Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Union: Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, commanding a Union force consisting of the 62nd United States Colored Troops and the 2nd Texas (US) Cavalry.
Confederate: Colonel John S. Ford, commanding a small force of Confederate troops.
Prelude: The Civil War is coming to an end. There are no more major Confederate armies in the field. The Government of the Confederate States of America has been disbanded, its leaders scattered in an attempt to escape or already prisoners of the Federals. Despite the lack of any major organized armies, there were many smaller units scattered around the country, still putting up a fight, but for the most part their commanders were either surrendering or just simply disbanding their units.
One small operation was in progress at the southernmost part of Texas. The purpose was not only to eliminate any further Confederate resistance, but it was also necessary to re-establish Federal control over the border region. Mexico was in the midst of its own civil war, with the deposed government of Benito Juarez fighting the forces of Emperor Maximillian and his army, consisting mainly of French troops. So, it became important that US President Andrew Johnson and the Federal Government secured the border as soon as possible.
The area involved in the operation is at the extreme southern tip of Texas. The only major town in the area is Brownsville. Across the Rio Grande River are the towns of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, and Bagdad, a port at the mouth of the Rio Grande where Confederate blockade runners could land their cargoes without Union interference. There was a Federal presence in the area, a small garrison at Brazos Santiago that was all that remained of an 1863-1864 operation that sent Union forces up the Rio Grande as far as Laredo, where they were turned back. Eventually, the Confederates reclaimed all the territory except for Brazos Santiago.
The 62nd USCT was previously called the 1st Missouri Colored Infantry. Their previous service was garrison duty at Baton Rouge, building fortifications. The only combat service so far was a one-day patrol which did not turn up anything. It must have been little relief when orders came in to relocate to Brazos Santiago. The attitude amongst the African-American soldiers was that it was believed that they were only good for garrison duty, a belief not unfounded. Still, they followed orders and marched to New Orleans, where they embarked.
In October of 1864, the unit arrived at Brazos Santiago, joining the 1000 man garrison, consisting of Illinois troops, the 81st USCT (Engineers), and the 2nd TX (US) Cavalry. This force was soon joined by the 34th Indiana, allowing the Illinois troops to be assigned to Major General E.R.S. Canby’s expedition against Mobile, AL. There was an attempt to assign the 62nd USCT to that operation, but was unsuccessful. In the end, the garrison commander, Brigadier General William Pile, departed, leaving Colonel Robert Jones in command. In April of 1865 Jones himself left, leaving Barrett in command.
The situation in South Texas was this: things were quiet in the area. The Confederate military presence was mostly small units. It was so quiet that there was even an attempt to negotiate with the Confederates for their surrender, which was rejected. The time came for a direct approach; with the war winding down (Barrett would have received dispatches about the Confederate surrender) it seemed the right time to sweep up the Rio Grande Valley.
Barrett decided to assemble a force for that sweep, with the aim to capture food, lumber, and horses. The 2nd TX (US) Cavalry did not have any horses. They would also engage any Confederate units that they found. Barrett decided to take the cavalry, as well as the 62nd USCT, about 250 men total. The plan was to march south from their encampment at the north end of Brazos Santiago, board a ferry that would take them to Point Isabel (now Port Isabel), and then head for Brownsville. The formation would be placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel David Branson.
11 May, 1865: Early Morning: The Union formation departs their base and heads for the ferry landing, where id was discovered that the ferry’s steam engine had broken down. Barrett ordered Branson to return to camp and prepare to march to a crossing at Boca Chica.
That evening, the Federals reached Boca Chica and began to cross, despite approaching storms. By 9:30 p.m., the force was across and began marching southwest to the Rio Grande. There was intelligence that there was a small Confederate camp alongside the river at White’s Ranch.
12 May, 1865: 2:00 a.m.: As the Federals approached White’s Ranch, they split their column with the intent to encircle the camp and surprise the Confederates come dawn. As the campsite was reached, it was discovered that the place was deserted. It seemed that the Confederates moved up river. The next logical spot was Palmito Ranch. With the approaching dawn, Branson ordered his men to take cover in nearby thickets.
