May 13, 1865 – A skirmish that took place in south Texas after the war ended ironically resulted in Confederate victory.
Colonel Theodore Barrett had dispatched a force of about 300 Federals under Lieutenant Colonel David Branson to seize the vital port city of Brownsville, on the tip of Texas where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. This violated an unofficial truce between the opposing forces that had been in place most of this year. Branson hoped to surprise the Confederate outpost at Palmito Ranch, situated on a hill commanding the approach to Brownsville from Brazos Island. But as Branson later reported:
“I could not reach Palmetto Ranch before daylight to surprise it, and therefore hid my command in a thicket and among weeds on the banks of the Rio Grande one mile and a half above White’s Ranch, where we remained undiscovered until 8.30 a.m., when persons on the Mexican shore seeing us started to give the alarm to the rebels. At the same time soldiers of the Imperial Mexican Army were marching up that bank of the river.”
Branson reported that his Federals attacked and drove the Confederates “from their camp, which had been occupied by about 190 men and horses, capturing 3 prisoners, 2 horses, and 4 beef-cattle, and their ten days’ rations, just issued.” The Confederate field commander at Brownsville, Colonel John S. Ford (nicknamed R.I.P. or “Rest in Peace” Ford), planned to counterattack, even though “this may be the last fight of the war, and from the number of Union men I see before me, I am going to be whipped.”
Ford’s superior, Brigadier General James E. Slaughter, had learned that the major Confederate armies to the east had surrendered and told Ford that he did not want a fight. Ford replied, “You can retreat and go to hell if you wish! These are my men, and I am going to fight. I have held this place against heavy odds. If you lose it without a fight the people of the Confederacy will hold you accountable for a base neglect of duty.”
Supported by two guns, Ford’s Confederate cavalry advanced and drove the Federals back. Ford told his troops, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone and retire.” That night, Branson reported that “a considerable force of the enemy appeared, and the position being indefensible, I fell back to White’s Ranch for the night, skirmishing some on the way…” Colonel Barrett, who was not on the scene, reported to his Federal superiors:
“The enemy was driven in confusion from his position, his camp, camp equipage, and stores falling into our hands. Some horses and cattle were also captured and a number of prisoners taken. Destroying such stores as could not be transported, Lieutenant-Colonel Branson returned to the vicinity of White’s Ranch, and took up his position for the night.”
Barrett answered Branson’s call for reinforcements by sending another regiment. The troops crossed the Rio Grande in skiffs and marched up to join their comrades at White’s Ranch that night. Barrett arrived early next morning to take personal command of the force, which now numbered 800 men. Barrett later reported, “I at once ordered an advance to be again made in the direction of Palmetto Ranch, which, upon the retirement of Lieutenant-Colonel Branson, had been reoccupied by the rebels. The enemy’s cavalry were soon encountered.”
The Federals drove Ford’s 350 Confederates away from Palmito Ranch and, according to Barrett, “Such stores as had escaped destruction the day previous were now destroyed, and the buildings which the enemy had turned into barracks were burned, in order that they might no longer furnish him convenient shelter.” The Federals then fell back to rest and regroup.
During this time, Ford and Slaughter reformed their force and led a Confederate counterattack. Barrett reported:
“With the Rio Grande on our left, a superior force of the enemy in front, and his flanking force on our right, our situation was at this time extremely critical. Having no artillery to oppose the enemy’s six 12-pounder field pieces, our position became untenable. We therefore fell back, fighting. This movement, always difficult, was doubly so at this time, having to be performed under a heavy fire from both front and flank.”
The Federals fell back toward Brazos Island, with the Confederates trying to sustain an effective pursuit. Ford, concerned about the condition of his horses, finally called a halt. The Federals withdrew to Boca Chica, where they were evacuated by sea. Barrett sustained 115 casualties in a fight that he had started but had no effect on the war’s outcome.
When news reached the Confederates at Brownsville that many of their comrades had already surrendered, they began dropping from the ranks to go home. Nevertheless, the last battle of the War Between the States ended in a Confederate victory.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 556; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 591; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 736; 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