The Last Battle

Introduction

For some unknown reason, most people think that Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse was the end of the American Civil War.  It wasn’t.  Lee’s surrender did take place on 9 April 1865, but he wasn’t the only Confederate general commanding a large army.  Having learned of Lee’s surrender on 14 April, General Joseph E. Johnston sent a message to William T. Sherman asking for a meeting to discuss the surrender of his Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia.[1]  Even after Johnston’s surrender, and despite President Andrew Johnson’s announcement on 9 May that the war was over, the war continued in deep South Texas.

In Texas

There were only a few battles in Texas during the Civil War.  The Union did make several attempts to capture the Trans-Mississippi regions of Texas and Louisiana (1862-65), with eastern ports under Union blockade.  Texas, therefore, became a blockade-running haven.  Under the Union’s Anaconda Plan, the Union Navy blockaded Galveston — Texas’ principal seaport — and the entire Gulf and Southern borders for four years.  Union troops occupied Galveston for three months late in 1862, but General Magruder recaptured it on 1 January 1863, and it remained in Confederate hands until the end of the war.

Texans love a challenge — the kind created by Union blockades.  They not only evaded the Union Army, but they also avoided bandits and pro-Union Mexicans to smuggle cotton into Mexico.  Throughout the Civil War, the sale or exchange of cotton was a Confederate money-maker, and President Lincoln wanted it stopped.  In 1863, Union general Nathan Banks led the Rio Grande Expedition to secure ports near Brownsville and pushed 100 miles inland to impede the flow of cotton and deny the rebels freedom of movement.

Brownsville wasn’t the only South Texas city to fall.  So too did Port Lavaca and Indianola.  Federal attempts to seize control of Laredo, Corpus Christi, and the Sabine Pass were failures.  In 1865, El Paso and Brazos Island were the only Texas cities in Union hands.  The Second Battle of Sabine Pass was Texas’ most notable fight, not because of the size of the fight, but because 48 Confederates from the Davis Guards denied General William B. Franklin’s much larger army access to the Sabine Pass and sent them scurrying back to New Orleans.

Later, in 1864, Confederate General Camille de Polignac moved into Northwestern Louisiana to stall General Banks’ Red River Campaign.[2]  Given their failure to stop the flow of cotton into Mexico, Lincoln needed them elsewhere. In July 1864, the Union Army withdrew most of its 6,500 men from the lower Rio Grande Valley, including Fort Brown (Brownsville). No sooner had these forces withdrawn, Confederates moved back in and took possession of Fort Brown.

On 22 January 1865, General Grant ordered Major General Lew Wallace to the Rio Grande to investigate Confederate military operations in South Texas.  Although Wallace was not authorized to offer terms to the Confederates, he did discuss proposals for the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department.  Wallace provided Grant with copies of his proposals and advised him of the “negotiations.”  Before returning to Baltimore, Wallace also met with Mexican military officials to discuss the United States’ unofficial efforts to aid them in expelling Maximillian’s French occupation force.  Following Lincoln’s death on 15 April 1865, Wallace served on the military commission investigating the conspiracy.

In April 1865, sixty-thousand Confederate troops remained in Texas as part of General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Department.  The morale of these troops was quite low, and desertion and criminal behavior were problematic.  Texans learned of Lee’s surrender on 20 April; local Confederate leaders argued about what to do next.  Most senior officers vowed to “carry on” with the war, Kirby Smith among them.  Unfortunately for Smith, very few rebel troops were impressed with Smith’s “fight on boys” speeches.

