John J. Willams and the Battle of Palmito Ranch
Ah, the Battle of Palmito ranch. This is a little known American Civil War battle that make a good story, so here we go. This takes place in southern Texas in the waning days of the Civil War, in fact Lee had already surrendered at Appomattox … and the people who fought in this battle knew about it! So why were these people fighting a battle when the war was over? God only knows, the Colonel Theodore H. Barrett who ordered the attack never let on, he was trying to further his political career is the most likely reason. So it’s a good bet many of the participants weren’t all that enthusiastic, since casualties were fairly light considering a series of skirmishes were fought over several days.
OK, May 11th 1865. A Union force of a few hundred cavalry was ordered up the Rio Grande to attack Confederates at Fort Brown. So they headed out one night, got detoured by a storm, crossed the Rio Grande, surrounded a Confederate outpost … only to find it abandoned. When war isn’t hell, it’s boring, what can I say. So they hid in the reeds and slept out the rest of the night.
And in the morning were awakened by shouts from the other side of River. It was Mexicans. They were shouting and pointing at the Union soldiers, a few of whom understood Spanish. The Mexicans were shouting something along the lines of “Hey, Johnny Reb, Look, Union troops hiding in the reeds!” OK, so the Union troops had lost the advantage of surprise. They charged out of their reeds and attacked a not surprised but smaller group of Confederate soldiers nearby, chasing them off and capturing Palmito Ranch and a store of Confederate supplies. They settled in to destroy the captured supplies, known as looting in civilian parlance, but had hardly gotten started when an even larger Confederate force arrived and chased them away. And that was the end of the first day’s “fighting” in this little known battle.
Well, clearly more help was needed, and the Union commander sent for reinforcements. They arrived in the morning, and on the second day of skirmishing they chased the Confederates away from Palmito Ranch again and proceeded to destroy what Confederate stores they hadn’t dealt with the day before. Then they settled down for the night, but alas their supper was interrupted. Yes, the Confederate commander had also sent for reinforcements! They just arrived later and in larger numbers, but just in time to ruin the day for the victorious Union forces.
And this time the Confederates had come loaded for bear. This group of Rebels had some cannons. They promptly set them up and started shooting at the now (again) outnumbered Union troops. Who wisely chose to retreat, because as one might expect in real life, if you don’t have cannons and the other side does, running away is a really fine option. And that’s what happened, the Union force retreated under Confederate cannon fire, with possibly Mexican smugglers and French troops firing as well from across the Rio Grande. What in the name of God were French troops doing firing at Union troops from across the Rio Grande during the American Civil War? Trust me, it’s too complicated to go into now.
One unit of Union troops held their ground and were surrounded and captured, thus allowing the main Union force to escape unscathed. Well, mildly scathed, dozens of men were wounded and a few were even killed. And that was that, the last battle of the American Civil War was a Confederate victory. Not much of a victory, a handful of soldiers killed, maybe 100 odd prisoners captured. In the greater scheme of things the Battle of Palmito Ranch basically meant, well, nothing.
In the smaller scheme of things, the battle did have some significant meaning. The above picture is one private John J. Williams. The J is for Jefferson, but other than that, not a whole lot is known about him. At least that I can find on line. He was born in 1843 in a rural county in Indiana. He enlisted in 1863 and spent two years on various guard and garrison duties in Texas and Louisiana. He is buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Louisiana, plot 797. His claim to fame, such as it is? Late in the day on May 13 1865, he was the last soldier to die in the American Civil War.
And as a consequence, I just thought it would be nice to have a web page in his honour. Who knows what he might have made of his life had he survived the battle. There are likely a few people alive today who knew someone who had known John personally, something I think about when looking at his picture. I’m sure his friends and family never expected him to fall more than a month after Lee surrendered to Grant, it must have been terrible news for them. So here’s to the memory of you John, last man to die in a pointless battle in a pointless war. God rest your soul, I hope your family still honours your memory.
(The above image predates 1923 and is Public Domain under US copyright law. Courtesy of the US Army Center for Military history and “The last battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch” By Jeffrey William Hunt, Published by University of Texas Press, 2002 ISBN 029273461, p.127. Sometimes I feel like I’m a voice alone in the wilderness crying out that “War is bad, people die,” but someone has to do it.)