Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review - "Palmito Ranch: From Civil War Battlefield to National Historic Landmark" by Ginn & McWhorter

[Palmito Ranch: From Civil War Battlefield to National Historic Landmark by Jody Edward Ginn and William Alexander McWhorter (Texas A&M University Press, 2018). Flexbound softcover, 6 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,91/132. ISBN:978-1-62349-636-4. $26]

In the realm of Texas Civil War battles, the two late-war engagements fought at Palmito Ranch pale in size and significance to earlier Confederate victories at Galveston and Sabine Pass. Nevertheless, the May 12-13, 1865 fight at Palmito Ranch does hold the distinction of being the Civil War's final battle, one that was also ironically a Confederate victory. As its title suggests, Jody Edward Ginn and William Alexander McWhorter's Palmito Ranch: From Civil War Battlefield to National Historic Landmark tells the story of the battles as well as the modern effort to preserve and interpret the battlefield for posterity. Small in size but wide in scope, Palmito Ranch is a three-part study that encompasses the history of the battles fought there, the results of a series of archaeological surveys performed on the site, and the long collaborative process that led to the establishment of the National Historic Landmark.

In summarizing the two battles fought at Palmito Ranch in September 1864 and May 1865, the authors survey the worthiness of existing works and are not afraid to criticize their shortcomings where needed. Their determination that Jeffrey Hunt's The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch (2000) is the best book-length study of the 1865 battle published thus far is in line with current opinion. Citing the many different names attached to the site located roughly halfway between Brownsville and Brazos Santiago, the authors offer a convincing argument that any combination of Palmito/Palmetto Ranch/Hill can be reasonably justified from the historical record. Though their arguments are mostly contained in the notes, Ginn and McWhorter also dismiss other "last battle" claimants.

Some interesting insights into the lesser-known first battle at Palmito Ranch are offered. The authors are certainly correct that the First Battle of Palmito Ranch, which was really a week-long series of skirmishes (roughly over the period September 5-12, 1864) that also involved French Imperial forces in indirect support of John S. "Rip" Ford's Confederates on one side and Mexican Cortinista infantry and artillery directly allied with Union forces on the other, needs more research. Details of the 1864 fighting remain nebulous, but Ford subordinate Lt. Col. Daniel Showalter's smaller Confederate command reportedly held back the combined enemy over several days before withdrawing, returning later to join forces with Lt. Col. George Giddings (who did not mention Showalter in his own reports and accounts) to finally restore Confederate control over lost ground. Contrary to some other interpretations of the fighting, it does seem clear that Juan Cortina's forces did indeed physically cross the river to fight (that Mexican prisoners were taken in the field in Texas was acknowledged by both sides), and did not simply shell the Confederates from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Throughout, the authors frequently cite the Ford Papers, which apparently were not available to Hunt at the time of his own Palmito Ranch research, as an important "new" resource for scholars of the border fighting that included these battles. According to Ginn and McWhorter, the muster rolls contained in the papers conclusively demonstrate that Ford's command was a polyglot group of draft-age veterans (not a hasty assemblage of youths and old men as some have argued). Additionally, these personnel documents do not support the common contention that Ford's men deserted in large numbers upon hearing of the Appomattox surrender. The papers and other sources also buttress Ford's published casualty figures for both Palmito Ranch engagements, numbers that many subsequent writers considered underreported.

The only real source of complaint in all this is the absence of original battle maps in an otherwise beautifully presented and richly illustrated volume. There is no map at all for the 1864 fighting, and the blandness of the book's borrowed cartography for the 1865 battle stands in stark contrast with the overall attractiveness of the volume's presentation.

The book's discussion of the three archaeological surveys performed between 2001 and 2010 reaffirms the worth of that methodology, both in confirming/questioning documentary history and in supporting preservation. It also shows that in archaeology what you don't find is just as important as what you do. Interestingly, while the digging on Palmetto Hill did not discover evidence of that strategic high ground being the location of major fighting, it did have a positive effect on marshaling support for landmark preservation. The absence of artifacts there supports contemporary reports that indicate a military presence on the hill for observation purposes but not significant fighting, with the position considered "indefensible" with the resources at hand. This section of the book amply reinforces the now widely accepted viewpoint that battlefield archaeology is at its best when employing a multi-disciplinary team of professionals in direct collaboration with outside stakeholders and participants possessing valuable local knowledge.

The last part of the volume traces the development of Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark. Along the way, it appropriately credits teamwork between federal agencies, the state historical commission, the Civil War Trust, and other dedicated individuals and organizations with preserving both the battlefield and the natural landscape in and around it. As part of the process, events like Park Day raised public awareness of Palmito Ranch while drawing in new supporters. With the site's relative isolation and funding not available for permanent staffing, the study also notes some of the innovative battlefield interpretive measures employed, in particular the radio broadcast repeater system installed in 2011 (which offers 24/7 visitor access to interpretive information recordings on the airwaves over a ten-mile radius around the landmark).

This volume is a wonderful new tool for raising public awareness and appreciation of the Palmito Ranch landmark and the history behind it. In addition to constructing a narrative appealing to new readers, authors Ginn and McWhorter offer fresh insights and information that those familiar with the existing literature should well appreciate. The book also represents another example of the indispensable importance in historical preservation of public and private resources and teamwork. Finally, the volume very effectively advances the notion that Palmito Ranch is deserving of a higher legacy than simply being the answer to a common Civil War trivia question. As a part of this, its narrative of events dovetails usefully with elements of the growing and influential North American borderlands scholarship. Highly recommended.

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