In the summer of 1863, the midpoint of the American Civil War, a surge of patriotic fervor swept the north. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been crushed during the three days of hell that ended on July 3 outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The next day, Union control of the Mississippi was established when the city of Vicksburg surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant’s forces following a six-week siege. This effectively split the South and severed the Southern supply chain that brought critical food and material from the West to the theaters of war in the East. Many in the North believed these victories heralded a rapid Confederate collapse. Thousands of new recruits volunteered for duty that summer. Many were afraid they would miss an opportunity for great adventure and glory. Some wanted the monetary signing bonuses. However, pure and simple patriotism played a role also as more and more men sought to take part in the preservation of the Union.
One of those volunteers was a young man from Jay County, Indiana, by the name of John Jefferson Williams. He was 20 years old. He reported for duty in September, 1863, and trained at Indiana’s Camp Joe Holt, on the Ohio River just across from Kentucky. Later that autumn, Private Williams was assigned to the Indiana 34th Regiment Infantry in Louisiana, where he briefly helped patrol Union-occupied New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, with a short stint along the quiet Central Texas coast. He saw no action; his unit never fired a shot. In December, 1864, came orders to move the Indiana 34th Regiment to the island of Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Here they joined with the 62nd U.S. Colored Troop Regiment to maintain control of the South Texas coast.
Though far removed from the major battlegrounds in the east, far South Texas was not without danger. While the Union blockade had effectively closed most southern ports, a bustling boomtown with the name of Bagdad had sprung up in Mexico just south of the mouth of the Rio Grande. At this time, Mexico was little more than a French puppet state ruled by Napoleon III’s cousin, Emperor Maximilian. Smugglers, often aided by Napoleon’s French forces, snuck cotton and other materials across the river to Bagdad’s docks to avoid the Union blockade. It was a dangerous business, both for the Confederate smugglers as well as the Union occupiers. It was not uncommon for Union patrols along the Rio Grande to come under fire from Confederate, Mexican, French, or even Native American snipers across the river. Williams’ luck still held though as he and the rest of his unit came to no harm during the next four months.
In March of 1865, with the war drawing to a close, the commanders of both Union and Confederate forces along the Rio Grande reached a gentleman’s agreement to end hostilities. The southern forces knew that without a major change in fortunes, they were engaged in a losing effort and the northern forces knew it was just a matter of time before the war would be over. There was no need for more death and nobody wants to be the last to die. It seemed Private Williams was destined to survive the war without a scratch. The unofficial truce did not sit well with some, however. One who resented this unofficial truce was the white commander of the 62nd U.S. Colored Regiment, Col. Theodore Barrett.
No one knows why Col. Barrett decided to march on Brownsville, Texas. It was late spring, and Bartlett knew that Lee and Johnston had surrendered their Confederate forces the previous month. Surely, it was just a matter of a few days, before the remaining Confederate forces in remote places like South Texas would lay down their arms. Why did he decide to attack and occupy Brownsville? Having missed the opportunity to lead men in major combat operations, did Col. Barrett desire a last chance for glory before the war came to an end? Or were his motives monetarily driven? Perhaps he wished to seize for himself the large stores of cotton in Brownsville before they could be carried across the river to the wharves of Bagdad. His reasons will never be known, but regardless of his motives, the decision was poorly executed.
Leaving the 34th Indiana Regiment behind at Brazos Santiago, Col. Barrett ordered 300 men of the 62nd U.S. Colored Regiment to cross the rough waters that separated Brazos Santiago from the mainland. Once the crossing was complete, the regiment rested for the night to prepare for the next day’s march to Brownsville. Losing the element of surprise due to Confederate sentries on the south bank of the Rio Grande, Union forces engaged a small contingent of Texans at Palmito Ranch on the north side of the river. Although Barrett had the advantage of far superior numbers, the Texans put up a fierce fight and his troops were unable to push through to Brownsville. With daylight waning, they retreated from Palmito Ranch to safer shelter a few miles away. The Union forces had suffered 2 killed and 4 wounded and the Texans had suffered 1 killed and 2 wounded.
The next morning, Union forces once again marched toward Brownsville. The attack this time included 200 reinforcements from the 34th Indiana Regiment. Once again, they engaged the Confederates at Palmito Ranch. The number of Union forces were overwhelming this time and the Confederates were forced to retreat. The 62nd Colored Regiment formed a long defensive line to protect Union gains while the Indianans pushed on about a mile past the ranch to high ground within a bend of the Rio Grande. This position was well protected, but the Yankees were still several miles short of Brownsville. Even worse, by positioning themselves inside the bend with the rapid flowing waters of the river surrounding them on three sides and the Confederates now facing them on the fourth, the 34th Indiana regiment was effectively surrounded.
The engagement went on for several hours with neither side making headway.The Rebels were too few in number to make an attack and the Yankees were well dug in. Remarkably, for all of the shooting going on, there had been no deaths and only a few men wounded on both sides. At about 3:00 however, 300 Confederate reinforcements arrived. There were now 490 Confederates confronting 500 Federals. The situation shifted in the Confederates’ favor as in addition to the 300 reinforcements, they had brought a six-gun battery of artillery.
At 4:00 PM, Union forces came under heavy bombardment from the Confederate artillery. The 62nd Colored Regiment quickly retreated back to Brazos Santiago leaving the Indiana 34th skirmish line unsupported. The Confederate commander, an experienced Indian fighter and colonel with the Texas Rangers named John “Rip” Ford, ordered his cavalry to charge. The young Williams fired his rifle at the charging, yelling Rebels, but in his fear and haste, his aim was off and didn’t hit anyone. He was standing, reloading his rifle, when one of the Confederate cavalrymen noticed him. As Williams raised his now loaded rifle to fire again, the Rebel quickly aimed his Colt revolver and pulled the trigger. The ball hit Williams just above the right eye and the young volunteer from Indiana, fell back into the prairie grass and breathed his last breath.
The Battle of Palmito Ranch was very small in comparison to most of the battles of the Civil War. The number of soldiers who took part numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. The casualty count was also quite small. Confederate losses on the second day of battle were 6 wounded. Union casualties that day amounted to 1 killed, 9 wounded and 105 captured. The captives would not remain prisoners for long. Just a few days after the battle, Colonel “Rip” Ford ordered their release and he told his own men to go home. The Civil War was over.
With the disbandment of Confederate control in South Texas, the bodies of those killed at Palmito Ranch were turned over to Union authorities. Ironically, they were buried on the grounds of Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas, the town Union forces had failed to take during the battle. In 1867, the bodies of all soldiers buried at Fort Brown were disinterred and reburied at Alexandria National Cemetery in Louisiana. Williams was laid to rest in Section B, Site 797.
623,656 men died in that terrible war. Private John Jefferson Williams was the last.