Capture of Jefferson Davis; Battle of Palmito Ranch, Lincoln Conspirators Trial Begins, Grand Review of the Armies: May 1865

May 1865 in the Civil War

Nearing the End by William Gilbert GaulAs the nation continued mourn the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the transition to peace was underway. With the surrenders of the Confederate forces of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston in April, hostilities in the east had essentially ended.  Thousands of Confederate soldiers from these two armies headed for home, and they were soon joined by more as commanders farther west entered into surrender negotiations.

On May 1st,  the funeral train bearing Abraham Lincoln’s body arrived in Chicago, where it again lay in state while thousands of mourners paid their respects.  Then it was on to Springfield, Illinois, where the body lay in state one final time, this time at the State Capitol Building.  He was finally laid to rest at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield on May 4th.

While Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was dead, legal proceedings against those accused of conspiring with Booth began.  After the assassination, anyone and everyone who was suspected of having been a part of the conspiracy was questioned or arrested.  Most were released, but eight were to be put on trial.  They were:  David Herold, who had accompanied Booth on his escape; Lewis Payne, who had seriously injured Secretary of State William Seward and Seward’s son Frederick in an attempt to kill the Secretary; Michael O’Laughlen, a childhood friend of Booth’s who had participated in a failed attempt to kidnap Lincoln in March of 1865; Mary Surratt, in whose boarding house Booth and the accused conspirators met; Edmund Spangler, a stage hand at Ford’s Theatre;  Samuel Arnold, another who had been part of the failed kidnap attempt; George Atzerodt , who had also been in on the kidnap plot and who was supposed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson; and Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had treated Booth’s broken leg suffered in the assassin’s escape form Ford’s Theatre.

President Johnson declared that the assassination was an act of war and ordered that the suspects be tried by a military tribunal rather than a civilian court.  Nine U.S. Army officers were selected to serve in the tribunal.  The prisoners were arraigned before the tribunal on May 10th and testimony began two days later.  The trial would last six weeks.

Confederate forces in the field continued to surrender.  On May 4th, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, surrendered all forces under his command to Major General E.R.S. Canby at Citronelle, Alabama.  Declaring that anyone wanting to continue the war was “a fit subject for a lunatic asylum” Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest surrendered his command on May 9th at Gainesville, Alabama.  Smaller commands in scattered locations in Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas also surrendered to Union authorities so that by the middle of the month, the only sizeable Confederate forces were in Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith’s Trans Mississippi Department.

Ever since evacuating Richmond on the eve of the fall of the Confederate capital, President Jefferson Davis and the remnants of the Confederate government had been heading south, with the ultimate goal of reaching

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

the Trans-Mississippi and, Davis hoped, continue the fight albeit in a much smaller Confederacy.  On May 10th, Union cavalrymen of the 1st Wisconsin and 4th Michigan regiments caught up with Confederate president’s party near Irwinville, Georgia.  Davis was captured and taken to Macon, Georgia and was  imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Virginia on May 19th.

On the same day that Davis was captured, Union forces ambushed and mortally wounded Confederate guerilla William Quantrill in Spencer County, Kentucky.  Quantrill, who died of his wounds on June 6th in Louisville, had been the leader of the notorious raid on Lawrence, Kansas in  August 1863 that resulted in much of the town burned to the ground and 183 men and boys killed, many execution style.

There still was a little fighting going on, much of it involving small groups of guerillas, and most of that was in the west.  The final land action of the Civil War involving any sizable forces occurred near Brownsville, Texas on May 12th and 13th.

Since the Fall of 1864, the Union Army garrison and off shore Naval vessels covering the mouth of the Rio Grande River had operated under an informal truce with the Confederate forces in the area, since there seemed little to fight about.  That changed in mid May 1865 when the Union commander, Colonel Theodore Barrett, began moving men into position to make an inland raid to capture Brownsville.  Barrett’s motive for taking the offensive at this late stage of the war is unclear.  Although the Trans Mississippi Department hadn’t surrendered, soldiers on both sides knew that the war was over in the East and many assumed the war everywhere would be over shortly.  Some speculate that Barrett had been in the war’s backwaters for the duration and wanted action and a victory in the field to boost his postwar image.

Pvt. John J. Williams 34th Indiana Infantry

Pvt. John J. Williams 34th Indiana Infantry

At any rate, on May 13th, a column of 300 Federals from the  62nd United States Colored Troops (USCT) and 50 dismounted Texas (US) cavalrymen clashed with approximately 190 Confederate cavalrymen outside of Brownsville at PalmitoRanch.  The Federals dropped back and made camp, awaiting reinforcements.  Barrett soon joined them with 200 men of the 34th Indiana Infantry.  The next morning, the Federals attacked again at Palmito Ranch but the outnumbered Confederates  held their ground.  Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford arrived with 300 more Confederate cavalrymen and a six gun battery of artillery.  Ford attacked the Federal front and right flank.  The Union force had no artillery of its own, and withdrew after some sharp fighting.  Confederate losses were about a dozen wounded and captured, while Barrett’s command had four killed, a dozen wounded and about 100 captured.

The final battle of the Civil War was a Confederate victory.  Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana was believed to be the last soldier killed in action in the war.  Of course, thousands more on both sides would die before their times in the postwar era, succumbing to old wounds.

Although the fighting was ending, the dying wasn’t quite finished.  On May 25th,  approximately 300 soldiers moving ammunition at an ordnance depot in Mobile, Alabama were killed in an enormous explosion.  The cause was never determined for certain, but believed to be carelessness in the handling of the live ordnance.  Fires caused by the explosion burned a large part of Mobile.

Even though the Trans Mississippi Confederate forces had not yet surrendered, the U.S. Government decided that it was time for a victory parade.  In mid May, The Army of the Potomac and other eastern units camped around Washington DC, and were soon joined by the arrival of William T. Sherman’s army  from North Carolina, and the two armies made preparations for the event.

The Grand Review of the Armies as it was called, lasted two days.  On May 23rd, the Army of the Potomac, with Major General George Meade leading, marched down Pennsylvania Grand ReviewAvenue from the Capitol to the White House in front of an enormous crowd.  In front of the White House, a review stand had been set up for President Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant, members of the Cabinet and other officials.  Infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, about 80,000 men in all, marched in the parade.

The next day, 65,000 men from Sherman’s army took their turn.  While the first day’s parade included just military personnel, Sherman also included livestock captured in the south, and civilian laborers who had aided his army.  While most of these laborers who marched were former slaves who had escaped into Federal lines, there was one glaring omission in both day’s festivities:  No African American army regiments were permitted to march in either parade.

In Shreveport, Louisiana, on May 20th, Kirby Smith set out for Houston, Texas, where he planned on establishing his Trans Mississippi Department headquarters and continuing the fight.  While some military and state government officials wanted to continue, many soldiers had had enough and recognized that it was the end.  Confederate government supply buildings were ransacked by soldiers and large numbers left their posts and went home, not waiting for a formal surrender.  While Smith was in transit, his subordinate, Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar, went to New Orleans to negotiate with Federal authorities there.  Buckner agreed to the same terms as every other Confederate commander was offered, which were the terms that Robert E. Lee had agreed to when he surrendered.  The two sides reached agreement on May 26th.  It would be subject to approval by Kirby Smith.  The U.S.S. Fort Jackson left New Orleans bound for Galveston, Texas with the surrender documents for Smith to sign.

Smith would surrender his department, which had nearly dissolved anyway, on June 2nd.  That would leave only Native American Confederate troops and some naval vessels still at least technically fighting.

The Grand Review


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