In May, Texas Confederates learned of Johnston’s surrender.  Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas now stood alone to continue the fight.  Troops in Galveston briefly mutinied but were eventually talked into remaining armed.  Magruder and Smith communicated with Major General John Pope regarding surrender terms on 9 May — after which both generals gave up trying to rally their demoralized troops.  General Magruder pleaded for the rapid disbanding of the army to prevent depredations by disgruntled soldiers against the civilian population.  Unfortunately, his efforts had the opposite effect: Soldiers began pillaging Galveston’s military stores on 21 May.  It soon became a contest between rebel soldiers and civilians about who could plunder the most.  By 27 May, only 30,000 Confederate troops remained under arms, and Texas descended into an outlaw hell.  On 2 June, General Kirby Smith, a commander without an army and a general without troops, surrendered to General Pope.

The Last Battle

On 11-12 March 1865, Wallace met with Brigadier General James Slaughter[3] and Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford,[4] both of whom agreed to a cessation of hostilities.  Slaughter’s superior was Major General John G. Walker, commanding the Confederate District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Walker promptly rejected a ceasefire (officially), but both sides ceased all hostilities.

Colonel Robert B. Jones, U.S. Army, commanded a brigade of some 1,900 troops at the Port of Brazos Santiago (at the mouth of the present-day shipping channel of the Port of Brownsville).  His mission was to provide a blockade preventing Confederate access to overseas trade.  The Brigade consisted of 400 men of the 34th Indiana (an experienced combat brigade that had served at Vicksburg), the 87th and 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments (USCT) (around 1,100 troops).  Shortly after General Walker met with Texas state officials, Colonel Jones resigned his commission and returned home.  Union officials replaced him with Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Morrison, commanding 34th Indiana, and Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, who assumed command of the 62nd and 87th U.S. Colored Troops.

In 1865, Colonel Barrett was 30-year old.  Despite serving since 1862, Barrett had no combat experience and had never commanded a unit in combat.  Some historians posit that Barrett was motivated to initiate an engagement in South Texas because doing so would enhance his chances of promotion.  Others argue that Barrett’s actions were that he needed horses for 300 unmounted cavalrymen.  Another reason often cited for Barrett’s actions was to seize 2,000 bales of cotton stored in Brownsville — which is no doubt true.

Remember that both Union and Confederate forces in Texas knew that Lee had surrendered on 9 April.  It was only a matter of time before the end of all hostilities.  That aside, and despite the previously stated argument among scholars, what we know for a fact is that in South Texas, two things were at stake: honor and money.  Colonel Ford was not inclined to surrender his men, and he was equally disinclined to surrender 2,000 bales of cotton.

Colonel Barrett placed Lieutenant Colonel David Branson in command of 250 men (8 companies) from the 62nd and two companies of the U.S. 2nd Texas.  The U.S. 2nd Texas was mainly composed of Texans of Mexican descent who remained loyal to the Union.  The Branson expedition moved from Brazos Santiago to the mainland on 12 May, initially gaining some success with the capture of three (3) rebels and some supplies.  That afternoon, C.S. Captain William N. Robinson led 100 of his cavalry in a counterattack, which forced Branson to withdraw to White’s Ranch.  Fighting stopped for the night, and both sides sent for reinforcements.  Colonel Ford reinforced Robinson, adding 200 additional men and six French field guns.  Colonel Barrett reinforced Branson with 200 troops of the 34th Indiana, totaling nine understrength infantry companies.

Colonel Barrett (in overall command) advanced westward, passing about a half-mile west of the Palmito Ranch the next morning.  The 34th Indiana deployed skirmishers in advance of the main body.  At 4 p.m., on 13 May, Colonel Ford attacked Barrett’s force by sending two companies into Barrett’s right flank and the remainder of his force in a frontal attack.  Barrett was forced to withdraw to Boca Chica.  Ford’s artillery defeated his attempt to form a rear-guard.  Barrett’s withdrawal lasted until 14 May, when Ford managed to surround and capture 50 troops of the 34th Indiana, 30 stragglers, and 20 dismounted cavalry troops.  Colonel Barrett officially reported 115 casualties: one killed, nine wounded, and 105 men captured by Colonel Ford.  Modern scholars dispute Barrett’s claim.  Thirty union troops died, many of these by drowning in the Rio Grande or having been shot by French border guards in Mexico.  Scholars also agree that Colonel Ford understated his casualties.  Ford suffered six wounded in action and three missing in action/presumed captured. 

