Official Civil War records claim the battle at Columbus, Georgia, on April 16, 1865, was the last fight of the war and that the Battle of Palmito Ranch along the lower Rio Grande was a “post-Civil War encounter” because it occurred more than a month after General Robert E. Lee’s surrendered on April 9th. The reasons for the Texas battle are also open to argument although it is clear that some of the officers and enlisted men on both sides were not yet ready to quit the fight. In March 1865, believing the Union had won the war, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave permission for Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace to meet Confederate commanders of the Brownsville area in hopes of securing a separate peace agreement. The Union terms offered at the meeting on March 11th, required Confederates to take an oath of allegiance to the United States; stated that there would be no retaliation against the troops; and said those who wished to leave the country would be allowed to do so. When the Union’s proposal went up the Confederate chain of command, not only did Maj. Gen. John G. Walker denounce the terms, he wrote an angry letter to his subordinates for agreeing to meet with the Union in the first place. Even on May 9th the commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith told a gathering of governors of the Confederate states west of the Mississippi that despite Lee’s surrender he proposed continuing the fight.
After receiving a false report that the Confederates were abandoning Brownsville, the Union commander on Brazos Island at the mouth of the Rio Grande sent 300 men to the mainland with
instructions to occupy Brownsville. Confederates got word of the advance on May 12th and met the federals for a brief skirmish at Palmito Ranch twelve miles down the river from Brownsville. Both sides sent for reinforcements, but the Confederates were supplied the following day with mounted cavalry and a six-gun battery of field artillery that offered far more firepower than the federals that had to make do with an increase in infantry to only 500. At 4:00 P.M. on May 13th the battle began and immediately the federal line started falling apart. Within four hours the Union troops retreated seven miles back to Brazos Island. At that point Confederate Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford
commander of the southern division is quoted as saying, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone, and retire.” Ford wrote in his report of the battle that it had been “a run” and the clash showed “how fast demoralized men could get over ground.” The accounts also differ on the number of loses: from a handful to a few dozen Confederates wounded, while the Union had from sixteen to thirty killed and wounded.
At the same time the Battle of Palmito Ranch raged, governors of the Confederate states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas were instructing Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to dismiss his armies and end the war. A few days later, federal officers from Brazos Island arrived in Brownsville to arrange a truce with the Confederate Commander of the Brownsville area and Col. John Ford.