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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.
The article reporting this calamity was full of details. The Rebels had outnumbered the Northern forces five to one. The Southern force had included cavalry and artillery as well as infantry, whereas the Federals had employed only foot soldiers. The Rebel cannon had "poured a destructive fire" into the ranks of the Union troops, while the enemy cavalry had flanked the Federal infantrymen and nearly surrounded them. A regiment of Black troops had reportedly run from the field in terror. A company of Texas Unionists was cut off and had fought to the death rather than surrender. Other men had sought escape by plunging into the Rio Grande, trying to swim to safety on the Mexican shore. The Rebels had shot down many of these men, while the river's current had claimed others. The color bearer of one Union regiment was killed trying to swim the river and his flag captured by the Confederates. Of three hundred men who had marched toward Brownsville, a mere eighty made it back. Only hard fighting by the 34th Indiana, which had cut its way out from encirclement, had allowed anyone to escape the disaster that took place around a small Texas dwelling known as Palmetto Ranch.
There was bitterness in the letter reprinted by the Times, a bitterness shared, perhaps, by a large number of Northerners who read it. The bitterness was understandable. Every man who died at Palmetto Ranch, and the letter implied there were many, had died needlessly. The Civil War had ended with the surrender of the major Confederate armies weeks before the fighting on the Rio Grande had taken place. No doubt it was irritating to the victorious North that the Rebels had won the last battle of the war.
The New York Times article raised questions as well as eyebrows. Why had this battle been fought? Why had it been lost? Was it true that troops belonging to the Imperial French government led by Archduke Maximilian, then occupying Mexico, had aided the Rebels in their struggle against the Union forces? If so, did this portend a new war between France and the United States on the Rio Grande?
The course of events, however, quickly swept the questions created by the battle of Palmetto Ranch out of the limelight and into the realm of history. Although it would always be remembered that the Rebels won the last fight of the War of the Rebellion in a remote corner of Texas, the questions raised by that first newspaper article would largely go unanswered for over 130 years.
This is not to say that the battle of Palmetto Ranch was ignored after June 1865. Union veterans argued about it for decades, debating the course of events and the blame for their defeat. Old Confederates recalled with pride administering a whipping to the Yankees in the war's last fight. The commanders wrote their reports and their memoirs, and from time to time local newspapers in Texas would trot out aging participants to retell the story of the struggle on the anniversary of the battle. In this fashion, a great deal was written about the fight at Palmetto Ranch.
Unfortunately, not all of what was written was accurate, and as time went by and the memories of the participants faded, it became harder and harder to decipher exactly what had taken place near Brownsville, Texas, back in May 1865. By the time the last of the men who had fought at Palmetto Ranch died, early in the twentieth century, a great deal of misinformation and myth had attached itself to this battle.
The mixture of fact and fiction made the work of historians who sought to set down the events at Palmetto Ranch problematic, to say the least. Their difficulties were not eased by the fact that the last battle of the Civil War always managed to be no more than a small part of a much bigger tale, such as the history of Texas or of the entire Civil War. The result was the passage into history of an often highly inaccurate account of what took place before, during, and after the last land battle of the Civil War.
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.
Sadly, the real story of the battle at Palmetto Ranch was lost, as historians, often relying on the work of other historians, perpetuated the above account. These men and women were not trying to blur the facts. But their failure to dig up all the existing evidence regarding the fight led them to accept and continually reprint an incomplete and often inaccurate account of the events that led up to the battle, the battle itself, and its aftermath.
Recently, however, much evidence concerning the battle of Palmetto Ranch has come to light. Among the new sources are letters written before and after the battle by one of the Confederate soldiers who fought at Palmetto Ranch. The letters show that the Rebels defending southern Texas knew, many days before the battle, that Lee had surrendered. In addition, there are the court martial records of one of the Union commanders engaged at Palmetto Ranch—265 pages of handwritten testimony which answer many of the questions that have surrounded the Palmetto Ranch fight almost since the day it occurred. Regimental records, after-action reports, and reminiscences by participants have also been discovered, which help to flesh out the fascinating story of the Civil War's last battle.
The actual course of events along the Rio Grande in the spring of 1865 is, if anything, even more remarkable than the generally accepted version. The events which led up to Palmetto Ranch tell us much about the nature of the Civil War in Texas, and particularly of the course and effects of that war on the Rio Grande Valley, a region whose history has often been neglected. By studying this little battle, those interested in history can gain a better knowledge of how Texans participated in the Confederate and Union causes and how they reacted to the end of the dream of Southern independence. The interaction of Northerners, Southerners, Frenchmen, Tejanos, Juarezistas, Mexican Imperialists, civilians, and soldiers in the struggle for control of the Rio Grande Valley and in the fight at Palmetto Ranch emphasizes the international and intercultural nature of Texas' southernmost region.
This then is much more than the military story of the Civil War's final clash of arms. It is also the story of the people who lived along the Confederacy's only international border and their efforts to defend their homes and their beliefs, as well as their dreams, different though they might have been.