By May 11, 1865, nearly everyone in the United States and in the moribund Confederacy considered the Civil War over. Both of the South’s principal armies had capitulated. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor had surrendered most of the remaining Confederate forces east of the Mississippi. President Jefferson Davis had just been captured, and his cabinet had scattered to escape Yankee vengeance. Even the elusive Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill had been fatally wounded. The martyred president, Abraham Lincoln, had been buried a week before, and Federal troops had begun their long occupation of Dixie. Arrangements were underway for a grand review — a victory parade — in Washington, and the War Department was preparing to muster out most of the huge Union Army. Peace had come at last.
As usual, things were different in Texas. Hostile forces still faced each other at the southernmost tip of the state, where the Rio Grande spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. On Brazos Santiago Island lay nearly 2,000 Union troops, including the 62nd and 87th U.S. Colored Infantry, the 34th Indiana and a few dozen loyal Texans who had volunteered for cavalry service but remained dismounted. Across the bay and several miles inland, fragmented battalions of Confederate cavalry guarded the Mexican border, beyond which French imperial forces and native Juaristas vied for control of the northern province.
The Western Sub-District of Texas, commanded by Confederate Brig. Gen. James E. Slaughter, encompassed virtually all of Texas below San Antonio. Slaughter, a Virginia native who had served in the U.S. Army from the Mexican War until Texas seceded, had been assigned his post some eight months before by Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, whom Slaughter had previously served as chief of staff. As late as the end of 1864, Slaughter had been able to count more than 2,600 soldiers under his command, but with the new year that number began to dwindle rapidly. On the last day of January 1865, only 1,722 of those men remained, of whom fewer than 1,450 officers and men stood ready for duty. By March 31, Slaughter’s returns revealed only 1,200 men of all ranks present. With spring, desertions increased rapidly, and Slaughter began to suspect that he could not rely on those who remained.
Slaughter’s troops consisted almost entirely of cavalry, from a tiny detachment at Fort Clark 200 miles up the Rio Grande to his heaviest concentration of several companies and a light battery at Brownsville and Fort Brown, about 20 miles from the river’s mouth. By April 6, 1865, Slaughter had made his headquarters at Brownsville, which he styled the Southern Division of his subdistrict.
Colonel John Salmon Ford — a Mexican War veteran, former captain of Texas Rangers, onetime Austin mayor and an already legendary character — commanded Slaughter’s Southern Division. Ford, popularly known as ‘Old Rip,’ had been appointed colonel of Texas troops early in 1861, when Slaughter was still a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ford had accepted the surrender of Brazos Santiago in February of that year, and he had spent most of the war on duty in southern Texas. For about a year he served in the Conscription Bureau in Austin; the camp of instruction near Tyler was named in his honor, although he may have felt little honored after Camp Ford became notorious as a prison pen.
In the spring of 1865, Colonel Ford’s immediate force amounted to nine companies of cavalry in two battalions. In addition, three more unassigned companies and Captain O.G. Jones’ six-gun battery were stationed at Fort Brown. He also exercised control over half a regiment of cavalry that covered the river below Ringgold Barracks, too far away for assistance on short notice. Between the end of January and the end of March, his troop strength shrank almost 20 percent; as April opened, he had only 763 officers and men to guard about 100 miles of river, and only 625 of them were fit for duty. By May, desertion had diminished Ford’s command even further.
In that remote corner of the Confederacy, few military units adhered to numerical state designations, instead taking the names of their commanders. The largest organized force on which Ford could call was the six-company battalion temporarily commanded by Captain William N. Robinson, who could still muster about 250 troopers when every man answered the bugle. Ford posted Robinson about 15 miles from the Rio Grande at Palmetto (also spelled Palmito) Ranch. A smaller vanguard lay a little closer to the enemy, at White’s Ranch.
Despite the precaution of maintaining that outpost at White’s Ranch, Ford did not anticipate that there would be significant trouble with the Union troops at Brazos Santiago. In March he and a civilian emissary had corresponded with Federal Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace on the subject of peace, and although they came to no conclusions, it was evident even to the Confederate forces that the rebellion was about finished.
