At the beginning of the Civil War what would later have been called skirmishes were called battles, so I guess we can call Palmito Ranch at the end of the War a battle.
At the beginning of 1865 the Union and Confederate troops engaged in an informal truce in south Texas, since the War was manifestly about to come to an end, and both sides could see that nothing that was done in Texas would have any impact on the outcome. Negotiations began in March for the surrender of the Confederate troops in Texas but came to nothing. Why a Union force advanced on Brownsville, Texas in May is something of a mystery since a surrender was obviously in the offing. At any rate in a two day fight the Confederates succeeded in causing the Union force of about 500 men to retreat. The Confederate force of 300 sustained casualties of 5-6 wounded and 3 captured. The Union force had 4 killed, 3 wounded and 101 captured. Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana had the sad distinction of being the last man to be killed in action in the Civil War. Here is the report of the commander of the luckless Union force:
Report of Col. Theodore H. Barrett, Sixty-second U. S. Colored Troops.
HDQRS. THIRD BRIG., FIRST DIV., 25TH ARMY CORPS, Camp near Brownsville, Tex., August 10, 1865.
GEN.: I have the honor to submit the following report of the action at Palmetto Ranch, Tex., May 13, 1865, the last engagement of the war:
On the evening of May 11, 1865, an expedition consisting of 250 men of the Sixty-second U. S. Colored Infantry, properly officered, and fifty men and two officers of the Second Texas Cavalry (not yet mounted), the whole under Lieut.-Col. Branson, of the Sixty-second U. S. Colored Infantry, was sent by me, then commanding U. S. forces at Brazos Santiago, Tex., from the island onto the mainland. Crossing the Boca Chica, which owing to a severe storm was effected with difficulty, the force marched nearly all night, and after a short rest, early next morning attacked a strong outpost of the rebels at Palmetto Ranch, Tex., on the banks of the Rio Grande. The enemy was driven in confusion from his position, his camp, camp equipage, and stores falling into our hands. Some horses and cattle were also captured and a number of prisoners taken. Destroying such stores as could not be transported, Lieut.-Col. Branson returned to the vicinity of White’s Ranch, and took up his position for the night. On the morning of the 13th about 200 men of the Thirty-fourth Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry, under Lieut.-Col. Morrison, joined Lieut.-Col. Branson. Assuming command in person of the forces thus united, I at once ordered an advance to be again made in the direction of Palmetto Ranch, which, upon the retirement of Lieut.-Col. Branson, had been reoccupied by the rebels. The enemy’s cavalry were soon encountered. Driving them before us, we reached the ranch by 7 or 8 a. m., and again compelled the rebels to abandon it. Such stores as had escaped destruction the day previous were now destroyed, and the buildings which the enemy had turned into barracks were burned, in order that they might no longer furnish him convenient shelter. A detachment was here sent back to Brazos Santiago with our wounded and the prisoners and captures of the day previous. The remainder of the force was ordered to advance. Nearly the entire forenoon [May 13] was spent in skirmishing. The enemy, though taking advantage of every favorable position, was everywhere easily driven back. Early in the afternoon a sharp engagement took place, which, being in the chaparral, was attended with comparatively little loss to us.
In this engagement our forces charged the enemy, compelled him to abandon his cover, and, pursuing him, drove him across an open prairie beyond the rising ground completely out of sight. The enemy having been driven several miles since daylight, and our men needing rest, it was not deemed prudent to advance farther. Therefore, relinquishing the pursuit, we returned to a hill about a mile from Palmetto Ranch, where the Thirty-fourth Indiana had already taken its position. About 4 p. m. the rebels, now largely re-enforced, again reappeared in our front, opening fire upon us with both artillery and small-arms. At the same time a heavy body of cavalry and a section of a battery, under cover of the thick chaparral on our right, had already succeeded in flanking us with the evident intention of gaining our rear. With the Rio Grande on our left, a superior force of the enemy in front, and his flanking force on our right, our situation was at this time extremely critical. Having no artillery to oppose the enemy’s six 12-pounder field pieces, our position became untenable. We therefore fell back, fighting. This movement, always difficult, was doubly so at this time, having to be performed under a heavy fire from both front and flank. Forty-eight men of the Thirty-fourth Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry, under Capt. Templer, put out as skirmishers to cover their regiment, were, while stubbornly resisting the enemy, cut off and captured by the enemy’s cavalry. The Sixty-second U. S. Colored Infantry being ordered to cover our forces while falling back, over half of that regiment were deployed as skirmishers, the remainder acting as their support. This skirmish line was nearly three-quarters of a mile in length and, reaching from the river bank, was so extended as to protect both our front and right flank. 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. Seizing upon every advantageous position, the enemy’s fire was returned deliberately and with effect. The fighting continued three hours. The last volley of the war, it is believed, was fired by the Sixty-second U. S. Colored Infantry about sunset of the 13t of May, 1865, between White’s Ranch and the Boca Chica, Tex. Our entire loss in killed, wounded, and captured was 4 officers and 111 men. In several instances our men were fired upon from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Upon our occupation of Brownsville a few days later it was reported, upon what appeared to be good authority, that during the engagement a body of Imperial cavalry crossed the Rio Grande from Matamoras to Brownsville, doubtless with a view of aiding the rebels. Reports in detail of this action were forwarded to department headquarters at New Orleans shortly after the engagement took place. As these reports may never have reached the Adjutant-Gen.’s Office, the foregoing statement of the last actual conflict between hostile forces in the great rebellion is respectfully submitted.
I am, general, with high respect, your most obedient servant,
THEODORE H. BARRETT, Col. Sixty-second U. S. Colored Infantry.