May 11, 1865 – In distant Texas, a Federal expedition threatened to break an informal truce before news arrived that the war was over.
The recent capture of President Jefferson Davis and the dissolution of the Confederate government effectively ended the war. But the news had not yet reached opposing forces near Brownsville, on the southernmost tip of Texas. Earlier this year, the two sides had agreed to an unofficial armistice since there was no reason to continue fighting there.
When Major General Lew Wallace took command of the Federal district overseeing Brownsville in early March, he tried to negotiate a formal ceasefire with the Confederates. He met with Brigadier General James E. Slaughter and Colonel John S. “Rest in Peace” Ford at Port Isabel in hopes that their meeting “may result in something more than words.”
The officers discussed possible peace terms, but Slaughter and Ford warned that General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, may be plotting with Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to either fall back into Mexican territory or join forces with the Mexican army. Maximilian had been installed as Mexican ruler by Emperor Napoleon III of France, which the U.S. had protested violated the Monroe Doctrine. The emperor’s regime was known to be friendly with the Confederates.
For Wallace, the discussions went so well that he reported, “What I am at now is nothing less than bringing Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana voluntarily back into the Union. The business is well begun, and at this moment looks promising.” Slaughter and Ford were “not only willing, but anxious to find some ground upon which they could honorably get from under what they admitted to be a falling Confederacy.”
The Confederate officers sent their ideas to Major General John Walker, commanding the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Under the proposal, Confederate troops could either swear allegiance to the Union or leave the country. Slavery would be subject to congressional legislation, and Texas would eventually return to the Union. Walker rejected this plan, and he wrote to Wallace on April 6 explaining why:
“It would be folly in me to pretend that we are not tired of a war that has sown sorrow and desolation over our land; but we will accept no other than an honorable peace. With three hundred thousand men yet in the field, we would be the most abject of mankind if we should now basely yield all that we have been contending for during the last four years–namely, nationality and the rights of self-government. With the blessing of God, we will yet achieve these, and extort from your government all that we ask. Whenever you are willing to yield these, and to treat as equal with equal, an officer of your high rank and character, clothed with the proper authority from your government, will not be reduced to the necessity of seeking an obscure corner of the Confederacy to inaugurate negotiations.”
Wallace considered Walker’s letter “both childish and discourteous.” He responded, “Slavery as between the sections was the only separating social and political interest, you know that. Where is slavery now? We armed it over a year ago, and now you are doing the same thing. Apropos, once a soldier, never more a slave.”
Wallace wrote to Slaughter and Ford, “I regret this conclusion. Could we have succeeded, then consequence would have been more honorable to us all than battles fought. The people of Texas, at least, would have been grateful to us.” Wallace then reported to Washington on April 18: “Of one thing I am sure. Texas rebels are without heart or confidence, and divided among themselves.” These troops, and even those under E.K. Smith, were ready to lay down their arms, as long as Smith was “not too far committed to Maximilian.”
Despite Walker’s rejection, the opposing sides agreed not to fire on each other without written notification. This changed when Colonel Theodore Barrett took command of the 1,900-man Federal brigade stationed on blockade duty at Los Brazos de Santiago. The brigade consisted of the 34th Indiana (veterans from other disbanded regiments), and the 62nd and 87th U.S. Colored Infantry regiments.
When Barrett learned the Confederates were about to abandon Brownsville, he decided to break the ceasefire by ordering his men forward to seize enemy outposts on the road to that vital town. Some claimed that Barrett did this to obtain mounts for his cavalry, while others thought that he just wanted “a little battlefield glory before the war ended altogether.”
The expedition consisted of 250 men from the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry and 50 men from the 2nd Texas (U.S.) Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel David Branson. Branson planned to capture White’s Ranch and Palmito Ranch near Fort Brown, which was garrisoned by Ford’s Confederates defending Brownsville.
The Federals were supposed to cross Point Isabel on the morning of the 11th, but the steamer they were to use had mechanical problems and a storm was approaching. They instead crossed at Boca Chica in heavy rain around 9:30 that night. According to Branson, “At 2 a.m. of the 12th, after making a long circuitous march, we surrounded White’s Ranch, where we expected to capture a rebel outpost of sixty-five men, horses, and cattle, but they had been gone a day or two.”
Branson’s Federals would advance at daylight.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 591; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 160-63; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 196-97; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 688; Wikipedia: Battle of Palmito Ranch