February 20, 1862 (Thursday)
General Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico rose before the sun, continuing their flank march up the eastern shore of the Rio Grande. Their objective, eight or so miles north, was Valverde Ford, along the Union supply line to nearby Fort Craig. If the Rebels held the ford, they could starve out (or force out) Col. Canby’s troops, defeat them and continue on to Albuquerque.
The first few miles of the Rebels’ trek was easy traveling upon a well-used trail. Once they negotiated a small rise, they came into view of Fort Craig, still four miles distant and across the river. General Sibley, confined to an ambulance due to being either sick or drunk or both, wanted to avoid Union artillery fire and ordered his column off the road.
One of the Arizona Rangers (CS) apparently knew the land and was selected to lead the army around a mesa. They had hoped to reach Valverde Ford before dark, but due to the deep sand, sinking wagons to their axles, the Rebels inched along.
As they struggled, scouts reported Federal troops massing to their front. Then, as the sun crossed the sky, blue cavalry could be seen to the north. And then it was infantry. The Rebels, by this time, had moved due east of Fort Craig and were on high ground. If the Union troops were going to attack, Sibley wanted to fight them here.
In reports, Sibley is often mentioned ordering this or that, but in reality, it was probably Col. Tom Green, second in command. The Rebels were ordered to form line of battle across one of the arroyos, placing artillery in the center of the line.
Meanwhile, Union Col. Canby at Fort Craig had just received his last reinforcements, bringing his numbers to 3,800, arrayed against Sibley’s nearly 2,600. With a fort and 1,200 more men, there was little chance of Union failure. It was then, after receiving the 2nd New Mexico Militia, that Canby decided to take Sibley’s bait. He left the defenses of Fort Craig in the middle of the afternoon, establishing his own line of battle opposite Sibley’s.1
Canby was across the river, but still not sure where the Rebel battle line had been formed. He deployed a regiment worth of Regulars and New Mexico Volunteers to find out. Just as they were dispatched, Col. Tom Green ordered his artillery to fire. The shells pierced the crisp air, soaring over the heads of the Union skirmishers, but sending rocks and shrapnel amongst them.
The Federal troops fired a few harmless volleys at long range, as their own artillery joined the half-hearted fight. Few Union troops were injured, but many of the raw recruits scattered. When Major Samuel “Nicaragua” Lockridge led his 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers in a charge towards the Union line, the retreat became a route.2
The sun had set and most of the Union troops had returned to Fort Craig. A small contingent known as Graydon’s Independent Spy Company, headed by Paddy Graydon, who had a “reputation for the spectacular,” was still on the Confederate side of the river.
Graydon had apparently obtained Col. Canby’s permission to launch a small night raid upon the Rebel encampment. Wanting to first confuse rather than to simply surprise them, he devised a bizarre little scheme.
He found two old, thirsty mules, tied a couple of wooden boxes to them, and then filled the boxes with exploding artillery shells, their fuses cut short. Graydon, along with three or four of his men, walked the mules towards the Rebel camp. The plan was to light the fuses and allow the mules to continue on to their conflagrant ends. This is not, however, what happened.
When the mules were on their way and the fuses lit, Graydon and his men turned tail for a safer view. The mules, perhaps more loyal than they should have been, turned their tails as well, chasing after the Union spies.
Fortunately for Graydon, but unfortunately for the mules, the short fuses were still long enough to give the blue fiends time to escape. The blasts woke the Rebels, who prepared for an attack. But there was no attack to receive. There was only Paddy Graydon and his merry band of ghouls slinking back across the Rio Grande.3
In Missouri and Tennessee, while Union General Grant was about to capture Clarksville, with his eyes on Nashville, Halleck, in St. Louis, was still trying to figure out how to protect Cairo, Illinois from the Rebels. He had been diverting reinforcements to Cairo and was even wiring General Buell to help out.
Trying to sort this all out was General-in-Chief George McClellan. From his Washington headquarters, McClellan had correctly perceived that Cairo was relatively safe. The Rebels in Columbus, not twenty miles down the Mississippi River from Cairo, would probably abandon the town, mused McClellan in a dispatch to Buell.
Halleck was convinced that the Confederates in Columbus had been reinforced from New Orleans and wanted to withdraw some of Grants troops at the recently taken Fort Donelson for protection. McClellan wasn’t buying it. He, like Buell and Grant, wanted to take Nashville, which they all incorrectly believed to still be occupied by the Rebels. Buell, however, believed that he was in no position to take it just yet.
With Buell stuck in the mud and Grant held in an inter-departmental limbo, Halleck’s fear of a Confederate attack upon Cairo turned to panic. It was in this panic that he again asked McClellan to put him in charge of all western armies.
I must have command of the armies in the West. Hesitation and delay are losing us the golden opportunity. Lay this before the President and Secretary of War. May I assume the command? Answer quickly.
H. W. HALLECK,
McClellan, who answered four or five hours later, didn’t believe that was necessary, as he “did not see that Buell cannot control his own line.” A half hour later, McClellan wired both Buell and Halleck and told them to report to him more often. “Unless I have this detailed information,” reasoned McClellan, “I cannot tell whether it is necessary or not to suspend or abandon my own plans here [in Washington against the Confederates at Manassas].”
According to McClellan himself to Halleck earlier this day, “The rebels hold firm at Manassas. In less than two weeks I shall move the Army of the Potomac, and hope to be in Richmond soon after you are in Nashville. […] We will have a desperate battle on this line.” To Buell, he wrote that he hoped “to have Richmond and Norfolk in from three to four weeks.”4
February 22, the date given in Lincoln’s General War Order No. 1 for Union forces to launch their attacks upon Confederate strongholds was drawing nigh.
- Bloody Valverde by John Taylor. [↩]
- Blood & Treasure; Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier. [↩]
- Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2, p105-106. It’s not quite certain that this night raid even happened, or whether it had been embellished, etc. Another report, by Joseph Bell in “The Campaign of New Mexico, 1862,” claims that it was just Graydon (whom he called Gorman) and a single mule. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p640-465. [↩]