Many of the Texas cavalry companies had scattered in an effort to find grass for their horses; some of those mounts were so broken down that Slaughter hoped he might be able to replace them with a few hundred mustangs.
At Brazos Santiago, a change in command appears to have ended the unofficial truce. Colonel Robert B. Jones of the 34th Indiana left for home in April, turning the island over to Colonel Theodore H. Barrett of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Unlike Jones, Barrett had never led his regiment in combat, and he seems to have thirsted for a little battlefield glory before the war ended altogether. In the wee hours of May 11, Barrett summoned his lieutenant colonel, David Branson, and gave him instructions that would lead to the last clash of arms between organized Union and Confederate forces.
At 4 a.m. Branson, who had been appointed lieutenant colonel directly from the noncommissioned ranks of the 28th Illinois less than a year and a half before, gathered 250 of his men and a full complement of officers on the waterfront, with a view to crossing over to Port Isabel. However, a storm kicked up, and the steamer he intended to use broke down, so Barrett ordered the expedition back to camp.
Later in the day, he found enough small boats to cross the troops over the shorter passage to Boca Chica, at the southern end of the island, and in the evening Branson moved his command down there. Along the way he picked up 50 recruits from the Union 2nd Texas Cavalry Battalion and two of their officers, all of whom still lacked horses. The two lieutenants had not even acquired rank insignia.
Branson procured 100 rounds of ammunition and five days’ rations for each man, and by 9:30 p.m. all of them had reached the mainland. Followed by two mule-drawn supply wagons, the procession started immediately for White’s Ranch, where Robinson’s forward companies were reportedly still camped.
Branson reached White’s Ranch at 2 a.m. on May 12 and silently surrounded the main building. Upon springing the trap, however, he learned that his prey had withdrawn to Palmetto Ranch a couple of days earlier. His men had already been on their feet for more than 24 hours, so Branson gave up any hope of surprising the Palmetto Ranch detachment before daylight. He marched his command another 1 1/2 miles upriver, then scattered the men into the chaparral for a few hours’ sleep.
French forces patrolled the Rio Grande on the Mexican side, and by 8:30 that morning their videttes had spotted the Federal troops. The news quickly drifted over the river to the Confederates, and French troops appeared on the bank opposite Branson’s camp. Branson nevertheless formed his 300 riflemen and marched them toward Palmetto Ranch.
Palmetto Ranch was 112 miles away, but Branson did not arrive there until noon. A flurry of musketry erupted between Branson’s skirmishers and Robinson’s pickets without drawing blood on either side. When the Federal infantrymen had driven the startled Confederates away from the hilltop hacienda, they settled down to count up their prizes: two or three sick Texans, a couple of horses and rations for 190 men, including four beef cattle. Captain Robinson, who could initially collect only about 60 of his retreating battalion, sent word of the attack back to Colonel Ford at Brownsville. Ford instructed Robinson to hold on while he rounded up other scattered companies and brought them to his assistance.
Robinson did more than hold on. With his little command he returned to the ranch on Palmetto Hill and launched a bold midafternoon assault on the Union troops, who were enjoying a siesta. Branson, who thought he faced ‘a considerable force of the enemy,’ thought his position untenable and immediately began to retreat. He backpedaled to White’s Ranch, losing one Texan.
Once he had dug in for the night, Branson sent a courier back to Brazos Santiago with an appeal for help. Colonel Barrett ordered Lt. Col. Robert G. Morrison to take 200 of his 34th Indiana to Branson’s aid. Morrison, an experienced officer who had led his regiment through the Vicksburg campaign, took his men to Boca Chica in skiffs. Barrett followed with some acting staff officers, and they all reached White’s Ranch at dawn on May 13.
At Barrett’s direction, Branson detailed a platoon from his regiment to guard the captured supplies, the few prisoners and the wounded Texan. Then, while the Hoosiers stopped to cook breakfast, the black regiment started back toward Palmetto Ranch, about three miles away, skirmishing briskly with Robinson’s cavalrymen. Half an hour later, Morrison put his men back in line and trailed after Branson, lagging a mile or so behind.
At 11 a.m. Colonel Ford started to Robinson’s aid with as much of the rest of the battalion as he could muster, adding to it the three independent companies and the battery from Fort Brown. After an urgent appeal from Captain Robinson, Ford sent one company galloping ahead while he remained behind to personally hurry the main body forward.
