Battle of Palmito Ranch

On May 13, 1865, a month after the surrender of General Lee, the last land action of the Civil War took place near Brownsville.

On May 1, 1865, a passenger on a steamer heading up the Rio Grande towards Brownsville tossed a newspaper to some Confederates at Palmito Ranch. The paper contained the news of Lee's surrender, Lincoln's death, and the surrender negotiations between Johnston and Sherman. Within the next ten days several hundred rebels left the army and went home. Those who remained were determined to continue the fight in Texas. The Union troops, meanwhile, had received an erroneous report that the southerners were preparing to evacuate Brownsville and move east of Corpus Christi. In light of this intelligence, Colonel Barrett ordered 300 troops to cross to the mainland from Brazos Island at Boca Chica Pass to occupy Brownsville. Carrying five days' rations and 100 rounds of ammunition each, the Union troops crossed over to the coast on May 11. They marched all night and reached White's Ranch at daybreak where they tried to hide in a thicket along the Rio Grande. The camp was spotted by "civilians" (probably Confederate soldiers) on the Mexican side of the river. Realizing that any hope of surprising the Confederates was lost, they immediately resumed the march toward Brownsville.

At Palmito Ranch the Union army encountered members of the Texas Cavalry Battalion, which fought briefly with the Union force before retiring. The Union soldiers also fell back to a hill overlooking the ranch to camp for the night. At 3:00 A.M. the Confederate company reappeared. Two hundred Union reinforcements under Barrett's command moved on Palmito Ranch once more, and a "sharp engagement" took place along the riverbank between Barrett's 500 troops and Robinson's 190 Confederates. The outnumbered southerners were soon pushed back across an open prairie, while the exhausted Union soldiers paused on a small hill about a mile west of Palmito Ranch. At 3:00 PM, Confederate Colonel Ford arrived to reinforce Robinson’s men.

With mounted cavalry and artillery, Ford had the perfect force to deal with Barrett's infantry on the flat, open land. Hidden by a group of small trees, Ford's men formed their line of battle. The Confederate troops struck from both the left and the right. At the same time, the rest of Ford's men charged the enemy center. The southern assault came as a great surprise, and the Union line quickly fell apart. The Confederates chased the Union soldiers to Brazos Island. There the routed Union troops were met by reinforcements, and Ford's men ceased their attack. The action lasted four hours. At the same time as the battle of Palmito Ranch, the Confederate governors of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas were authorizing Kirby Smith to disband his armies and end the war. A few days later Union officers from Brazos Santiago visited Brownsville to arrange a truce with General Slaughter and Colonel Ford.

Source: Battle of Palmito Ranch
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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