Battle of Palmetto Ranch
12 - 13 May 1865

Panoramic view of the battle

This diorama depicts the critical moment of the Battle of Palmetto Ranch, the last land action of the Civil War, which was fought near Brownsville, by Union and Confederate forces well aware of the surrender of Robert E. Lee four weeks earlier.

62nd U S Colored Troops RetreatThe action began when Federal troops stationed on Brazos Island, just south of Padre Island and north of the Rio Grande, moved onto the Texas mainland on the night of May 11–12. Inconclusive skirmishing on May 12 and the morning of May 13 drove a battalion of Rebel cavalry west of Palmetto Ranch, where it was reinforced by artillery and cavalry commanded by Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford.

Finding the Federal force located deep in a bend of the Rio Grande, Ford sought to trap his enemies, commanded by Colonel Theodore Barrett, by sending a flanking column to cut the Union troops off from the road leading back to Brazos Island. Seeing the Rebel movement, Colonel Barrett ordered a rapid retreat out of the potential trap by his 62nd United States Colored Troops, the 34th Indiana and two companies of the 2nd Texas (U.S.) Cavalry (dismounted).

Capture of Union Skirmish LineThis sudden withdrawal left the skirmish line of the 34th Indiana unsupported. Ford seized upon this opportunity and immediately ordered his cavalry to attack. During this phase of the battle, Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana was killed, becoming the last soldier to die in battle during the war.

Ford’s troopers captured the entire Federal skirmish line, as well as the companies of the 2nd Texas (U.S.) which were acting as a rear guard for Barrett’s retreating main force. Despite this loss, the Union troops managed to reach the top of the river bend just ahead of the Confederates. Capture of Union Skirmish LineWith their line of retreat secure, the Yankees steadily withdrew toward the coast, harassed by Ford’s cavalry the entire distance. Toward dusk, both sides received reinforcements and skirmishing went on until nightfall, when Barrett’s force crossed back to Brazos Island and safety. Two Union soldiers had been killed, six wounded, 102 captured and two were listed as missing. Southern losses were five or six wounded, one of who is believed to have died later.

The last battle of the war was a resounding Confederate victory, but it could not change the strategic reality that the South had been defeated. A few days after the battle, Ford disbanded his command and sent his troops home.

Narrative and graphic: Jeff Hunt
Photography: Robert Gates III

Area Map