I would not have granted Confederate Major General John George Walker (above) a pardon in 1866. And not because he betrayed his nation. About one in four of the 31 million Americans actively supported the rebellion of the slave states in 1860, that killed 750,000 soldiers and civilians. But I believe John Walker should have been punished for the death of one young union private in particular, who died at the age of 23 for no other reason than because General Walker was stubborn and arrogant. And what inspired Walkers' belligerence was the unexpected appearance at the mouth of the Rio Grande River of the quixotic Union general Lew Wallace.
On 11 March, 1865, the bookish Hoosier met with Walker's subordinate General James Edwin Slaughter, and local regimental commander Colonel John Salmon Ford, at the southern end of South Padre Island in Port Isabel.
But instead of the expected topic of prisoner exchange, Wallace(above) wanted to talk about an immediate cease fire west of the Mississippi, and the negotiated surrender of all rebel troops. Slaughter agreed to forward the proposal to the Confederate Commander of the entire trans-Mississippi, General Edmund Kirby Smith. But first the offer had to cross the desk of the Texas Commander, General John G. Walker.
On 25 March, from his headquarters in Houston, Walker berated Wallace for “seeking an obscure corner of the Confederacy to inaugurate negotiations.” Having insulted his own command, Walker admitted, “It would be folly...to pretend we are not tired of the war...”, but even discussing surrender said Walker, would render rebel officers “infamous for all time.” Walker then closed by saying, “With the blessing of God we will yet...extort from your government all that we ask.” Wallace accurately labeled Walker's rejection as “childish”. Nevertheless Walker was encouraged by his superior, General Smith, to passively accept Wallace's cease fire.
The Trans-Mississippi (Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas) had been isolated from the rest of the Confederacy since the fall of Vicksburg in July of 1863. And while federal troops had withdrawn from Louisiana and Texas in 1864, they still occupied the barrier islands (above), blockading imports, except for a trickle that could be hauled across the beach at Bagdad, Mexico, on the south shore of the Rio Grande river.
Walker was convinced his soldiers had driven off the Federal invaders, but an enlisted man stationed in south Texas wrote home, “The soldiers are getting very restless, and some talk of breaking up and going home.” At the end of December 1864, General Slaughter had only 2,600 soldiers fit for duty along the Rio Grande. By the end of March 1865, desertion had lowered that number to less than 1,200 men.
Then during April of 1865 the eastern Confederacy shattered. The Army of Northern Virginia surrendering on the 9th. , and on the 26th General Joe Johnston surrendered all Confederate forces in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. As their government melted away the inmates of The trans-Mississippi found the Confederate dollar was worth more as kindling than currency.
Plantation owners could only sell cotton to the government for worthless paper, and the few small farmers who were not in the army had trouble growing enough for themselves. By early May, in Texas' largest city of Houston, a 50 pound bag of flour cost the entire monthly salary of an army captain. Even to the die hard General Walker it was now obvious only a Yankee invasion could unite his disillusioned and hungry soldiers.
As far back as February of 1865 Union commanders on the barrier islands had wanted to raid the Brownsville area. That request was denied because Washington did not want to pay for land they expected to get back for free. But then a rumor reached the Federally occupied southern most of the barrier islands, Bazos, that the Confederate army was evacuating Brownsville.
The new commander on Bazos, 30 year old Brevet Brigadier General Harvey Barret (above), knew if he asked Washington for permission to check out the rumor, they would say no. So he didn't ask.
On the morning of 11 May, 1865, the “ambitious but inept” General Barret ordered Lieutenant Colonel David Branson to cross the lagoon over night and land 300 infantry and dismounted cavalry at Boca Chita – Small Mouth – of the Rio Grande River, before dawn. They were to carry 5 days rations and 100 rounds of ammunition each. If not resisted on landing, Branson was to push 7 miles east on the old military causeway road to the White Ranch, where the neck of land between the South Bay of the Bazos lagoon and the Rio Grande was narrowest. There were thought to be about 65 rebel cavalry picketed at the ranch, but if he met no resistance Branson was to continue another 8 miles across the almost featureless landscape to the Palmetto Ranch. And if practical he was to probe another 12 miles toward Brownsville and Fort Brown. As a later report admitted, Barret's raid was “either without any definite purpose, or for some purpose that has never been made clear.” It was also without cavalry.
Colonel Branson's force of 8 companies – 250 men of the 62nd Colored infantry (above) and 2 companies of the 2nd Texas (U.S.) Cavalry - 50 troopers without horses - landed at the end of the causeway about 2a.m. and pushed east ward. About 8:30 they got to the White Ranch, and found the place abandoned. Branson let his men grab a couple of hours sleep and then marched on to the Palmetto Ranch. As they approached the hacienda around noon on 12 May, the Federals took fire from some pickets, who fell back as the federals advanced. Left behind were 3 rebels on sick call, 2 horses and 4 Texas long horn cows, as well as rations for about 150 men. Burning the hacienda and supplies, Branson's men camped nearby.
The Confederates surprised at Palmetto Ranch were an under strength company of cavalry under Captain William Robinson. He gathered his 60 men in the sage brush a mile away, and sent word to his commander at Fort Brown, Colonel John Salmon “Rip” Ford.
Ford (above), who earned his nickname because he always filled his causality lists with the notation “Rest In Peace”, responded that he would arrive the next morning with reinforcements. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Robinson realized the federals had no cavalry, and decided not to wait.
About 3a.m. he sent his men flanking the federal camp, and laid down an harassing fire. Unable to match the rebels for maneuverability, Branson woke his exhausted infantry and marched them in the dark back to the White Ranch with his prisoners – 3 rebels, a horse and 4 cows. Robinson chose not to follow. And amazingly, for all the marching and shooting, the only causality was one of the unmounted Texas federals. So far. It seemed nobody on either side wanted to be the last man killed in the Civil War.
Colonel Branson sent details of the encounter to General Barret back on Bazos Island, expecting to be ordered to withdraw. After all, the mission had been to confirm the rumor that Brownsville was being evacuated. And with cavalry picketed 11 miles east of Brownsville, it was clear the rebels were still there. Instead, Barret himself arrived at the White Ranch just after dawn on 13 May, with 9 under strength companies – about 200 men - of the veteran 34th Indiana infantry. While the Hoosier soldiers rested, Barret pushed the 300 men of the 62nd and 2nd Texas Cavalry back toward Palmetto Ranch.
Marching out from Brownsville to meet the Yankees that morning was Colonel “Rip” Ford and 360 mounted cavalry, and six 6 pounder artillery pieces (above).
Given the flat, open terrain, with the only trees bordering the Rio Grande River, the battle would be decided by who best used their cavalry and artillery, and Barret had none, and no combat experience with either. Why he was being foolish was explained to Barret that afternoon, when after a morning spent sniping at each other - again with no causalities - he tried to outflank the Confederates. About 4pm on the afternoon of 13 May, Ford's mounted troopers easily out flanked Barret's flanking maneuver.
In his after action report, Barret admitted what he should have realized before he launched his misadventure. “....a heavy body of cavalry and a section of (artillery), under cover of the thick chaparral on our right, had already succeeded in flanking us...our position became untenable. We therefore fell back...This movement...having to be performed under a heavy fire from both front and flank.” In other words, trying to move infantry in cavalry country, without artillery or cavalry support, was foolish. Barret's excuse was he didn't know any better.
Luckily, the 34th Indiana now arrived, and threw out the 48 men of Company B as skirmishers, to cover the retreat of Barret's over extended 62nd regiment.
In that line stretched across the hard dry chaparral, knelt Private John Jefferson Williams (above), a 23 year old blacksmith from Anderson, Indiana. The young man had been in the army since September of 1863, joining the unit after it participated in the capture of Vicksburg. And after duty in occupied New Orleans, this was Private William's first battle. And his last.
