THE BLOG

The Civil War's Forgotten Battlefield

05/04/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016

May 12 and 13 will mark the 150th anniversary of the last battle of the American Civil War: the Battle of Palmito Ranch. Chances are, most of the people reading this piece have never heard of that battle. Speaking personally, the main reason I'm aware of it is because it occurred on a tract of land that was owned by some of my ancestors. The battle was really more of a skirmish than a major engagement and it was located far from the famous battlefields of the Civil War, on the Texas-Mexico border near Brownsville, Texas. It took place over a month after General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, even though the participants were well aware of Lee's surrender.

While insignificant in the larger drama of the Civil War, the Battle of Palmito Ranch was a strange coda to the war that was in many ways a harbinger of the conflict over the postwar order that raged for decades throughout the South. The Confederacy won the Battle of Palmito Ranch and in doing so was able to maintain a stronger position in setting the terms of the postwar world in Texas. For example, the leader of the Confederate forces at Palmito Ranch went on to become a successful Texas journalist, Texas State Senator and the Mayor of Brownsville, Texas.

Tom Zoellner has written an excellent piece about the battle in the Texas Observer, and I suggest that anyone reading this post read his article at the Texas Observer. Zoellner describes how the battle was fought by "a confusing array of French nationals, Yankees, African Americans, Tejanos and hardcore insurrectionists fighting each other for reasons that were hazy to most everyone concerned" as part of a larger struggle for access to port facilities across the border in Mexico, namely smuggling via a port with the evocative and ironic name of Bagdad. This lucrative trade helped provide a trickle of international commerce for the Confederacy during the Civil War as well as revenue for businessmen in Mexico, which was embroiled in its own civil war at the time.

There's a detail in Zoellner's article that I think is worth noting and which I think tells us a lot about why the Battle of Palmito Ranch was linked to broader post-Civil War matters. Zoellner writes that "incredibly, French soldiers then occupying Mexico under the puppet emperor Maximilian I began taking potshots at [Union soldiers] from across the river. At least a few French officers were said to be on the north side of the Rio Grande helping the Confederates aim their cannons". Actually, that isn't so incredible, given American alliances in Mexico's civil war. Those who supported the Confederacy also generally supported the French-backed Imperialist forces in Mexico and the Union supported Benito Juarez's Republican army. President Abraham Lincoln supported Juarez and the United States probably would have intervened in France's installation of Maximilian as the Emperor of Mexico had it not been otherwise engaged in the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Events in Mexico played themselves out quickly anyway, as exhibited in these famous artworks by Edouard Manet.)

In many ways, the Battle of Palmito Ranch was a minor battle over the much larger issues that would define the political terms in North America in the middle of the 19th Century. It had implications related to Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine as well as the epic struggle over slavery. While it can't be mentioned in the same breath as Gettysburg or Antietam, it does tell us something about the political and military machinations of that era and how intrigues on both sides of the US-Mexico border played themselves out during that era with terrible human costs. That is something worth remembering, as such intrigues aren't relegated to history books.