Texas Claims the Last Land Battle of the American Civil War

More than a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox (April 9, 1865), the Last Land Battle of the American Civil War occurred at Pamito Ranch a few miles below Brownsville.

Bagdad Port on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande

Tensions ran high all along the lower Rio Grande because Confederates depended on hauling cotton from throughout Texas across the river to hundreds of European ships anchored offshore at the neutral Mexican port of Bagdad. The cotton was lightered in small vessels to awaiting ships in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and desperately needed medical supplies.

Cotton Roads to the Rio Grade

Union forces had briefly occupied Brownsville, which forced the cotton wagons to travel upriver to Laredo or Eagle Pass and then haul their valuable cargo back down the Mexican side to the port at the mouth of the Rio Grande. When the Confederates regained control of Brownsville, federal troops withdrew to Brazos Island on the United States side of the river where they continued to enforce the coastal embargo.

Cotton ferried from Brownsville to Matamoros waiting for shipment along the river to Bagdad.

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 even agreeing to meet with the Union. As late as 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.

Meantime, a passenger on a steamer heading up the river to Brownsville tossed a copy of the New Orleans Times to Confederates along the Rio Grande. It was May 1st and the newspaper bought the news of Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination. In the next few days, several hundred rebels headed home, but those who remained were as determined as their leaders to continue the fight.

When the Union commander on Brazos Island received a false report that the Confederates were abandoning Brownsville, he 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 following day the Confederates were supplied with mounted cavalry and a six-gun battery of field artillery. The federal increase in infantry to 500 was no match for the rebels. 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 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.

Diorama depicting Battle of Palmito Ranch
Texas Military Force Museum, Camp Mabry

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. Within days, Federal officers from Brazos Island moved into Brownsville to arrange a truce with the Confederates.

Today the Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark is open for visitors.

 

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Indianola Survived and Thrived After the Civil War

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA, tells the story of immigrants operating a boarding house in the thriving Indianola seaport. They arrived with hope for a new life and were thrust into the political choice of supporting a land that had welcomed them or standing for their principles that did not include slavery.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

The Civil War came to Indianola with the federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, which halted supplies coming through Pass Cavallo, the narrow channel from the gulf into Matagorda Bay. By October 1862, when a federal fleet made a foray into the bay, the family had already offered their sons to the war. Residents of the Stein House watched from the upstairs porch as Indianola officials refused to sell supplies and beef to the waiting Union ships. Cannons exploded in a brief battle that resulted in the death of one Union and two Confederate soldiers. The Federal troops looted Indianola, sailed up the coast and looted Lavaca, then moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The waiting game began. It was only a matter of time before Federal forces would make another push to invade the middle Texas coast to stop the movement of cotton—the Confederacy’s means of exchange with Great Britain and other European countries.

Efforts to move cotton through the Gulf blockade quickly proved inadequate, promoting dependence on the Cotton Road, a route through the central part of Texas and across the Wild Horse Desert, the untamed and unpoliced land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. At Brownsville, freighters ferried cotton across the Rio Grande and then hauled it along the Mexican side of the river to Bagdad, a port at the mouth of the river. There, hundreds of foreign ships anchored in neutral waters off the Mexican coast to exchange the precious cotton for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and equipment desperately needed by the Confederacy.

News of the war was scarce but word came of Confederate troops putting up little resistance when Federals attacked Galveston. General John Bankhead Magruder, convinced that Texas would be invaded along the coast at Indianola, ordered a scorched earth defense––burn bridges, destroy lighthouses, dismantle the railroad out of Lavaca, and burn the warehouses and wharves at Indianola. He met bitter resistance from the locals who refused to destroy their own infrastructure. In war, they expected the enemy to destroy property, not their own officials. There would be time enough when the Yanks made a move. Then spirits lifted on hearing that Confederates had retaken Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863.

In November Brownsville fell, cutting off the shipment of cotton into Mexico. Confederates moved the cotton crossing on up the river to Laredo and as far west as Eagle Pass.

Indianolans waited as Federals began a relentless march from the Rio Grande up the Texas coast. They captured town after town until they reached Indianola in December 1863. Residents of the Stein House stood again on the upstairs porch to watch the brief battle. Within hours, troops descended on the property, camped in the yard, and took over the upper floors of the boarding house.

The occupants of the Stein House foraged for food, fed families of men who were off fighting, educated the children and waited for word from their men.

On March 14, 1864, less than three months after they arrived, the Federal forces began to depart. As they watched pontoon boats carrying men to the waiting ships, one of the boats took on water and began to sink. People along the shore rowed out to the rescue only to see twenty-one men drown in the shallow water. In gratitude for their help, the commanding office donated military clothing that the women of Indianola dyed and refashioned for children who had become threadbare.

The sudden troop withdrawal led to speculation that an invasion of Texas was imminent. In fact, the Yankees planned to invade from Northwestern Louisiana near Shreveport. When the Red River Campaign failed on April 8, 1864, Union forces made no further effort to control Texas.

With the troops gone, Indianolans started rebuilding their destroyed homes, filled in the rifle pits that scarred the landscape, and replanted gardens that had been stripped bare. The legislature allowed residents who had no money to pay their taxes in goods or articles that were redistributed to destitute families. When the war ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, hope returned for a future of peace and prosperity.

The Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico ended in June, swinging wide the gates of commerce. The Chihuahua Road reopened and hundreds of wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver, copper, and lead from the mines in Mexico rumbled into the port. Lumber and manufactured goods, which had been halted by the blockade, flooded through Indianola. Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, reclaimed and rebuilt his ships that had been confiscated by both sides in the war. He intended to regain his lost shipping empire, and Indianola benefited.

The arrival of the Army of Occupation that came to maintain order and see that the freedmen were not harmed, sent shivers through Indianola and the wary residents of the Stein House. A young Yankee lieutenant took a room at the Stein House and soon eased the tensions of Reconstruction and tempered the anger generated by the government requirement that citizens sign amnesty oaths, and the denial of the right to vote for anyone who had any political or military association with the Confederacy.

Indianolans continued to look to the sea for their survival. Ships brought in everything from groceries to building materials and exported cotton, wool, hides, and even beeswax. Ice, cut from the ponds of New England, arrived during the warm months. They repaired bridges, constructed roads, and built houses next to the grading for the future railroad that had been stopped by the war.

Indianolans believed that getting their economy and their seaport back in operation and maintaining a working relationship with all the country was in their best interest. The seaport thrived––even rivaled Galveston––until 1875.

Next week: Storms that Created a Ghost Town.

Drumbeat for Civil War

Indianola sat on the middle Texas coast––a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. The vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north in the rich bottomlands of Texas’ rivers. The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and despite the law against freedmen living in the state without Congressional approval, they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off. However, the arrival of a gentleman who was accused of being an abolitionist prompted city authorities to force him onto an outbound ship and appoint a “vigilance committee,” to maintain order.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

The news of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas. Residents threw caution aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade. An owner of one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas. Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candles or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. A judge gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action. Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens. While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution. After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with the support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood. The dye was cast.

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Texas in the Civil War, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede. First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor. Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores. Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered. But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual. The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition. The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic. Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

My award-winning book includes this story. STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA has just been republished by Sunstone Press. The cover image is of Union troops in the streets of Indianola, a wood engraving by Thomas Nast published in the New York Illustrated

From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

News, April 6, 1861.

LAST BATTLE OF THE CIVIL WAR FOUGHT IN TEXAS?

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

Battle of Palmito Ranch

Battle of Palmito Ranch

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

"Rip" Ford

“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.

Houston’s Civil War Hero

A handsome, redheaded Irish saloonkeeper lead a group of forty-six Irish dockworkers in a Civil War battle that Jefferson Davis called the most amazing feat in military history.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Richard “Dick” Dowling, owner of three popular Houston saloons, joined the Davis Guards, and soon became the company’s first lieutenant.  After gaining a reputation for its artillery skills in the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates regained control of the island, Dowling’s company was assigned to Fort Griffin, a nondescript post at the mouth of Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border.

Dick Dowling

The twenty-five-year-old Dowling showed leadership beyond his years by keeping his rowdy men occupied with artillery practice—firing the fort’s six cannons at colored stakes placed on both sides of a shell reef that ran down the middle of the pass dividing it into two channels.  The east side of the passage led along the Louisiana border and the west paralleled the earthen embankment of Fort Griffin.

Battle of Sabine Pass

On September 8, 1863, Dowling’s Company F watched a Union navy flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men approach the pass.  Waiting until the first two gunboats entered the parallel channels, the little band of forty-six Irishmen opened fire with all six cannons, striking the boiler and exploding the USS Sanchem on the Louisiana coast and then striking the steering cables of the USS Clifton on the Texas side of the pass.  With both channels blocked by disabled ships, the Union force sailed away.

USS Clifton on left, USS Sanchem on right

In less than one hour Dowling’s men captured both Union vessels, killed nineteen, wounded nine, and took 350 prisoners without suffering a single casualty.

Dick Dowling rose to the rank of major before the end of the war and he returned to Houston as its hero, hailed as the man who stopped federal forces from coming ashore and marching westward to capture Houston and Galveston.  Jefferson Davis presented a personal commendation, calling the Sabine Pass Battle the “Thermopylae of the Confederacy.”  The ladies of Houston presented Dowling’s unit with medals made from Mexican coins smoothed down and inscribed on one side with “Sabine Pass, 1863.”

Medal inscribed on Mexican Coin “Sabine Pass, Sept 8th 1863”

Dowling claimed genuine Irish roots.  Born in County Galway, Ireland in 1838, he moved with his parents and six siblings to New Orleans to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845.  Orphaned by the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic that took the lives of his parents and four siblings, Dowling finally made his way to Houston and within four years opened his first saloon.

By 1860, the mustached Irishman with a good sense of humor owned three saloons; the most popular, called “The Bank,” sat on the square with the Harris County Courthouse and became Houston’s social gathering place.  Dowling also immersed himself in Houston’s business community–investing in local property, helping set up Houston’s first gaslight company, and installing gaslights in his home and in “The Bank.”  He helped found Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company fire department and the city’s first streetcar company.

After the war, Dowling returned to his earlier business interests and expanded into real estate, oil and gas leases, and ownership of a steamboat.  Unfortunately the 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which swept across Texas from the Gulf coast, ended Dowling’s life on September 23, 1867.

Survived by his wife Elizabeth Ann Odlum and two children Mary Ann and Felize “Richard” Sabine, Dowling was honored by the city of Houston’s first public monument, which stands today in Hermann Park.

Dowling Monument