May 12, 1865 (Friday)
The day previous, Col. Theodore Barrett, commanding the Federal troops at Brazos Santiago, Texas, ordered 250 men under Col. David Branson to attack and hold the nearby port of Brownsville. They marched, but were stymied by a storm and rerouted. Finding themselves in the dead of night near to a suspected Rebel outpost called White’s Ranch, they were reinforced and surrounded the base and waited for dawn.
“Owing to the exhausted condition of the men,” reported Col. Branson, “I could not reach Palmetto Ranch before daylight to surprise it, and therefore hid my command in a thicket and among weeds on the banks of the Rio Grande one mile and a half above White’s Ranch, where we remained undiscovered until 8.30 a. m., when persons on the Mexican shore seeing us started to give the alarm to the rebels. At the same time soldiers of the Imperial Mexican Army were marching up that bank of the river.”
Col. John “Rip” Ford, commanded the Rebels in the field. Seeing the Federals before him, he considered: “this may be the last fight of the war, and from the number of Union men I see before me, I am going to be whipped.”
Ford’s commander, General James Slaughter, felt quite a bit differently. He had established a sort of peace which had lasted several months. But now the Federals were stirring and seemed intent on disrupting this status quo. “I had heard of General Lee’s surrender and did not want to fight,” he said after the war.
But when Slaughter let his notion be known to Ford, the latter was to have said: “You can retreat and go to hell if you wish! These are my men, and I am going to fight. I have held this place against heavy odds. If you lose it without a fight the people of the Confederacy will hold you accountable for a base neglect of duty.”
Wishing to avoid battling the Rebels and France together, Branson fell back toward Palmetto Ranch, driving the Rebel cavalry before them. By noon, he had driven them “from their camp, which had been occupied by about 190 men and horses, capturing 3 prisoners, 2 horses, and 4 beef-cattle, and their ten days’ rations, just issued.”
Seeing that Ford’s Rebels and their two pieces of artillery had appeared before them, Col. Branson’s Federals thought better about any such further engagement.
“While there at 3pm a considerable force of the enemy appeared,” recalled Col. Branson, “and the position being indefensible, I fell back to White’s Ranch for the night, skirmishing some on the way, and had one man of Second Texas Cavalry [US] wounded.”
The Federal retreat caused Ford to turn to his men, saying, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone and retire.”
Col. Barrett, commanding at Brazos Santiago, reported a much different take on the day, though he was not present:
The enemy was driven in confusion from his position, his camp, camp equipage, and stores falling into our hands. Some horses and cattle were also captured and a number of prisoners taken. Destroying such stores as could not be transported, Lieutenant-Colonel Branson returned to the vicinity of White’s Ranch, and took up his position for the night.
However Branson got back to White’s Ranch, when he saw the Rebels gathering he sent a message to Col. Barrett. Reinforcements were needed if anything at all was to be effected. Barrett took him up on the offer. At 10pm, he and another regiment made for White’s Ranch, crossing the Rio Grande on skiffs. It was then a seven mile march to join their comrades.
With both sides retired, the next morning was certain to see renewed battle.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 48, Part 2, p266, 267-268; History of Texas by John Henry Brown; Confederate Cavalry West of the River by Stephen B. Oates; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volumes 21-22 edited by Robert Alonzo Brock; Out of the Storm by Noah Trudeau. [↩]