Battle of Palmito Ranch
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, during the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. It was the last major clash of arms in 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.

The battle was fought on the banks of the Rio Grande
Rio Grande
The Rio Grande is a river that flows from southwestern Colorado in the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way it forms part of the Mexico – United States border. Its length varies as its course changes...

 about twelve miles east of Brownsville, Texas
Brownsville, Texas
Brownsville is a city in the southernmost tip of the state of Texas, in the United States. It is located on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, directly north and across the border from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Brownsville is the 16th largest city in the state of Texas with a population of...

. In the kaleidoscope of events following the surrender of Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee
Robert Edward Lee was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War....

's army on April 9, Palmito Ranch was nearly ignored.


Early in 1865, both sides in south Texas
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

 honored a gentlemen's agreement
Gentlemen's agreement
A gentlemen's agreement is an informal agreement between two or more parties. It may be written, oral, or simply understood as part of an unspoken agreement by convention or through mutually beneficial etiquette. The essence of a gentlemen's agreement is that it relies upon the honor of the parties...

 that there was no point to further hostilities. After July 28, 1864, most of the 6,500 Union
Union Army
The Union Army was the land force that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army and the National Army...

 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
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....

 sales to Europe, as well as importation of supplies. Mexicans
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 tended to side with the Confederates due to a lucrative smuggling trade.

Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace
Lew Wallace
Lewis "Lew" Wallace was an American lawyer, Union general in the American Civil War, territorial governor and statesman, politician and author...

 proposed a negotiated end of hostilities in Texas between his forces and those of Confederate Brig. Gen. James E. Slaughter
James E. Slaughter
James Edwin Slaughter was born in Cedar Mountain, Virginia, the oldest son of Daniel French Slaughter and Letitia Madison and great-nephew of James Madison. He attended the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia from August 6, 1845 until his resignation on July 6, 1846 to accept a...

, and met with Slaughter's subordinate Col. John Salmon Ford
John Salmon Ford
John Salmon Ford , better known as "Rip" Ford, was a member of the Republic of Texas Congress and later of the State Senate, and mayor of Brownsville, Texas. He was also a Texas Ranger, a Confederate colonel, and a journalist...

 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 Maj. Gen. John G. Walker
John George Walker
John George Walker was a Confederate general in the American Civil War.-Early life and military career:Walker was born in Jefferson City, Missouri...

, 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
34th Regiment Indiana Infantry
The 34th Regiment Indiana Infantry, also known as The Morton Rifles, was organized at Anderson, Indiana, and mustered in September 16, 1861- Service :*Moved to Jeffersonville, Indiana, October 10, 1861....

 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
Vicksburg Campaign
The Vicksburg Campaign was a series of maneuvers and battles in the Western Theater of the American Civil War directed against Vicksburg, Mississippi, a fortress city that dominated the last Confederate-controlled section of the Mississippi River. The Union Army of the Tennessee under Maj. Gen....

 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
91st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment
The 91st Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry was an infantry regiment that served in the Union Army during the American Civil War.-Service:...

, which returned to New Orleans. The brigade also included the 87th and 62nd United States Colored Infantry Regiments ("United States Colored Troops
United States Colored Troops
The United States Colored Troops were regiments of the United States Army during the American Civil War that were composed of African American soldiers. First recruited in 1863, by the end of the Civil War, the men of the 175 regiments of the USCT constituted approximately one-tenth of the Union...

", 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
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease of humans and other animals caused by eukaryotic protists of the genus Plasmodium. The disease results from the multiplication of Plasmodium parasites within red blood cells, causing symptoms that typically include fever and headache, in severe cases...

 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
Egbert B. Brown
Egbert Benson Brown was a Union general in the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the American Civil War.-Early life and education:...

 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
Lieutenant Colonel (United States)
In the United States Army, United States Air Force, and United States Marine Corps, a lieutenant colonel is a field grade military officer rank just above the rank of major and just below the rank of colonel. It is equivalent to the naval rank of commander in the other uniformed services.The pay...

, David Branson, to attack the Confederate encampments commanded by Ford at White and Palmito Ranches near Fort Brown
Fort Brown
Fort Brown was a military post of the United States Army in Texas during the later half of 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.-Early years:...

, 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
Boca Chica State Park
Boca Chica State Park is a Texas state park located in the Boca Chica Subdelta of the Rio Grande near Brownsville in southeastern Cameron County, Texas in the United States. The park was acquired and opened in May 1994.- History :...

 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, 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
Stephen B. Oates
Stephen B. Oates is a former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is an expert in 19th-century United States history....

, 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
Texas A&M International University
Texas A&M International University, often referred to as TAMIU, is a public, co-educational, state-supported university located in Laredo, Texas...

 historian Jerry D. Thompson
Jerry D. Thompson
Jerry Don Thompson is Regents Professor of History at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas. He is a prolific author of books on a variety of related topics, specializing in the American Civil War, the history of the Southwestern United States, and Texas History...

 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
Edmund Kirby Smith
Edmund Kirby Smith was a career United States Army officer and educator. He served as a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, notable for his command of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy after the fall of Vicksburg.After the conflict ended Smith...

 surrendered his forces in the Trans-Mississippi Department
Trans-Mississippi Department
The Trans-Mississippi Department was an administrative subdivision of the Confederate States of America west of the Mississippi, consisting of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Indian Territories recognized by the CSA, and parts of Western Louisiana...

 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
Wesley Merritt
Wesley Merritt was a general in the United States Army during the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War. He is noted for distinguished service in the cavalry.-Early life:...

 and Maj-Gen. George A. Custer
George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. Raised in Michigan and Ohio, Custer was admitted to West Point in 1858, where he graduated last in his class...

, it aggregated a 50,000 man force on the Gulf Coast and along the Rio Grande River to pressure the French intervention in Mexico
French intervention in Mexico
The French intervention in Mexico , also known as The Maximilian Affair, War of the French Intervention, and The Franco-Mexican War, was an invasion of Mexico by an expeditionary force sent by the Second French Empire, supported in the beginning by the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Spain...

 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
Frederick Steele
Frederick Steele was a career military officer in the United States Army, serving as a major general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was most noted for his successful campaign to retake much of secessionist Arkansas for the Union cause.-Early life:Steele was born in Delhi, New...

 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 one hundred and one hundred and fifty 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.
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