The advance of Barrett’s little brigade passed Palmetto Hill again, burning what remained of the supplies at the ranch before pressing on after Robinson’s weary troopers. Two companies of the 34th Indiana preceded the 62nd as skirmishers. One company deployed on the right, while the other — 27 men of Company K, under 2nd Lt. Charles A. Jones — fanned out on the left in the thick chaparral along the riverbank. Their sporadic fire escalated sharply as Ford’s reinforcements began to show up.
Ford threw most of his men into line at 3 p.m. He later calculated that his entire force, some of whom were ‘volunteers,’ had amounted to 275 cavalry and 25 foot soldiers to work the six guns. Years afterward he explained that the volunteers were French soldiers who had crossed the river to see a little action. Riding around in civilian dress, Ford placed one section of the battery on either end of his line and kept two guns in reserve. He gave Robinson the rest of his original battalion, bracing his right with the three companies under Captain D.M. Wilson.
Later Colonel Barrett claimed that he had wanted to bivouac that night on Telegraph Road, a better-drained thoroughfare that led directly to Port Isabel, where a transport could carry his troops back to Brazos Santiago. The arrival of Ford, whose force Barrett overestimated by a factor of two, changed those plans. Though Barrett still commanded 500 officers and men, he started falling back before the 300 Texans.
Veteran officers in the 34th Indiana found Barrett unimpressive, charging that he asked the most junior officers their opinions and requested their cooperation rather than giving orders. At one point he acceded to Lieutenant Jones’ request for 100 men to perform a ‘little maneuver’ on the Confederates, apparently directing Colonel Branson to follow the second lieutenant’s instructions. To even Jones’ surprise, Branson submitted, although Ford’s arrival canceled the experiment.
Ford took one company each from Robinson and Wilson to swing around his left and assail the Federal right. Two companies under Captains J.B. Cocke and John Gibbons strung out parallel to the Rio Grande, but wary Yankees saw the movement. Barrett directed Colonel Morrison to confront that threat with two more companies of the 34th, and Morrison sent Captain Abraham M. Templer out with Companies B and E.
The first rounds from Ford’s artillery struck the Federals at about 4 p.m., when Barrett’s line had fallen back to within a mile and a half of Palmetto Hill. Those first shells alarmed the Union soldiers, who had not suspected the presence of any guns and had none with which to reply. When Cocke and Gibbons opened fire on his right, Barrett started his main body to the rear at the double-quick. Lieutenant Jones reported that his men were too exhausted to serve as the rear guard, so Barrett ordered the 50 Texans to cover the retreat. First Lieutenant James Hancock, who commanded the Texans, complained that his men had already expended all but a couple of rounds of ammunition apiece, but Barrett ordered him out anyway with a promise to relieve him soon.
The two fleeing Union regiments left 100 of their comrades behind. Captain Templer, one lieutenant and 48 Indiana infantrymen were surrounded and compelled to throw down their arms. Company E was the color company of the 34th, and the prisoners included the men who carried the national and state flags. Sergeant John R. Smith, who bore the Stars and Stripes, took the state flag from Corporal George Burns and disappeared into the chaparral with both banners. He tried to swim the river with them, but when troops on the Mexican side fired on him he swam back, evidently losing the state flag near the far side. Troubled by an old foot wound, Smith could not outrun his pursuers, but he tucked the U.S. flag beneath some undergrowth along the riverbank just before Confederate cavalrymen caught up with him.
Lieutenant Hancock, his second lieutenant and 20 of their Union Texans also surrendered when they were cut off. In addition, nearly 30 stragglers from the 34th fell into enemy hands while their regiment raced toward Palmetto Ranch. The precipitous retreat quickly exhausted the Indiana troops. A few of the laggards did manage to swim the Rio Grande without interference.
Now Colonel Barrett ordered out several companies of skirmishers from the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry to cover his rear and flank. The white regiment and the black one crossed paths near Palmetto Ranch, each breaking the other’s ranks. The 34th, which had been behind, took the road nearest the river, while the 62nd bore to the left and slowed its step to quick time. Still trotting at the double-quick, the 34th overtook the 62nd despite having the longer road around a bend in the river, and when the white regiment reached the far side of Palmetto Hill, it had taken the lead in the retreat. One witness later testified that Colonel Barrett had promised the Indiana troops he would stop and fight at Palmetto Hill, but instead he barely slowed the retreat.
