Farm & Garden
Nature Writing
See the Movie
Science Writing

Out of the Past
History Lessons

The Last Battle of the Civil War

The Civil War may have officially ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1965, but the last battle was fought more than a month later at a remote outpost called Palmetto (Palmito) Ranch at the southernmost tip of Texas and the Confederates won. 

Texas cavalry and artillery batallions under the command of Confederate Col. John S. "Rip" Ford fought a short four-hour battle against the Union's 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry and the 62nd Colored Troops. The exchange quickly turned into a rout, as the Confederate attack caught the Union troops by surprise. 

Didn't they know the war was over? asked readers of the New York Times after news of the defeat appeared in its pages more than a month later. 

"The New York Times article raised questions as well as eyebrows," writes Jeffrey Wm Hunt in his history of the event, The Last Battle of the Civil War. "Why had this battle been fought? Why had it been lost?" 

Because the battle had no impact on the outcome of the war, and because the nation had more important matters to attend to, answers to these questions were not immediately answered or extensively investigated. In Hunt's words, the following is the way the story has generally been recounted:

"Federal troops, advancing inland from their base off the Texas coast, fully aware of the surrender of the major Confederate armies and anticipating no problem with their attempt to occupy the city of Brownsville, encountered a body of Rebels ignorant of the fact that Lee had given up, and the result was a battle. 

"On just exactly what happened during that engagement most histories are vague. Depending on which one you read, the casualties were either heavy or light, the Federal troops either fought hard or ran, and the Rebels outnumbered the Yankees or vice versa. All that is agreed on is that the Union force was beaten and chased back to Brazos Island, and it was only after the battle that the Southerners learned (from captured Yankees) that the war was already over." 

In his history, Hunt draws upon previously unstudied letters and court martial records to demonstrate that prior to the battle the Texas Confederates were fully aware of events in the East. On May 1, 1865, a passenger on a steamer heading up the Rio Grande towards Brownsville tossed a copy of a newspaper containing news of Lee's surrender, Lincoln's death, and the surrender negotiations between Johnston and Sherman to Confederates at Palmito Ranch. Within the next few days hundreds of Texas rebels left the army and went home. Those who remained were determined to continue the fight in Texas. 

Hunt's research also disproved early allegations that the Union's regiment of Black troops, the 62nd Colored Troops, had run from the field in terror and contributed to the defeat. To the contrary, it was the deployment of the 140 Black troups in a nearly mile-long defensive rear guard that allowed the Union troops to slow the Confederate attack enough to allow the northerners to get away. 

The Confederates chased the federals for about seven miles to Brazos Island where the routed Union troops were met by reinforcements and the attack came to an end. The Confederates gave up their arms a few days later. 

The battle lasted about four hours. Confederate casualties were a few dozen wounded. The federals had 30 men killed or wounded and 115 captured. The outcome made no difference in the war or upon the politics of the nation, but stories told about the battle -- especially the fact that the southerner's won the final conflict -- have made it one of the most mythologized and misunderstood Civil Wars battles that continue to rise up out of the past

see the movie
Gods and Generals
based on the book
Gods and Generals
read more

U.S. Grant 
 great stories

Raiders of the Civil War
Glory Road

Jeffrey Wm Hunt
The Last Battle of the Civil War
Palmetto Ranch

Excerpt .
On the morning of June 18, 1865, readers of the New York Times awoke to find a shocking and unexpected story in their daily paper. There had been many such stories over the past four years and a good number in just the last few months. But this one was especially unanticipated. The grim headlines spoke for themselves: 

From the Rio Grande
An Indiana Regiment Cut to Pieces — Eighty Survivors out of Three Hundred Men — Maximilian's Soldiers with the Rebels 

Stories of this type would not have aroused undue interest at the beginning of the spring. After all, since 1861 Americans had been killing each other wholesale in a terrible civil war, and banner headlines announcing disasters for the Union had been uncomfortably frequent. But by the middle of June 1865 most people had gratefully embraced the belief that such headlines were a thing of the past. 

The bitter war between the North and South had ended weeks before, with the Southern Confederacy bleeding to death rather than going out with a final, climatic clash of arms. Indeed, the dramatic denouement of the war seemingly was the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Just emerging from that trauma, the last thing Northern readers could have anticipated seeing in their newspapers was the tale of a Union military disaster. 

Yet here it was. The report—actually a letter written by someone in the quartermaster's office of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry—made for extremely depressing reading. According to the anonymous author, on May 11, 1865, elements of three Federal regiments had advanced from their base on Brazos Island, just off the coast of Texas near the mouth of the Rio Grande, with their destination the Confederate-held city of Brownsville. The purpose of the expedition was not clear. But the letter writer surmised that the intention was to allow the commanding officer of the force, Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, "to establish for himself some notoriety before the war closed" by ordering an advance against the Rebels defending Brownsville in "direct violation of orders from headquarters." 

The movement was not a success. In two days of fighting that culminated on May 13, 1865, the Union soldiers were first checked by Confederate cavalry and then outmaneuvered on the battlefield. Mismanaged and defeated, or so the author claimed, the Federal forces were driven in near rout back to their starting point, twenty miles to the rear.


Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved.
Information in this document is subject to change without notice.
Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.