Fort Craig’s Bluecoats, a total of more than 3000 regular militia and volunteers, knew that the Confederate “Army of New Mexico,” a force of some 2500, had encamped at a site about four miles east of Fort Craig and the Rio Grande. Union spies reported that they could see numerous campfires, which cast long shadows of the Rebel soldiers into the night.
Just a few days earlier, the Yankees, with superior numbers, weaponry and fortifications, had faced down the Confederates in the desert just south of the fort. They had kept close watch as the Rebs withdrew their forces to the south, endured the torture of a fierce and cold two-day sandstorm, crossed the icy waters of the Rio Grande, set their current camp on the dry plain, and turned their draft animals out to thin desert pastureland. With men and animals feeling haggard by weariness, exposure, supply shortages and thirst, the Confederates, who had come from Texas with visions of driving northward up the old Chihuahua Trail to conquer New Mexico and then the Southwest, now seemed vulnerable, at least for the moment.
Paddy Graydon figured that he knew just how to capitalize on the Confederates’ plight, so he laid out his plan. With just a handful of men, he would take two faithful but failing old mules from Fort Craig’s herd on one last mission. He would load the pair of animals with improvised bombs made from howitzer shells. Under the cover of darkness, he would sneak them across the Rio Grande, through the desert, and into the very heart of the enemy camp. He would light the fuses and trigger an explosion in the midst of the Rebels and their animals. He would probably inflict at least some destruction. He would certainly create confusion and uncertainty, giving the Army of New Mexico a sense of vulnerability. He would surely stampede the mule herd, driving off the draft animals that the Confederate force needed to haul supply and equipment wagons. Besides all that, he would play a fine joke on the Johnny Rebs, and perhaps more important, at least to Paddy Graydon, he would add a new chapter of heroism and audaciousness to his resume.
The whole thing sounded zany, but just a few days earlier, the Federal troops had watched from Fort Craig as Graydon, under orders from the post commander, Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, had ridden his trademark gray horse southward to within musket range of the Rebel forces. In a nerve-wracking performance, Graydon wheeled and turned his mount time and again through the desert shrub brush with all the flare of a “circus man.” Single handedly, he taunted the 2500 Confederate troopers, trying to provoke them into attacking the fort, where the Bluecoats held the tactical advantage. Finally, with Rebel bullets buzzing around him, he turned north, back toward the post. He spurred his gray into a hard run. The Federal troops cheered his heroics and daring as he raced to the safety of the fortified walls. If he got away with that, Paddy Graydon could surely pull off his plan to deliver two mule bombs to the Rebels by special convoy.
In spite of Graydon’s goading, the Confederates, under the command of Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, had not taken the bait. They could see that the Bluecoats, backed by artillery and protected by fortifications, held the advantage. By Sibley’s order, they had chosen to withdraw from the field. They had decided to cross the Rio Grande and follow the east side of the river northward, bypassing Fort Craig. They would re-cross the river at the Valverde Ford, north of the Union post. Hopefully, they would lure the Federals into a fight in the open desert, where the odds were better. Canby could scarcely resist. He would have to protect the strategically important Valverde ford, part of his supply link to Union forces in the north.
Graydon: The Perfect Man for the Job
The Federals could scarcely have chosen a better man to carry out a mule bomb mission. Graydon, born in the remote and hardscrabble Irish village of Lisnakea in 1832, according to Jerry D. Thompson in Captain Paddy Graydon: Desert Tiger, migrated to America as a teenager. Struggling just to survive, he joined the U. S. Army’s elite 1st Dragoons in early 1853. Ordered to the West with 43 other recruits, Graydon arrived in Santa Fe in August of 1853.
Posted to the Rio Grande village of Los Lunas, on the Chihuahua Trail, the fair complexioned, blue-eyed young man, who stood about 5 feet 7 inches tall, according to Thompson, learned the trade of frontier soldiering and command under a tough and eccentric but fair and respected West Point graduate named Richard Stoddert Ewell. Graydon served under Ewell in expeditions against the Mescalero Apaches, the Mimbres Apaches and the Navajos. He became inured to the hard life of campaigning and the tedium of army camp routine.
Three years later, in the fall of 1856, Graydon moved with his 1st Dragoon unit to south central Arizona, where the United States was consolidating control over the territory acquired from Mexico under the Gadsden Purchase. From Fort Buchanan, located near the village of Sonoita, Arizona, Graydon, still under the command of Ewell, rode in campaigns against the marauding Chiricahua and Western Apaches. He helped hunt down outlaws who rode into the territory to loot and plunder. He helped impose order on the shady trade between Mexican entrepreneurs and territorial ranchers.
