“Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone, and retire.”
These were the words of Col. John “Rip” Ford to his men following the Battle of Palmetto Ranch which begun on today’s date, May 12 in 1865. This was the final battle of the American Civil war which was begun for reasons that are not clear.
The Troops in Texas
As he Civil War drew to a close, there were troops spread out all over the country. More than a full month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox there were still several thousand troops on both sides in Texas. At the southernmost tip of the state where the Rio Grande River empties into the Gulf of Mexico lay Brazos Santiago Island wherein was stationed 2,000 Union troops. Among these were the 62nd and 87th U.S. Colored Infantry, the 34th Indiana and a small number of loyal Texans who had signed on for cavalry service but were dismounted for lack of horses. Facing them across the bay and some miles inland, were some 1,200 men left by March 31 under the command of Confederate Brig. Gen. James E. Slaughter.
Barrett Moves Against the Rebels
These troops had been observing a kind of unofficial truce for some time. But for reasons that are unknown Union Colonel Theodore H. Barrett (below) ordered an attack on a Confederate camp near Fort Brown. It has been suggested that Barrett may have been looking to get
in some combat before the war was over. He may have been after some of the horses which the Confederates had. Whatever his reasons, Col. Barrett ordered some 250 men of his “colored” troops, and 50 of his dismounted cavalry to cross from Brazos Island to the mainland at Boca Chica Pass and move to occupy Brownsville. Under the command of Lt. Col. David Branson they did so on May 11 at 9:30 pm. They then marched all night, reaching White’s Ranch by daybreak on the 12th. There they stopped to rest, but were seen by Rebel Scouts. Barrett had hoped to surprise the rebels at Brownsville, but realizing that he had been spotted he immediately resumed his march to his target.
The Battle of Palmetto Ranch
Branson’s men left at 8:30 that morning traversing 112 miles to Palmetto Ranch, arriving at noon. Once there they immediately fell into a skirmish with Capt. W. N. Robinson’s 190 man company of Texas Cavalry Battalion, The two sides exchanged gunfire, but nobody was injured. After this brief exchange, the rebels fell back. Branson’s men did not pursue, but instead moved into the ranch and made their dinner. In the meantime, Robinson sent word of the attack back to Brownsville, where Col. Ford (below) began gathering up as many men
as he could to come to Robinson’s aid. But Robinson was not waiting for reinforcements. He gathered up what men he could and launched a bold counterattack later that day taking Branson’s men quite by surprise, sending then reeling back towards White Ranch. From there Branson sent word to Col. Barrett, asking for reinforcement. This, Barrett did arriving himself with 200 men from his Indiana regiment. He arrived at about 5:30 a.m. on the 13th. These men fought Robinson’s 190 man force, pushing them back, until Col. Ford arrived with rebel reinforcements of about 300 men, and artillery. This force then unleashed cannon fire on Barrett’s force, forcing them all the way back to Brazos Island. At this point the “colored” troops formed a line and were able to beat off the attack Ford’s force leading to his quote from the top of this posting.
The Last Man Killed….
In all of this fighting in what as clearly a Confederate victory in this final battle of the Civil War, the Union suffered only four men killed. One of these was the last man killed in the Civil War: John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry, pictured above.