Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in deep South Texas is one of the most biodiverse refuges in North America. It draws tens of thousands of visitors annually from across the nation. Unbeknown to many of them, the 90,000–acre refuge along the winding Rio Grande also includes the site of the last land battle of the Civil War—the Battle of Palmito Ranch.

Soon, history enthusiasts will have an opportunity to experience the site’s heritage.

Working with the National Park Service and Texas Historic Commission, Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge is building an overlook of the Palmito Ranch battlefield and developing interpretive information about the clash that occurred on refuge grounds.

During the Civil War, the Rio Grande delta attracted attention, not for its wildlife but as a vital depot for the Confederate cotton trade.

White Gold”

When U.S. naval ships sealed off ports from Virginia to Texas, Confederate leaders transported their “white gold” across the Rio Grande, loaded it onto Mexican flagships and sailed it safely past the blockading forces. For years, trade through the region helped sustain the Confederate war effort.

photo of scientists O'Laughlin and Schmid

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

After the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, VA, on April 9, 1865, the military leaders on the Rio Grande wisely adopted an informal truce.

But that agreement collapsed on May 12, 1865, when Col. Theodore Barrett led 300 Union troops inland to Palmito Ranch on the banks of the Rio Grande, engaging Confederate pickets in an apparent attempt to capture Brownsville. Confederate troops responded the next day, when 350 cavalry soldiers drove back the Union 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 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 many of the 1,200 documented plant species that thrive in the rich soils of the Rio Grande delta, where four climates (temperate, desert, coastal and subtropical) converge and the growing season is 365 days.

Birdwatchers’ Paradise

The refuge lies at the northernmost point for many birds migrating from Central and South America and at the juncture of two migratory flyways, the Central and Mississippi—making it a birdwatchers’ paradise. More than 520 documented bird species include neotropical migratory birds, shorebirds, raptors and waterfowl. Among them are the aplomado falcon, green jay, plain chachalaca, great kiskadee, red–billed pigeon, Altamira oriole and ringed kingfisher.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley also boasts approximately 300 documented species of butterfly, many of which cannot be seen elsewhere in the United States. The endangered ocelot, a favorite South Texas feline, is part of this historic landscape,too.

A site set aside to preserve wildlife is also preserving the final land battle site of the nation’s bloodiest war. It’s a natural fit.

Douglas Murphy is a National Park Service historian.