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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Sally Skull: Legend in her Lifetime

Chroniclers say the tiny, hook-nosed, blue-eyed Sally Skull rode a horse like a man, cursed like a sailor, shot like an Indian, and spoke Spanish like a Mexican.  Stories abound of her five husbands–she may have killed one or two, and number five may have killed her.

Sally grew up early, and she grew up tough.  Born in 1817 as Sarah Jane Newman, her family moved to Texas in 1821 and settled in the northernmost part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony.  Besides the constant threat in her childhood of Indians stealing the family’s horses and corn, Sally watched as an Indian stuck his foot under the cabin front door to lift it off the hinges and her mother used an ax to chop off his toes.  At other times her mother put the children to bed and blew out the candles fearing Indians might shoot them through the cracks between the log walls of the cabin.  Finally, the family moved to Egypt, a settlement less prone to Indian attack.

Like many girls of that time, at age sixteen Sally married Jesse Robinson, a man twice her age who served as a volunteer in the famous Battle of San Jacinto and in several subsequent military campaigns.  When they divorced in 1843, he claimed she was a scold and “termagant” and committed adultery with someone she kept in the washhouse.  Sally said Robinson was excessively cruel.  They both fought for years over custody of their two children.

Sally married again on March 17, 1843, eleven days after the divorce, but not to the accused in the washhouse.  Despite three more unions, husband number two, George H. Scull, provided her famous name with a slight variation in the spelling.

After the Scull marriage, Sally sold her inherited property around Egypt and disappeared for about ten years.  She may have spent that time near her children who attended convents in New Orleans.  Those who knew Sally reported that she adored her children and always found other children delightful.  However, as her notoriety spread, mothers often chided their children to behave or Sally Skull would get them.

George Scull disappeared from the record by the early 1850s about the time Sally established a horse-trading business twenty miles west of Corpus Christi at the crossing of Banquete Creek and El Camino Real (the old road from Matamoros on the Rio Grande to Goliad and beyond). Several accounts place Sally at the great 1852 fair in Corpus Christi because she is remembered for shooting a man—in self-defense, of course.

Her reputation also spread over her lifestyle choices:  she often wore men’s pants, she rode her horse astride rather than side-saddle, and she buckled at her waist a wide belt anchoring two cap and ball revolvers.  Her only nod to feminine attire consisted of a slatted sunbonnet to protect her once-fair complexion.

She hired a few Mexican vaqueros that rode with her on horse-trading trips as far south as Mexico and along the Gulf coast all the way to New Orleans.  She purchased up to 150 horses at a time with gold carried in a nosebag around her neck or over her saddle horn.

Sally did not allow anyone to inspect or cut her herds, which may have fueled rumors that after she visited ranches, Indians drove off the best horses that appeared later in Sally’s herds.  Wives sometimes claimed she made eyes at their husbands while her vaqueros stayed busy running off their horses.

Several tales surround Sally’s loss of husband number three, John Doyle, who like George Scull simply disappeared from the scene.  Some accounts claim Doyle and Sally had a duel and her superior marksmanship won the day.  Others said that while in Corpus Christi for a fandango, which she loved attending, she did not wake quickly enough the following morning and Doyle poured a pitcher of water on her head.  She leaped from the bed not fully awake, drew her pistol, and became a widow. Another tale tells of her insisting that John Doyle and her vaqueros ride across a swollen river.  The rushing current swept away Doyle and his horse.  When the Mexicans asked if they should look for his body, she said, “I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like the $40 in that money belt around it.”

In December 1855, Sally married Isaiah Wadkins and divorced him the following May for beating her, dragging her nearly two hundred yards, and living openly in adultery.  After she won the divorce, the Nueces County Grand Jury indicted Wadkins for adultery.

Sally’s number five was Christoph Horsdorff or “Horsetrough,” a moniker he earned for just sitting around and possibly for being almost twenty years her junior.

