Battle of Palmito


The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in deep South Texas is well known as one of the most biodiverse national wildlife refuges in North America and it draws visitors from across the nation—north and south.  

Less known is that this 90,000 acre refuge along the banks of the winding Rio Grande includes the scene of the battle of Palmito Ranch, the last land battle of the war between North and South.

During the American Civil War, the Rio Grande delta attracted attention, not for its unique wildlife but as a vital depot for the Confederate cotton trade. When United States naval ships sealed off ports from Virginia to Texas, Confederate leaders transported their “white gold” across the Rio Grande, loaded it on Mexican flagships, and sailed it safely past the blockading forces. For years, trade through the region helped sustain the Confederate war effort.

This thriving trade made Fort Brown, in the city of Brownsville, a vital strategic location. In November of 1863, Union forces invaded the Texas coast and occupied Brownsville to halt the flow of cotton. Confederate troops recaptured Brownsville in July of 1864 and pushed the Federal troops back to Brazos Island, the southernmost barrier island on the Texas coast. The two forces would be divided by the 20 miles of coastal prairie for the remainder of the war.

The surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, on April 12, 1865 showed that war was coming to a close, and the military leaders on the Rio Grande wisely adopted an informal truce. But that agreement collapsed on May 12, 1865, when Colonel Theodore Barrett led 300 Union troops inland, engaging Confederate pickets in an apparent quest to capture Brownsville. Confederate troops responded, and on May 13, 350 cavalry soldiers drove back the Federal forces. Union troops counted two killed, 28 wounded and more than 100 captured. Confederate troops suffered only minor casualties and earned a final victory in an otherwise lost cause.

Today, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge preserves the Palmito Ranch battlefield in much the same natural state as it appeared in 1865. The coastal prairie and lomas are home to some of the 1,200 documented plant species that thrive in the climate and rich soils of the Rio Grande delta. The refuge lies at the northern most point for many birds migrating from central and south America. It is also at the juncture of two migratory flyways, the Central and Mississippi, making it a bird watchers’ paradise. Visitors will enjoy the abundance of butterflies, an area that is home to nearly half the species native to the United States. Some South Texas favorites, like the aplomado falcon, green jay and endangered ocelot, are part of this historic landscape.

Soon history enthusiasts will have an opportunity to more fully experience the heritage of the site. Working with the National Park Service and Texas Historic Commission, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is building an overlook of the Palmito Ranch battlefield and developing interpretive information about the clash that occurred on these grounds. In time, a site set aside to protect the wildlife will also preserve the final battle site of the nation’s bloodiest war.  It’s a natural fit. 

This text provided by the National Park Service.