefield history
Palmito Ranch Battlefield
Palmito Ranch Battlefield today
Confederate cavalry charge at Palmito Ranch
- Artwork courtesy of Texas Military Forces
Museum, Camp Mabry, Austin, TX
www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org
Palmito Ranch Battlefield
Skirmish Line closeup - Artwork courtesy of
Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry,
Austin, TX www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org