As a commercial hub, Brownsville, Texas, paled compared with the likes of New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. All the same, the town served as a vital Gulf of Mexico lifeline for the Confederacy, one the Union could not ignore. Federal forces briefly captured Brownsville in 1863, only to have it retaken the following year by a force under the command of Confederate Colonel John Salmon Ford. A South Carolina native, Ford had made Texas his home for nearly 30 years. In May 1865, with the end of the war nearing, Union troops hoped they had seen the last of him. They weren’t so lucky, as they found out at Palmito Ranch, in what would be the Civil War’s final battle.
Ford, born in 1815 to a family that boasted Revolutionary War veterans on both sides, spent much of his youth in Tennessee. At 21 he decided to seek his fortune in the vast, roiling Texas frontier. Leaving behind a wife and two children, Ford arrived in June 1836, just two months after the Battle of San Jacinto and the declaration of Texas independence from Mexico.
After settling in east Texas he established a doctor’s practice, though he had no medical degree. It was the first in a long line of careers: lawyer, surveyor, newspaper editor, teacher, historian, playwright, printer, mayor, Texas Ranger, sheriff, chief of police, city marshal, and state and national senator. (At one point, he ran—unsuccessfully—against the “Savior of Texas” himself, Sam Houston.) In 1845 it was Ford who formally proposed the annexation of Texas to the Union.
Ford was never one to let inexperience, modesty, or a lack of formal education stand in his way. Through it all he was a soldier—initially in the nascent Army of the Republic of Texas, then during the Mexican War as a U.S. Army regimental adjutant of the Texas Mounted Rifles under the legendary John Coffee Hayes. According to oral tradition, whenever Ford submitted a list of the regiment’s fatalities and wrote a condolence letter to a deceased soldier’s family, he would add “Rest in Peace” next to the name, which eventually became shortened to “R.I.P.” He was soon known across the Lone Star State as “Rip” Ford.
Not willing to be restricted to administrative duties, Ford recast himself as a combat officer, and won a reputation as a fierce fighting man. After the war he was named commander of all Texas Rangers in the field, waging successful campaigns against the Comanches in the north and Mexican bandit Juan Cortina in the south. About this time a photograph was taken showing Ford in fringed buckskins and gauntlets, with two .44-caliber Walker Colt revolvers holstered on his narrow waist. His tireless efforts and inexhaustible energy had made him arguably the most famous man in Texas.
When Texas seceded from the Union in early 1861, the Secession Convention assigned Ford the task of ousting all 4,500 Federal troops stationed along the Rio Grande—a mission he fulfilled with only 1,000 men, without firing a shot, and without bloodshed. In emptying seven or eight Federal installations, he acquired dozens of Union artillery pieces.
Ford hoped this had earned him a general’s star, only to discover he wasn’t exactly the type of soldier favored by President Jefferson Davis, who doted on his Virginia cavaliers. Instead he received a state commission as colonel of the 2nd Texas Cavalry. By then Ford was living in Brownsville. When his regiment marched off to New Mexico Territory, he remained behind with several cavalry companies, to bolster the town’s defenses.
Meanwhile, a wave of highly placed individuals reached out to Davis requesting a promotion for Ford. Though Davis still wouldn’t budge, it was clear he had to do something. When a draft was introduced in 1863, Ford was put in charge of Texas’ unpopular Conscription Bureau. No surprise, it was a position he loathed.
In the fall of 1863, Union forces landed at Brownsville, capturing the town and working their way up to Corpus Christi. An overburdened Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder was ordered to find the right man to oust the Yankees. He naturally turned to Rip Ford, a fighter he knew other Texans would readily follow. Magruder gave him command of the Rio Grande Expeditionary Force, with the rank of a Texas state (i.e., militia) brigadier general.
By late 1864 Ford had driven the Yankees out of Brownsville, though a single garrison of Federals remained on the nearby island of Brazos Santiago. In March 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace landed there with an extraordinary proposition, one purportedly sanctioned by both Ulysses Grant and President Abraham Lincoln. The war all but over, Wallace proposed to Ford and his superior, Brig. Gen. James E. Slaughter, that the two sides join forces to invade Mexico and end French expansion and the rule of Emperor Maximilian.
Although Ford and Slaughter favored the plan, the Confederate high command rejected it, unwilling to remove soldiers from the field at this critical time. The two forces then agreed to a truce as they awaited the war’s outcome. But after learning of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, the Texans refused to follow suit. General Edmund Kirby Smith, head of the Trans-Mississippi Department, told Texas’ governor, as well as those of nearby states, to ignore the surrender and keep fighting. Though some soldiers chose to go home, most Texans happily complied.
By the second week of May, the war was truly over. Both major Confederate armies (Lee’s and Joseph E. Johnston’s) had surrendered, and Davis was captured on May 10. Then, on May 11, the Yankees on Brazos Santiago Island broke the truce. Their commander, Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, had never led troops in combat and apparently was unwilling to allow peace to ruin his chance for glory. He crossed to the mainland at the head of a force of 300 infantry and unmounted cavalry, and marched toward Brownsville. Hearing the news, Slaughter proposed surrendering; Rip Ford would have none of it. On May 12 the Federals met 190 men of Giddings’ Texas Cavalry Battalion at Palmito Ranch, about halfway between Brownsville and the coast. Following a brief skirmish, both sides retired. Ford sent word ordering the cavalry to maintain contact, pending reinforcements; the Yankees, however, were reinforced first, bringing their number to 500. The next morning they drove the outnumbered but hard-fighting Rebels far across a stretch of open prairie.
Ford arrived that afternoon with 300 cavalry and a six-gun battery. He launched a three-pronged attack that stunned the Federals, who quickly broke and ran, in what Ford laconically described as a “rather confused manner”—demonstrating “how fast demoralized men could get over ground.” His men pursued the Yankees all the way to the coast—what the Federals deemed a tactical withdrawal but was, in fact, a total rout.
Only five or six Confederates were wounded; the Yankees suffered as many as 30 killed or wounded, and about 100 captured. A few days later, Federal officers visited Brownsville and signed a truce. The skill, charisma, and intractability of John S. “Rip” Ford had made the Battle of Palmito Ranch a rousing Southern victory.
Ron Soodalter writes from Cold Spring, N.Y.