Barrett ordered Morrison to keep up with the wagons, which rolled ahead of the harried column. Canteens, haversacks and even rifles littered the road in its wake. Morrison stayed near the head of his regiment, trying to reassure the men and maintain a pace that would not wear them out before they reached the relative safety of Boca Chica. He threw a company ahead to hold back anyone with the inclination to bolt, but the column still moved steadily forward. Occasionally a shell or a solid shot whistled overhead, after which a volley or two would come echoing back from the rear guard.
When the fugitives reached White’s Ranch, they still had another 12 miles to Boca Chica. Ford’s Confederates pursued doggedly, but from there the narrow peninsula foiled any flanking maneuvers. All the Confederates could do was hasten the withdrawal with artillery fire. Three miles from Boca Chica, one of the Federal wagons became mired in a bog, but the Indiana regiment filed around it and made for the boats. The sun had just set when the first of Morrison’s men reached the landing, rushing into the water to secure their places in the skiffs. A staff officer tried to hold them back so the wounded could cross first, but they ignored him.
The enemy was no longer in sight by now, so there was no need for such frenzy. With Union reinforcements just across the inlet, Colonel Ford preferred not to linger, but as he started back upriver he encountered Brig. Gen. Slaughter, who rode up at the head of 120 men of the other cavalry battalion. Slaughter told Ford to resume the pursuit. Ford argued against it, but Slaughter insisted and threw out such a heavy line of skirmishers that the Federals feared he meant to charge.
About 2l2 miles from the landing, Colonel Branson deployed his skirmishers one final time. Company K of the 62nd, under Captain Fred Coffin, spread out and leveled another volley at the Confederates, who returned it. The two lines fired ineffectually at each other for a few more minutes, and then Captain Coffin turned his line back to Boca Chica. The Texans eased their horses forward again, but the last shots of the Civil War had been fired. Slaughter thought better of his aggressiveness, and Barrett ferried the rest of his men across without further molestation.
When all the reports had come in, Colonel Barrett discovered that he had lost only one man killed, Private John Jefferson Williams, of Jay County, Ind. Nine men had been wounded and 103 officers and men captured, most of them from the 34th Indiana. Colonel Ford summarized his losses as ‘five or six, wounded.’ The prisoners from the 34th Indiana carried their comrade’s body to the outskirts of Brownsville, where they buried him.
One black soldier, Sergeant David Clark, evidently fell out on the retreat and spent the night of May 13 huddled in the chaparral a mile below Palmetto Ranch. Ford’s men found him as they swept back through at noon the next day. He was the last prisoner ever taken by the Confederate Army, and as Texans prodded him back toward Brownsville that afternoon, other horsemen came galloping up to the column with the battered national colors of the 34th Indiana. Military authorities recovered the state flag on the Mexican shore a couple of days later. The commander of the post at Bagdad, Mexico, turned it over to an Indiana lieutenant.
Within a fortnight of the battle, an official armistice ended the fighting in Texas, and on May 30 the 34th Indiana marched into Brownsville to begin occupation duty. That did not end the matter, though, for Colonel Barrett’s poor showing in his only engagement led him to bring charges against Colonel Morrison, on whom he tried to blame the disaster.
A court-martial sat on the case through late July and most of August, listening to conflicting stories divided along partisan lines. Witnesses from Morrison’s regiment gave testimony that supported him, while Barrett’s officers recounted versions that flattered their leader. Even Colonel Ford appeared on Morrison’s behalf, offering the embarrassing information that Barrett had fled before a force barely half the size of his own. Despite lax discipline in the 34th and the relative disorder of its retreat, the court refused to convict Morrison on a single charge or specification.
Apparently by virtue of overweening ambition, Colonel Barrett had initiated a perfectly unnecessary battle. Through his incompetence, he had given the dying Confederacy the satisfaction of claiming victory in the last battle of the war.
This article was written by William Marvel and originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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