Thursday, May 14, 2015

Throwback Thursday - The Battle Of Palmito Ranch

Another installment in my not-exactly-regular series of throwback posts featuring highlights of Texas history. This one discusses the last battle of the Civil War War Between the States War of Northern Aggression.

Final battle of Civil War was 150 years ago today - and the Confederates won
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."

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."

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.
This April 29, 2015, photo shows the Palmito Ranch Battlefield, scene of the last land battle of the Civil War 150 years ago near Brownsville, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Graczyk)

This battle is reminiscent of the Battle of New Orleans, which came after the War of 1812 had officially ended.
On December 24, 1814, Great Britain and the United States signed a treaty in Ghent, Belgium that effectively ended the War of 1812. News was slow to cross the pond, however, and on January 8, 1815, the two sides met in what is remembered as one of the conflict’s biggest and most decisive engagements. In the bloody Battle of New Orleans, future President Andrew Jackson and a motley assortment of militia fighters, frontiersmen, slaves, Indians and even pirates weathered a frontal assault by a superior British force, inflicting devastating casualties along the way. The victory vaulted Jackson to national stardom, and helped foil plans for a British invasion of the American frontier.
An interesting side note: Andrew Jackson is the only president who served in the military during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Battle of New Orleans gave him the public recognition that later came in handy when he ran for president.

It's also a sad commentary on the disturbing trend of recent presidents having little or no military experience. Here's a partial list, along with years of service, going back to Ike. For the full list go here.
Dwight D. Eisenhower - General of the Army, U.S. Army
1915-1948, 1951-1952

John F. Kennedy - Lieutenant, U.S. Naval Reserve

Lyndon B. Johnson - Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

Richard M. Nixon - Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

Gerald R. Ford, Jr. - Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

Jimmy Carter - Lieutenant, U.S. Navy

Ronald Reagan - Captain, U.S. Army

George Bush - Lieutenant (junior grade), U.S. Navy

George W. Bush - First Lieutenant, Texas Air National Guard
Conspicuous by their absence are Bill Clinton and barack obama...


Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

CenTexTim said...

Gerald, I'm glad you enjoyed it, but the credit belongs to the folks who did the research. I just cut-and-pasted.