Firing in the skirmish line, Private Williams stood to reload his musket when a rebel cavalryman fired a ball that entered William's skull just above his right eye, killing him instantly.
Ford's cavalrymen herded the isolated Federal skirmishers into a bend of the Rio Grande River, and forced them to surrender, along with 30 stragglers from the 62nd and 2nd Texas.
The sacrifice of Company B and private Williams, allowed the 62nd infantry to form a longer skirmish line behind the retreating 34th. Their retreat was then covered by another line of the 34th Indiana. And thus began a leap frog 4 hour march, which Colonel Ford described as “a run”, all the way back to the White Ranch. From there the enclosing swamps restricted Colonel Ford's flanking attacks, and he satisfied himself with lobbing an occasional artillery shell, and long range musket fire. The last shots of this, the last battle of the American Civil War, were fired by the last skirmish line of the 62nd infantry, before boarding their boats for Bazos island.. Seeing the Federals heading to the water, Colonel Ford told his troopers, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone, and retire.”
The final causality count from this final 2 day battle was, on the Union side, 4 dead – 2 from the 62nd , and one each the 2nd Texas and the 34th Indiana, 12 wounded, and 101 captured. The Confederates suffered “five or six wounded” according to Colonel Ford. The low "butcher's bill" indicated that not only were few of the soldiers on either side willing to die for their "country", they were not willing to kill for it either. The last man to die in the “Battle of Palmetto Ranch” had been John Jefferson Williams, the last man to be killed by enemy fire in the American Civil War. The $45 found in his pocket was sent to his widow in Anderson, Indiana. And even he would not have died if Confederate Major General John George Walker had not insisted on fighting for a month after the war should have come to an end.
The next day, 14 May, 1865, the 400 man Confederate garrisoned in Galveston, Texas, tried to desert with their weapons. A soldier in Shreveport, Louisiana, wrote that, ”Mutiny and wholesale desertion was openly talked of.” A senior Confederate officer described “mobs of disorderly soldiery, thronging the roads, interrupting travel and making life and property exceedingly insecure”. On 20 May half the troops left in Texas did desert, and the remaining half refused to try to stop them.
Final proof of the collapse of the Trans Mississippi was that not only were the prisoners of the 62nd Colored Infantry captured at Palmetto Ranch treated like full prisoners of war, but they and their white Union comrades were all released by Colonel Ford within a few days. The rebellion of the slave states was over, even in the hearts and minds of the die hard rebels. Finally, on 25 May, General Walker himself admitted defeat, disbanded his command, and headed for Mexico with his wife and children.
Six months later John George Walker was in Liverpool, Britain, writing to U.S. President Andrew Johnston, asking for a pardon and restoration of his citizenship.
After a year of lobbying in person in Washington, he signed a pledge that he did, “solemnly swear in presence of ALMIGHTY GOD that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States... and...abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations...with reference to the emancipation of Slaves. So help me God.” The “ambitious but inept” Barret did not know better than to try and keep the war going. But the experienced professional John George Walker, certainly should have.
In November of 1869 the stubborn Walker (above) went to work for the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, and in the spring of 1873 was seeking to attract European immigrants to the lone star state. In 1885 Walker was named U.S. consul to Bogota, Columbia by President Grover Cleveland, and while in Washington, D.C. John Walker died of a stroke at 72 years of age, in 1893. He was never held to public account for his part in the last death in the American Civil War.
The captured men of the Indiana 34th regiment buried the body of Private John Jefferson Williams about 200 yards south of the walls of Fort Brown (above) and 100 yards from the Rio Grande River.
After the war the fort's burial ground became the Brownsville National Cemetery (above), where the earthly remains of Private Williams remained undisturbed for 44 years.
Then, in 1909, some 1,500 bodies, including that of Private Willaims, were disinterred.
He was reburied in the 8 acre Alexandria National Cemetery, in Pineville, Louisiana. The last man to be killed in combat during the American Civil War is still there, buried in plot 797. Proof yet again, that starting a war is easy, but stopping always costs more than anybody wants to pay.