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The Last Battle

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Many people think the American Civil War ended with the surrenders of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee in April 1865. Not so!

The Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi, essentially, became another country with the Union captures of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July, 1863. Lt. General Kirby Smith, placed by Jefferson Davis in commands of the sprawling area west of the Mississippi River, admittedly had a tough job to do. He not only had to oversee all military operations but also provide the materiel needed: literally everything that would keep an organized military force in the field.

The Confederate State of Texas went through the Civil War largely untouched. There were some Union incursions near Galveston, Texas, but they were defeated. Texas men not serving with the Army of Northern Virginia or with the Army of Tennessee most often saw service in their own department or fighting Comanches.

The last major land battle of the Civil War occurred at the Palmito Ranch on May 12-13, 1865, down near the very tip of Texas, near Brownsville, on the east bank of the Rio Grande. Two Union regiments, of white and colored infantry, and one regiment of cavalry, moved upriver from Brazos Santiago and attacked a Rebel camp located there. The numbers engaged were relatively small, as numbers go. At first, the Union attackers were successful; then the Confederates rallied and pushed the Union men back. The Union men rallied, attacked again the next day, and were initially successful. The defenders yet again counter-attacked and, this time, drove the Union attackers from the ranch. The Union survivors then retreated downriver to Brazos Santiago. The Union loss for the two day battle was 115 killed, wounded and missing. When they retreated, they did not know they had participated in the last land battle of the war and the last retreat.

Three weeks later Kirby Smith journeyed to Galveston from his headquarters in Houston, boarded the Federal steamer to Fort Jackson, and affixed his signature to terms of surrender agreed upon by Union General E. R. Canby and Lt. General Simon B. Bucker, Kirby Smith’s chief of staff. The terms were the same as agreed to by Lee in Virginia, Johnston in North Carolina, and Richard Taylor in Mississippi. The date was June 2. 1865

There is a real twist of irony here. Palmito Ranch was fought two days after President Andrew Johnson declared all resistance against the legally constituted government of the United States to be at an end.