With the start of the Civil War Sally quit horse-trading, fitted out several mule train wagons, converted her Mexican vaqueros into teamsters, and began the highly dangerous and lucrative business of hauling Confederate cotton to Mexico.  The Union blockade of all the ports on the Gulf Coast made it necessary for the Confederacy to ship cotton to the mills in England through the neutral Mexican port of Baghdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande.  Hundreds of English ships waited for the precious cargo in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and medical supplies for the Confederate Army.  The old route to Matamoros that led through Banquete became known as the Cotton Road as ox-carts and mule-drawn wagon trains lumbered along its sandy route hauling thousands of bales of cotton from all over the South.

A few court records after the Civil War document Sally’s final scrapes with the law: The Goliad District Court minutes show her indicted for perjury on May 4, 1866, and acquitted seven days later.  The court closed an eight-year-old case in 1867 that had been filed for an unknown reason against “Sarah Wadkins” (name of husband four) and another woman’s husband.  The final note on the record stated, “death of Defendant suggested.”

Some storytellers believe Horsdorff killed Sally after she was seen riding away from Banquete with him and he returned alone.  Later, a man claimed that he saw a boot sticking out of a shallow grave and discovered her murdered body.  No one was ever charged.

J. Frank Dobie, historian and folklorist, best described the illusive lady: “Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward.  She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness.” 

And that’s the truth.

Woman Hanged in Texas

In 1985 the Texas legislature passed a resolution to absolve Josefa “Chapita” Rodriguez of the murder for which she hanged on November 13, 1863.

Chapita Rodriguez lived in a lean-to shack where the Cotton Road crossed the Aransas River, north of San Patricio.  She offered meals and a cot on her front porch to travelers along the route, which the Confederacy used during the Civil War to ferry cotton to Mexico in exchange for guns, ammunition, and medical supplies.

Near the end of August 1863, employees at the nearby Welder Ranch found in the edge of the Aransas River the body stuffed in two burlap bags of John Savage whose head had been split with an ax.

A few days before the discovery, Savage arrived late in the evening at Chapita’s cabin carrying $600 in gold in payment for the sale of horses to the Confederate Army in San Antonio.  A large man who traveled heavily armed with six-shooters strapped to his leg, Savage frequently stayed at Chapita’s house.

Most of the records in the case burned in a courthouse fire, allowing rumors and legend to fill in the blanks.  Since Chapita was too old (probably in her sixties) and too small to stuff the bulk of Savage into the bags and drag him down river, authorities pointed to Juan Silvera who may have been her illegitimate son.

The sheriff who arrested Chapita and Juan Silvera served as foreman of the grand jury and foreman of the jury that heard the charges at trial.  At least three grand jury members also served as trial jurors, and members of both juries had been indicted on felony charges that were later dismissed.  Chapita’s only defense was her repeating “not guilty.”   A few days before the trial began, the gold was discovered down river from where the body was found.

Despite the discovery of the gold, Chapita was found guilty as charged.  The jury recommended mercy because of her age and the circumstantial evidence, but the trial judge Benjamin F. Neal sentenced her to be hanged.  Juan Silvera was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years in prison.

Some accounts claim she was held for a time in the sheriff’s home; other stories say she waited in leg irons, chained to the courthouse wall in San Patricio.  Children visited the courthouse, supplying Chapita with candy and cornshucks for rolling her cigarettes.

Many stories suggest Chapita’s silence was to protect her son Juan Silvera.  Whatever her reason, Chapita rode in a wagon to her fate while sitting atop her coffin and smoking a cornshuck cigarette, then stood to have the noose, dangling from a mesquite tree, placed around her neck.  San Patricio residents, many of whom believed her innocent, whispered among themselves that Chapita’s execution marked the end of San Patricio.

By the mid-1880s life began changing.  The introduction of barbed wire closed the open range and the excitement of cattle drives came to an end.  The railroad by-passed San Patricio, the courthouse burned, and Sinton became the new seat of county government.

Despite Texas’ record number of executions, only three women have faced the gallows.  Little information exists about the first woman legally executed other than she was a slave named Jane Elkins convicted of murdering a white man in Dallas County and hanged on May 27, 1853.

The third execution of a woman occurred in 1998 when Karla Faye Tucker died by lethal injection fourteen years after being convicted in a pickaxe murder.