The End of the Ordeal
The only statewide elections held in Texas in 1864 were to fill a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court. The victory of Oran Roberts of San Augustine, a well-known secessionist (and future governor), showed that in spite of the bad news about the war, Texans felt they had little choice but to stick with the effort.
The legislature met in special session in the fall of 1864. By this time, the Confederate currency had collapsed to a value of only 2½ cents on the dollar. Even lawmakers were turned away by merchants and innkeepers when they tried to pay with paper money. Some legislators arrived in Austin with tobacco and nails to use for barter. Others were forced to camp in their wagons on the Capitol grounds.
Not surprisingly, the legislature took up the matter of finance, opting to end the use of Confederate money in Texas. This would be the major action of the session. Much time was spent debating the war, the possibilities of reunion with the United States, under what circumstances to accept a peace overture from the North, and what might happen afterwards. Some still regarded such talk as treasonous; others revisited the idea of reviving the Republic of Texas rather than ever face surrender of the cause. The session adjourned with legislators, like other Texans, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
The bloodbath of the last battles of the Civil War is well-known. In Texas, the news was often brought by barefoot and ragged soldiers who had simply deserted the lost cause and headed for home. By this time, the Confederate collapse was evident to almost everyone. Lincoln had been reelected, ending any hope of a negotiated peace. William T. Sherman’s army had burned through Georgia and South Carolina. Richmond itself was under a relentless siege. Texas men were sick of fighting and ready to get on with their lives.
Perhaps John H. Reagan, who served as Postmaster General for the Confederacy before going on to a career as one of the outstanding statesmen of Texas, put it best: “If our people continue the contest with the spirit which animated them during the first years of the war, our independence might yet be within our reach. But I see no reason for that now.”
In February, Union general Lew Wallace sought permission from Union commander Grant to pursue the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the war on the Rio Grande. Wallace feared that Mexico, in the throes of its own civil war, might become a haven for ex-Confederates who would cross the border and use Mexico as a staging ground to carry on the war indefinitely. Though nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender,” Grant agreed.
On March 11, Wallace met in Port Isabel with Confederate commanders Rip Ford and James E. Slaughter. Both of the Confederates agreed that the conflict was degenerating into a guerilla war that could only lead to the ruin of Texas. The men agreed on surrender terms that included amnesty for former Confederates and a gradual emancipation of the slaves. But when Ford and Slaughter presented the terms to John G. Walker, then temporarily filling in for Magruder as military commander of Texas, he exploded and accused them of treason. For now, the war would continue.
Later in March, an invading force of several thousand federal troops, most of them African American, landed at Brazos Santiago. They soon moved upon the Texas mainland, where they engaged with Ford’s irregulars. The Confederates remained motivated by the need to protect thousands of dollars worth of cotton, while Slaughter worked frantically to get it sent across the Rio Grande to Mexico.
These skirmishes were underway when events elsewhere took on a momentum of their own. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On April 15, the North’s celebration turned to grief when Abraham Lincoln was gunned down by a Confederate sympathizer. The act was pointless; less than a week later, the South’s military collapse continued with the surrender by Joe Johnston of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee. On May 4, Richard Taylor surrendered on behalf of the troops of Alabama, Mississippi, and east Louisiana.
Word of Lee’s surrender and the death of Lincoln reached Governor Murrah and the Texas government late in April. Defiant proclamations by the governor and by Kirby Smith and John Magruder rang hollow to a defeated and demoralized population. Soldiers in Houston, Galveston, San Antonio, and Austin rioted for their back pay and then attacked government warehouses, stripping them of anything valuable. In Galveston, soldiers commandeered the train to the mainland in a mass desertion, and civilians swarmed a blockade runner in the harbor and looted it. At least 20 children were injured playing with looted powder and cartridges.
Only on the border was there any semblance of a fighting force remaining in Texas. Rip Ford tried to no avail to keep his army from melting away. Some men got drunk; many struck out for home; a few who hadn’t had their fill of fighting slipped into Mexico to join up with the imperial forces.
On May 13, 1865, the last battle of the Civil War took place at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville. In a fierce skirmish, the Southerners surprised a Yankee contingent advancing on Brownsville. The federals took more than 100 casualties and were forced to make an embarrassing retreat. A few days later, Ford released his troops from service and told them to go home.
Page last modified: August 25, 2011