In 1858, at the age of 26, Graydon had become a seasoned veteran of frontier campaigning and battle, but now weary of the hardship, he left the army and opened a hotel, a whitewashed adobe structure that became known as “Casa Blanca,” or “White House,” located a few miles south of Fort Buchanan. For the next few years, he accommodated guests, stabled horses, ran a good saloon, made some gin, farmed a little land, raised a few cows, hosted round-the-clock poker games, housed the region’s top prostitutes, presided over some dandy gunfights, and earned some money.
In his spare time, Graydon became the chief instrument of civil law in the neighborhood. On both sides of the border, he guided U. S. military expeditions, caught horse thieves and murderers, ran down Indian raiders, and helped rescue captives. After a ferocious battle with a party of Chiricahuas in southern Arizona’s Whetstone Mountains, about 15 miles northeast of Fort Buchanan, the commanding officer reported to his superior, “I would call…attention…to the bravery and gallant conduct of Mr. James Graydon,” who had served as guide for the patrol and had killed two of the Apache warriors.
When the Civil War came to the Southwestern desert, Graydon abandoned his Casa Blanca enterprise. He rode to northern New Mexico to offer his services to the Union. He received a commission from territorial Governor Henry Connelly, with the charge of recruiting a company of spies who would operate virtually independently. With more than 100 of the “hardest cases” he could find, Graydon reported to Fort Craig then headed south, down the Rio Grande, with his men to infiltrate the Confederate lines and assess the enemy movements, numbers and armaments. He kept Colonel Canby advised of General Sibley’s progress throughout the Rebel march northward, up the river.
The Night of the Mule Bombs
It was in the blackness of the night of February 20, 1862, that the two faithful but doddering old Union mules from Fort Craig’s herd found themselves loaded with a dozen improvised 24-pounder howitzer-shell bombs, which Graydon had encased in wooden boxes. Led by Graydon and four of his “hardest cases,” they forded the frigid Rio Grande, still determined to serve their army as best they could. Leaving their herd of Union mule friends in the middle of the night, the two decrepit animals probably thought that Graydon was reckless and arrogant and probably a daredevil and a braggart, too, but they revered him. With Graydon and his men, they slipped through the creosote and mesquite brush of the desert. They made their way to the Confederate camp. They could see a few campfires still burning, a feeble defense against the hard cold. They approached the Confederate mule herd, which they could smell in the darkness. They halted while Graydon dismounted and lit the fuses to their bombs. From here, they were supposed to proceed into the Confederate camp and mule herd, with bomb fuses burning, and to sew explosions, destruction, confusion, uncertainty and stampedes.
When their revered Graydon and his four hardest cases trotted away from them as silently as possible in the darkness, the two old mules misunderstood their purpose. They did not comprehend their heroic role as suicide mule bombers. With the fuses burning down, they promptly abandoned their mission and trotted away hard on the heels of Graydon and his four hardest cases. When Graydon and his four hardest cases urged their mounts into a gallop, apparently with some alarm, the two faithful old mules did their best to follow suit, staying as close as possible, true to their reverence for Graydon and their loyalty to the Union with every step. When Graydon and his four hardest cases drove their mounts into a full out run, the old mules finally lagged behind, suddenly lighting up the night sky in a thunderous blaze of glory.
Although Graydon inflicted little damage with his mule bombs (other than to the two martyred mules), he certainly disturbed the sleep of the Rebels. He triggered a stampede of the enemy mules, according to John Taylor, Bloody Valverde, causing some 150 of the animals to run hard to the Rio Grande for water and then surrender themselves to Federal pickets along the river bottom. Graydon had at least handicapped the Confederates’ ability to move supply wagons.
Returning to Fort Craig, just possibly a little embarrassed, Graydon gathered his spy company. With daylight breaking, he crossed the Rio Grande again, a little below the Valverde ford. He promptly discovered advance elements of the Confederate force, which had broken camp and begun its move northward. Gunfire erupted. The Battle of Valverde had begun.
