Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford didn’t like what he saw. A line of blue was spread before him over a rolling coastal plain studded with chaparral. The shrub-like plants provided an ideal cover for his skirmishers, who kept up a brisk fire to stall the Union advance. The force he faced was twice the size of his own. “This may be the last fight of the war,” he later wrote, “and from the number of Union men I see before me, I am going to be whipped.”
The old Indian fighter was right about one thing. This would be the last fight of the war. It was May 13, 1865—a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—and the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy had not yet capitulated. Despite learning weeks earlier of Lee’s surrender from a New Orleans newspaper, Ford’s troopers remained full of fight.
The Rio Grande Valley had held the attention of President Abraham Lincoln throughout the war, mainly because the Confederacy, to circumvent the Union naval blockade, had been exchanging cotton for arms across the Mexican border. Another concern was that French forces under the puppet emperor Maximilian had occupied Mexico—a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Lincoln felt a strong Union presence along the Rio Grande would thwart any alliance between Imperial Mexico and the Confederacy, and cut off trade routes through Mexico.
Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks invaded the region with 6,000 troops in the fall of 1863, occupying territory from Corpus Christi to Laredo, on the Rio Grande. Many of Banks’ men would eventually be sent back to Louisiana to serve in his failed 1864 Red River Campaign. Aided by those troop transfers, Ford’s 1,500-man Cavalry of the West had recaptured Brownsville and driven the Federals off the mainland. By the end of 1864, the Union presence had been reduced to a mere toehold at Brazos Santiago on a tiny island off the Texas coast.
Brazos Santiago was a flea-infested patch of sand on the island, manned by a garrison under the command of Col. Theodore Barrett. The garrison consisted of the veteran 34th Indiana Infantry (known as the “Morton Rifles”); the 2nd Texas, a dismounted cavalry regiment; and the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry, a regiment of former slaves. A gentleman’s agreement had kept the Union and Confederate camps from attacking each other thus far. But with the collapse of the Confederacy at hand, Barrett couldn’t resist. He believed that occupying Brownsville, with its vast stores of Rebel cotton, would finally give him a taste of glory.
On May 11, he sent a 300-man force under Lt. Col. David Branson over to the mainland. Branson moved uncontested up the Brownsville road until he reached Palmito Ranch, defended by a small group of Texans under Capt. William N. Robinson. The Texans delayed Branson briefly before abandoning the ranch. But Branson, fearing he might be surrounded, pulled back to White’s Ranch.
Ford was furious to learn the Federals had violated their agreement and ordered Robinson to hold fast as he gathered reinforcements. Barrett, meanwhile, was already heading Branson’s way with the 34th Indiana, which had just completed a rain-soaked foraging excursion of Padre Island.
Palmito Ranch, resting next to a wide loop in the Rio Grande, featured a 30-foot prominence known as Palmito Hill. Barrett occupied the hill and then, in an attempt to outflank the Rebels, had the 2nd Texas and part of the 34th move along the brush-lined riverbank. The 62nd USCT was to attack Robinson’s troopers from the east as the Texans and Hoosiers came in from the south. But the latter force moved too far forward and was accidentally fired upon by the 62nd.
The Rebels had figured out Barrett’s intentions and pulled back. Uncertain what to do, Barrett wavered and broke off the engagement. He let his men return to the hill to cook their lunch rations.
But “Rip” Ford was cooking up a trap. He arrived from Brownsville about 4 p.m. with 150 troopers and six cannons. His plan called for Robinson and the artillery to preoccupy the Federals as he swept left and cut off Barrett’s line of retreat.
When Robinson’s troopers charged screaming the Rebel yell—the cannon fire adding to the chaos—Barrett was quickly unnerved and abandoned Palmito Hill. Two companies of the 34th, ordered to stall the Rebels while their fellow Hoosiers retreated to the north, were soon overcome.
A footrace back to Palmito Ranch ensued. Members of the 2nd Texas tried to hold back Ford’s troopers at the top of the loop, but were captured. The heat and wool uniforms helped do in the 34th. Many of the Hoosiers fell out of the ranks and into the comforting shade of the chaparral; some merely plunged into the Rio Grande to escape. Only the 62nd showed much resolve under fire, earning special praise from Barrett.
Ford soon called off the pursuit, having lost only 10–15 men. By the end of May he had disbanded his unit rather than surrender, and to avoid arrest had fled across the Rio Grande to Matamoros, Mexico. Union forces under Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan eventually occupied the area in a show of strength against the French.
With no bearing on the Civil War’s outcome, Palmito Ranch would become a mere footnote— known only for being the war’s last land battle. For the Union, it was an unfortunate sideshow. For prideful Texans, it was satisfaction they had answered the war’s last challenge with a battle instead of a white flag.
Donald L. Barnhart Jr. specializes in Texas Civil War history. He writes from The Colony, Texas.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.