Union and Confederate forces in Southern Texas had been observing an unofficial truce, when Union Colonel Theodore H. Barrett ordered an attack on an enemy camp near Fort Brown, for reasons unknown. (Some claimed that Barrett was eager for his first chance of action before the war ended.) Although they took some prisoners, the attack was repulsed the next day by Confederate Col. John Salmon Ford near Palmito Ranch, and the battle is claimed as a Confederate victory. Estimates of casualties are not dependable, but Union Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana is believed to have been the last combat death of the war. The engagement is also known as the Battle of Palmito Hill or the Battle of Palmetto Ranch.
After July 27, 1864, most of the 6,500 Union 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 sales to Europe, as well as importation of supplies. Mexicans tended to side with the Confederates due to a lucrative smuggling trade. Early in 1865, both armies in south Texas honored a gentlemen's agreement that there was no point to further hostilities.
Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace proposed a negotiated end of hostilities in Texas between his forces and those of Confederate Brig. Gen. James E. Slaughter, and met with Slaughter and his subordinate Col. John Salmon Ford at Port Isabel on March 11–12, 1865. Despite Slaughter's and Ford's concurrence that combat would prove tragic, the negotiations were repudiated by their superior, Confederate Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, 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 written notice.
A brigade of 1,900 Union troops commanded by Col. Robert B. Jones of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry were on blockade duty, garrisoned at the Port of Brazos Santiago, on the mouth of the current ship channel of the Port of Brownsville. The 34th Indiana, 400 strong, was an experienced infantry regiment that had seen combat in the Vicksburg Campaign 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 the Port of Los Brazos de Santiago on December 22, 1864, replacing the 91st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which returned to New Orleans. The brigade also included the 87th and 62nd United States Colored Infantry Regiments ("United States Colored Troops", 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 Los Brazos de Santiago by Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, commander of the 62nd U.S.C.T.
Barrett, age 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 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. The French Foreign Legion was occupying neighboring Matamoros, Mexico, at the time, and was said[by whom?] to have reinforced the Confederate forces in Brownsville. 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 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.
John J. Williams
On May 11, 1865, Barrett instructed his lieutenant colonel, David Branson, to attack the Confederate encampments commanded by Ford at White and Palmito Ranches near Fort Brown, 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 moved from Brazos Santiago to the mainland across the Boca Chica Pass 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 French 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 advance. 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 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 14 May, 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. The battle is recorded as a Confederate victory.
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.
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, however, concludes that Union deaths were much higher, probably around 30, many of whom drowned in the Rio Grande or were attacked 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 historian Jerry D. Thompson 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,
totaling four killed, 12 wounded, and 101 captured.
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.
Many senior Confederate commanders in Texas (including Smith, Walker, Slaughter, and Ford) and many troops with their equipment fled across the border to Mexico, possibly to ally with Imperial French forces, or with Mexican forces under Benito Juárez.
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 to act as parole commissioner for disbanding Confederate forces, appeared as a defense witness and assisted in absolving Morrison of 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 100 and 150 Hispanic soldiers 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."
On April 2, 1866, President Johnson declared the insurrection at an end, except in Texas, because of a technicality concerning incomplete formation of a new state government. He declared the insurrection at an end in Texas and throughout the United States on August 20, 1866.
^Oates, Stephen B. (1987). Rip Ford's Texas (Personal Narratives of the West), University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-77034-0, p. 392
^Thompson, Jerry, and Jones, Lawrence T. III (2004). Civil War and Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier: A Narrative and Photographic History, Texas State Historical Association, ISBN 0-87611-201-7, Note 78 p. 152