As the roar of musket, shotgun and artillery fire waxed and waned and Federal and Confederate men and animals bled and died throughout the day, Graydon and his company harassed the enemy across the battlefield. “his little battle flag was seen everywhere; now harassing upon one flank, now charging impetuously upon the other,” said one officer, quoted by Thompson. “…at the battle of Valverde we discharged our duty with…effort and perseverance, battling face to face from nine o’clock in the morning till six in the evening when we received orders to retire,” said Graydon’s own men. Graydon, “rendered me eminent service by his vigilant watch of the enemy’s movements, and great energy, enterprise and daring during the entire day,” said Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin S. Roberts.
Graydon harassed the Confederates again during their disastrous campaign in northern New Mexico and their retreat through to southern New Mexico. He followed their grueling trail through the desert, west of the Rio Grande, a detour they took to avoid another confrontation with the Union army. “All along the route, [Graydon] found a trail of devastation,” said Thompson in his book Confederate General of the West: Henry Hopkins Sibley. “In one place nineteen wagons, ten ambulances, six caissons, and three carriages were found burned. In fact, the Rebels had been forced to bury some of the artillery. Sixty to seventy horses and mules were left dead along the route… In one place Graydon found three of Sibley’s dead soldiers half buried and in another, a man’s arm half eaten by wolves.”
“Union scouts under Capt. James ‘Paddy’ Graydon shadowed the Rebels on occasion, even mingled with them by their firesides and reported back to Colonel Canby all that they had seen,” said Donald S. Frazier in his Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. “A final battle for New Mexico, these spies reported, would not be necessary.”
Shootout at Fort Stanton
With the Civil War receding from the Southwest, Paddy Graydon, now 32 years old, led his company eastward to Fort Stanton, a post established in the Sacramento Mountains to help control the Mescalero Apaches. He led his company in a bloody and controversial fight against a Mescalero band, personally killing the chief, a popular tribal figure called “Manuelito.” Accused of a massacre and threatened with an official investigation, Graydon contested the accounts of fellow officers. He got into a violent argument with Dr. John Marmaduke Whitlock, the post physician, who had evidently called Graydon a “murderer and a thief,” according to Thompson in Desert Tiger. Inevitably, the dispute escalated into a gunfight.
It erupted on the post parade grounds on the morning of November 5, 1882. In the exchange of fire, Graydon collapsed with a gunshot wound in the chest. “The son of a bitch has killed me,” he said. Graydon’s bullets had found Whitlock’s side and hand. Graydon was carried from the field. His men, infuriated by the wounding of their leader, promptly shot Whitlock to death, emptying their weapons into the doctor’s lifeless body.
As he lay in his bed in the post’s hospital improvised hospital, Graydon must have learned that the garrison buried Whitlock in the post cemetery the following day. He may have found that his men would be called to account.
On November 8, 1882, Graydon, who had survived punishing campaigns against the Apaches, Navajos and outlaws and battles (including his mule bomb raid) against the Confederacy, died as a result of his fight with a fellow officer. Today, James “Paddy” Graydon, almost a myth in Southwestern lore, lies buried in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.
The ruins of Fort Craig, now a National Historic Site administered by the Bureau of Land Management, is located in central New Mexico about 32 miles south of Socorro and 45 miles north of Truth or Consequences, on the west bank of the Rio Grande. If you are traveling south from Socorro on I-25, take Exit 124 (the San Marcial exit). Follow the frontage road (NM Highway 1) south for 6.5 miles to County Road 273 (the Fort Craig Road). If you are traveling north from Truth or Consequences on I-25, take Exit 115. Follow the frontage road (NM Highway 1) north for about 3 miles to the Fort Craig Road. Turn east on the Fort Craig Road, which has a gravel surface. Follow it for 4.5 miles to the ruins.
From the Fort Craig ruins and to the east, across the Rio Grande, you will see a large lava-capped mesa, which is called Mesa del Contadero, or the Mesa of the Counting, which Spanish herdsmen once used as a vantage point for counting their livestock after a passage over a treacherous stretch of the Chihuahua Trail. The Confederates were encamped in the desert to the south of the mesa when Paddy Graydon launched his mule bomb raid. The Confederates and Federals fought the Battle of Valverde immediately north of the mesa.
In this article, I have drawn heavily from Jerry D. Thompson’s fine little book Captain Paddy Graydon: Desert Tiger. I have also relied on Thompson’s Confederate General of the West: Henry Hopkins Sibley, Donald S. Frazier’s Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest, John Taylor’s Bloody Valverde, and Martin Hardwick Hall’s Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign.