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.