The last battle of the American Civil War was fought in Texas, resulting in a victory for the Confederates.  Perhaps.  The claim may depend on how one defines a battle.  When Union forces captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis on 10 May, the Confederate States of America ceased to exist.  Even though men still died, there could be no “official” battle after 10 May.  The last man killed in the Civil War is generally believed to have been Private John J. Williams, 34th Indiana, on 13 May 1865 — but there is no way to validate this claim.  Besides, another scuffle occurred on 19 May 1865 at Hobdy’s Bridge near Eufaula, Alabama, where Corporal John W. Skinner lost his life.

In July 1865, Colonel Barrett preferred charges against LtCol Branson, alleging disobedience, neglect, abandoning his colors, and conduct prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the command.  Branson was dutifully court-martialed.  Appearing at trial on his behalf was Colonel Rip Ford.  Colonel Ford’s testimony absolved Branson of any responsibility for Barrett’s defeat at the Palmito Ranch.

Sources:

  1. Denton, P.  Johnston’s Surrender.  Ohio State University online.
  2. Frazier, D. S.  Blood, and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest.  Texas A&M Press, 1995.
  3. Hunt, J. W.  The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch.  University of Texas Press, 2000.
  4. Kerby, R. L.  Kirby Smith’s Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South.  University of Alabama Press, 1991.
  5. Marten, J.  Texas Divided: Loyalty and Dissent in the Lone Star State.  University of Kentucky Press, 1990.
  6. Wooster, R. A.  Texas and Texans in the Civil War.  Eakin Press, 1996.

Endnotes:

[1] Sherman and Johnston began their negotiation on 16 April.  Since Johnston’s army was in a better position and in better shape than Lee’s, Johnston wanted better terms than those offered to Lee.  Sherman offered generous terms because he, as with many Union generals, feared that Johnston’s confederates might resort to fighting a guerrilla war in the inland mountains.

[2] Camille Armand Jules Marie de Polignac was a French nobleman who distinguished himself as a Confederate Brigadier General at the Battle of Mansfield.  He was subsequently promoted to major general.  His rebel troops, unable to pronounce his family name, simply called him “General Polecat.”  When Polignac died in 1913, he was the last surviving Confederate major general.

[3] James Edwin Slaughter (1827-1901) was born in Culpepper, Virginia to a prominent family; his mother was related to President James Madison.  Slaughter was commissioned in the U.S. Army in 1846 and participated in the Mexican-American war as an infantry officer.  After the war, Slaughter transferred into the Artillery and served in the 1st Artillery Regiment from 1848 until the outbreak of the American Civil War.  At this time, he resigned from the U.S. Army and accepted a commission as a first lieutenant, artillery, Confederate States of America.  He was promoted to major in November 1861, and to brigadier general in March 1862.  From that point forward, Slaughter played an important role in the affairs of the Confederacy in Texas.

[4] John S. Ford (1815-1897) was a medical doctor, lawyer, Texian soldier, Texas Ranger, Brigadier General of Texas militia, Colonel, C.S. Army, Indian fighter, journalist, and a member of the Texas Senate.  I have mentioned Ford in several of my Old West Tales. 


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Military, American Southwest, Civil War, History, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Last Battle

  1. Andy says:

    Any history of Texas immediately has my attention. This essay was particularly interesting. Well done my friend.

    S/F

    Like

  2. Major General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
    Well, Texas may have held out. Thanks for Juneteenth. not.

    Like

    • Mustang says:

      The first time I heard of “Juneteenth” was while at Texas A&M and a black fellow mentioned it. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he was kind enough to explain it. One-hundred fifty-seven years after the fact, I’m still shaking my head.

      Like

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