The South Won the Last Battle of the Civil War

(Texas Military Forces Museum)

It can be hard to determine precisely which is the first or last engagement of a war or what qualifies as a battle. But one can plausibly argue that the last battle of the American Civil War was the Battle of Palmito Ranch. This event occurred on May 13, 1865 in southern Texas. It ended with a Confederate victory.

The lower Rio Grande Valley was a weak spot in the Union blockade of Southern ports. Blockade runners could ship to the Mexican port of Matamoros on the southern side of the river. They could then carry the goods across the river into Texas and through the rest of the South.

Union troops landed at the mouth of the Rio Grande in November, 1863. They pinched off much of the smuggling across the border. But generals in Washington did not support a sustained campaign, so Federal forces did not advance inland.

On March 11, 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace (the author of the novel Ben-Hur) met with the Confederate commanders in the area to discuss terms of their surrender. They agreed to a truce while the Confederate commanders conferred with their superior officer. That Confederate officer, Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, rejected the terms. The war was back on.

On May 1, Confederate forces learned that Lee had surrendered, Lincoln had been assassinated and that in North Carolina, the last major Confederate army was negotiating its surrender. Hope evaporated and Confederate soldiers in the Valley deserted in large numbers.

Meanwhile, the local Union commanding officer Col. Theodore H. Barrett heard false reports that the Confederate forces were not disbanding, but withdrawing intact to the town of Corpus Christi. He decided to strike.

(Ralph A. Wooster)

Col. Barrett moved west along the Rio Grande. His force eventually numbered about 500 infantrymen. On May 13 at Palmito (sometimes spelled Palmetto) Ranch, he encountered a Confederate force of about 500 men, mostly cavalry and artillery, under Col. John Salmon Ford. The Union force faced withering artillery fire. Col. Barrett ordered his men to retreat. The Confederate force chased the Union force 7 miles back to Federal entrenchments on the coast. They killed 2 Union soldiers, wounded 6 others and captured a total of 102. 

Among the Union dead was Prv. John J. Williams (left), whose unhappy fate was to be the last soldier killed in the last battle of the war.

The South won the battle. But it didn’t matter. It had lost the war. Federal armies began to converge on Texas. On June 2, Confederate forces in Texas officially surrendered. The army that had been victorious at Palmito Ranch dissolved.

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