In older graveyards across Texas it’s easy to find headstones engraved with military insignias of the Confederate States of America. Though these historic markers honor the deceased’s service to their state and fledgling country, Texas was lucky to be spared the worst horrors of the war. For Civil War purposes, the state was mainly seen as a port to Mexico, one of them being Brownsville. Indeed, several times throughout the war Union forces stationed at Brazos Santiago (a Brazos Island port at the mouth of the Rio Grande) sent expeditions to attack the Rio Grande Valley city fifteen miles away.
As the Civil War drew to a close, the North and South agreed in March of 1865 to cease fire in the Valley. And soon after, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed surrender papers at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. But then a month later, Union Colonel Theodore Barrett, in charge of Brazos Santiago, decided to break this agreement and stage an assault on rebel forces under the command of Colonel John “Rip” Ford. Receiving an erroneous report indicating that Confederate forces were preparing to evacuate Brownsville, Barrett prepared to launch an attack.
On May 11 at four o’ clock in the morning, Colonel Barrett sent his underling Lieutenant Colonel David Branson to march on White’s Ranch, where he intended to capture a rebel force of 65 men. Branson’s 250 Union troops, comprised of detachments from the Second Texas U.S. Cavalry, the 34th Indiana Infantry, and Missouri’s 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry, were set back in their attempt to cross from Brazos Santiago to the mainland by foul weather and ferry malfunction. The men marched on however, surrounding White’s Ranch by daybreak on May 12.
Branson was disappointed to find the outpost empty, evacuated the day before by the rebel troops. Exhausted but vigilant, Branson and his men marched another mile and a half toward another suspected rebel outpost, Palmetto Ranch, and set up a covert camp along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Meanwhile, Mexican nationals across the river spotted the hidden Union troops at eight-thirty that morning and alarmed the Confederate forces of the enemy’s approach. Branson heard the men’s calls of alarm and immediately charged his men toward Palmetto Ranch, hoping to beat the Mexican warning to the outpost. Branson lost the race but easily broke through the Confederate cavalrymen hastily organized to hold him back. After several skirmishes, the Union forces reached Palmetto Ranch at noon, scattering the 190 Confederate troops stationed there, taking three prisoners, food, and horses in the process. But victory was not yet secure for the weary Union soldiers.
At three o’clock in the morning a large company of Confederates counterattacked, sending Branson’s men retreating to White’s Ranch, setting up defenses at the outpost they had originally struck. Branson sent a call for reinforcements to Colonel Barrett, back at Brazos Santiago, and Barrett answered the call, arriving early the morning of the May 13 with more than 200 additional men and assuming field command. He fought his way back to Palmetto Ranch and beyond, this time setting fire to rebel barracks.
In response, Confederate Colonel Ford arrived with 250 horsemen and six 12-pound cannons. Barrett scrapped plans to let his troops rest for the night and was forced to retreat. To aid the escape of his main body of troops, he sent two detachments of the 34th Indiana Infantry to cover his flanks and ordered the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry to hold the middle at all costs.
It was this regiment that fired the last volley of the Civil War, sometime around sunset. Barrett was pleased by the valiance of the 62nd, remarking, “Every attempt of the enemy’s cavalry to break this line was repulsed with loss to him, and the entire regiment fell back with precision and in perfect order under circumstances that would have tested the discipline of the best troops.” However, as the Union troops retreated, the men of the 34th were caught up in skirmishes, and 46 of them were captured. Still, the retreat was successful, with most of Barrett’s troops arriving at Brazos Santiago and boarding the waiting ships at four o’ clock in the morning May 14, 1865.
Although the total number of wounded and captured was more than 100, only one man was killed on either side of the conflict: Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry, widely recognized as the last man to die in combat in the Civil War.