150 Years Ago This Week: The war’s last battle

May 1865

On Friday, May 12, in far southern Texas, some 500 Union troops under command of Col. Theodore Barrett marched inland from Brazos Santiago (now Matamoros), towards Brownsville. Some 300 Confederate troops under Col. John “Rip” Ford were encamped at Palmito Ranch a short distance from the Rio Grande River.

Col. Barrett was said to be a headstrong leader who had not seen any combat since he joined the army in 1862. It is believed that he attacked the Confederates there because of his intent to see combat before the end of the war, which would improve his war service record. The Confederates were initially overwhelmed, but counterattacked and forced the Union troops back to Boca Chica.

The following morning, May 13, Barrett attempted to establish a rear guard but Confederate artillery assailed the Union lines and prevented his men from forming in any significant strength. Col. Ford then ordered a frontal attack against several understrength companies of the 34th Indiana Volunteer Veteran Infantry acting as skirmishers.

The fighting was both confused and intense; at about 4 p.m., Col. Ford’s men forced the Federals off the field and they beat a hasty retreat back to Boca Chica. As the fighting got close to the Rio Grande, there was some sporadic but ineffective firing from French border guards on the Mexican side of the river. Some 50 soldiers of the 34th Indiana as well as 20 dismounted cavalry and 30 stragglers were surrounded by the Confederates in a bend of the Rio Grande and captured. The last battle of the war was over, and it was a Confederate victory.

Union casualties of the battle at Palmito Ranch numbered four killed, 12 wounded, and 101 captured. Col. Ford reported his casualties as five or six wounded, none killed, and three captured. In the final moments of the intense fighting, as Col. Barrett’s men were being driven from the field, Private John Jefferson Williams of the 34th Indiana was killed. He was the very last combat fatality of the war.

At the far other end of the spectrum was Private Daniel Hough, Battery E, 1st U.S. Artillery. He was at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., during the opening battle of the war, on Friday, April 12, 1861. When Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered the fort on Sunday, April 14, to Confederate authorities under Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, a formal 100-gun salute to the lowering of the U.S. flag was fired.

Pvt. Hough tended the gun on the 47th salute, and a stray spark ignited the gunpowder, causing the gun to explode. The blast ripped off Pvt. Hough’s right arm, and killed him almost instantly. He was the very first to be killed in a war that lasted more than four years, and resulted in more than 620,000 casualties on both sides, mostly from disease.

The war from 1861-1865 still remains today as the bloodiest conflict in American history.

The same day as the end of the battle at Palmito Ranch, the Confederate governors of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and a representative of Texas, met at Marshall, Tex. with Confederate General Kirby Smith to discuss terms by which Gen. Smith might surrender the Army of the Trans-Mississippi.

One of Gen. Smith’s subordinates, Maj. Gen. Joseph Shelby, and others, threatened to arrest Gen. Smith unless he continued the war. Refusing to surrender, Gen. Shelby soon led the men of his command to Mexico. On May 17, the U.S. War Department appointed Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to command of all Union forces west of the Mississippi and south of the Arkansas River. With his reputation for destruction in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864-65, this appointment angered many Southerners. Between May 17 and May 20, scattered Confederate troops in Florida surrendered to Brig. Gen. Israel Vogdes. On May 19, at Havana, CSS Stonewall surrendered to Cuban authorities.

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