BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — It’s common knowledge that the four bloody, thunderous years of the American Civil War came to a solemn end when Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox — but it’s not true.
The final land battle of the war wasn’t fought until more than a month later, 150 years ago Tuesday and Wednesday, on a barren, wind-swept coastal plain at the southern tip of Texas.
And the Confederates won.
How the battle of Palmito Ranch came about involves a tale of one officer’s ego and another’s stubborn refusal to yield.
It was fought on land where little has changed in more than a century, marked by patches of prickly pear cactus, void of the namesake palm trees and buffeted periodically over the decades by storm surges and hurricanes from the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
“You don’t just come here,” says Craig Stone, with the Cameron County Historical Commission. “You have to want to be here.”
Stationed on Brazos Island, Minnesotan Theodore Barrett, a newly promoted Union brigadier general, wanted to be here.
The Confederate forces further up the Rio Grande at Brownsville had thumbed their noses for years at the Union’s river blockade. They used neutral-flagged vessels at the then-Mexican port of Bagdad as a conduit for supplies.
“(Barrett) decided he needed some glory, needed something to make him look good,” said Don Barnhart, an historian and volunteer at the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth.
Ignoring an informal truce imposed a couple of months earlier by local commanders, Barrett launched what he planned as a surprise attack.
His men were spotted, then sparred with Rebel soldiers. The next day, Confederate troops led by Confederate Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford repulsed the Union forces in the main engagement and chased them back some seven miles nearly to Brazos Island before Ford broke off the pursuit.
Ford, a former Texas Ranger and newspaper editor, had been present when his boss, Gen. James Slaughter, and Union Gen. Lew Wallace agreed to an informal truce a couple of months earlier. Wallace had told his adversaries a fight on the Rio Grande was useless and “would have no effect on the final result of the contest,” Ford recalled.
“We, on the Confederate side, admitted the fact,” he added.
Nevertheless, Ford didn’t back down when Barrett’s troops attacked.
“Boys, we have done well,” Ford told his men, according to his memoirs, housed at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. “If memory is correct, the federals had about 50 killed and wounded, and 113 prisoners,” he wrote. “Our loss a small number wounded.”
Ford described Barrett as “confused” and said he “seemed to have lost his presence of mind” during the deciding battle. Barrett later tried to deflect criticism by bringing charges against a subordinate officer at a court martial.
In the battle, involving perhaps 1,000 soldiers, Hispanic men fought for the South and black soldiers for the Union. Among the casualties, Union Pvt. John J. Williams, from the 34th Indiana, is considered by many historians to be the last soldier killed in a war that claimed more than 600,000 soldiers’ lives.
“What’s so unique is it was fought like a month after Appomattox,” Barnhart says. “Two days prior, Jefferson Davis was captured. Other main Confederate armies had surrendered. And Lincoln had been assassinated.”
Ford’s response to Barrett’s incursion made perfect sense, says Stone, who chairs the Cameron County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee that’s holding an anniversary ceremony Tuesday at the battlefield.
“I think a lot it had to do with pride,” he said.
Today, a water tower on the horizon about 15 miles to the west hints at civilization but little else appears to have changed much at the battlefield.
In contrast to the historic shrines at places like Fort Sumter National Monument, in Charleston, South Carolina, where the war began in April 1861, or Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the tide of war turned, the Palmito Ranch Battlefield is “just a spot on the side of the road,” Stone acknowledges.
It’s marked with a metal plaque on a granite tablet and two informational panels. Just off the highway, three panels display information leading to a small deck overlooking a battlefield that’s been mostly forgotten.
“It never really got the credit it deserves or the importance,” Stone says. “They were still fighting. What did they have to gain?”
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