5:00 a.m.: Branson receives word that Mexicans on the south bank of the river has spotted then and were alerting the Confederates in Brownsville. Branson decided to press on to Palmito Ranch.
12:00 noon: Branson’s troops reach Palmito Ranch, finding the place deserted. He soon realizes he is in a pickle; his force is deep in enemy territory, the Confederates know of his presence, and even the Imperial Mexican Army was around, threatening to make trouble. Branson decides to secure the area, capturing three prisoners and a few supplies.
3:00 p.m.: A formation of Confederate troops were approaching from Brownsville. Branson decides to pull back toward White’s Ranch. This was accomplished amid skirmishing.
13 May, 1865: 8:00 a.m.: Arriving at White’s Ranch, Branson finds Barrett and about 200 troops from the 34th IN. Barrett assumes command of the combined force and orders an advance on Palmito Ranch.
10:00 a.m.: After a break for rest and food, the Union force sets off. The Confederates who had been skirmishing with Branson’s troops sent word to Brownsville. When the message reached there, the Confederate commander wanted to surrender, but Ford, the second-in-command decided otherwise.
11:00 a.m.: Ford, 200 mounted troops, and six cannon, depart Brownsville and head for Palmito Ranch.
Meanwhile, Barrett’s troops reach Palmito Ranch and proceeded to burn the barracks there. At the same time, Branson’s troops engage Confederate skirmishers, who were there to keep an eye on things until Ford arrived.
Barrett had originally placed his troops in line of battle formation along the road to Brownsville; the 34th IN on the road itself, the 62nd USCT to their right, and the 2nd TX (US) Cavalry between the two. They soon meet their first serious resistance from skirmishers near Palmito Hill.
2:00 p.m.: Barrett issues an order which turned out to be a grave mistake. He orders all his troops to encamp on Palmito Hill, with only five soldiers detailed to keep watch. Barrett’s intention was to rest for the night, then march to Point Isabel and back to Brazos Santiago. However, that was not to be.
3:00 p.m.: Ford arrives with his force and began deploying them. He found a rise west of Palmito Hill where the cannon could be deployed in support of one detachment. A smaller detachment was sent with two cannon as a flanking element to the north and east of the Federal position. The last two cannon was his reserve. With the skirmishers joining him, Ford had 360 total men at his disposal.
4:00 p.m.: Ford orders his troops to attack.
Barrett was caught totally by surprise.
The Federals respond by sending out two companies of the 34th IN as a skirmish line. The 2nd TX (US) covered the right, while the 62nd USCT covered the rear. This was a good defensive line except for one thing, the Federals did not bring any artillery with them, and they were starting to get pounded by the Confederate guns. Barrett orders a retreat.
The infantry began pulling back, with the cavalry keeping up a screen on their left. The Indiana troops went over Palmito Hill and headed for the road east, the African-American troops covered the right, keeping put a screen in order to protect that flank.
As Ford advanced, the 34th IN skirmishers were overrun and captured. The same happened to the 2nd TX (US), who were captured in the brush near Palmito Ranch.
It was noted that the Indiana troops were confused during the retreat, ending up exposed to Confederate artillery, and ran through the USCT formation, who were marching in good order.
Soon, the force was reformed; the 34th IN covered the supply wagons while the 62nd USCT maintained a rear-guard action. It was one such action that prevented Ford from cutting off the Federal retreat.
It took three hours for the force to reach Boca Chica, during which the 34th IN lost both of their flags.
14 May, 1865: Barrett’s troops complete their crossing back to Brazos Santiago, with the African-Americans “marching as from dress parade, twenty-eight inch step, music playing.” The Federals were safe; Ford’s pursuit had broken down several miles back, effectively ending the battle.
Branson was reported to say at the end of the operation, “That winds up the war.”
In a report dated 21 May, 1865, Barrett reported his losses as one killed, nine wounded, and 101 captured. The prisoners were brought to Brownsville and paroled.
By the end of May, all Confederate activity along the Rio Grande had ceased.
How ironic that the last battle of the Civil War was a Confederate victory.
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