On May 12, 1865, two small outfits of soldiers would engage in what is now considered the final battle of the Civil War. Though the war had officially ended with General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox more than a month before, Union forces would attack Confederate forts at Palmito Ranch, Texas near Brownsville in Cameron County.
March of 1865, saw the beginning of a truce along the Rio Grande River in Texas. Though Southern troops had by no means disbanded, the Union forces were aware that the Confederates in the east were all but vanquished, and received word in April of General Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. A gentleman's agreement arose between the Union and Confederacy that precluded fighting in the area.
The truce was broken when Colonel Theodore Barrett dispatched 300 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel David Branson on May 11, 1865, to attack Confederate outposts. This move was in complete violation of all orders originating from Union headquarters, leading some to suspect that Barrett wanted to establish a measure of credit for himself before the war’s inevitable conclusion. Having met little resistance along the way, the troops succeeded in scattering the Confederate forces at Palmito Ranch (also spelled "Palmetto"). However, they were driven back by Confederate forces and eventually engaged by a cavalry force under the command of the famous Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford. After a brief skirmish including artillery fire by the Confederate cavalry, Branson ordered a retreat and escaped to nearby Boca Chica, having suffered more than 100 casualties.
It was certainly upsetting for Northerners to read about Union Army tragedies during the Civil War. For the majority of the conflict, headlines with news of catastrophic Union defeats were uncomfortably common. However, the month that passed between Appomattox and Palmito Ranch, coupled with the still-fresh news of Lincoln’s assassination less than a month before the battle must have made the news especially difficult to handle. It was doubtlessly upsetting for many in the North to realize that the last battle in the Civil War (or at least the last time that casualties were claimed) would go down in history as a Confederate victory.
Today, the Texas Historical Commission has established a national landmark at the site of the battle and annual reenactments of the Battle of Palmito Ranch take place on its anniversary.