Living History: Mule Bombs at Valverde
WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2009 -- Texans had long claimed much of New Mexico as their own. No longer constrained by the Compromise of 1850, Confederate Texans invaded the southeastern corner of that territory in July of 1861. More Confederate forces joined them over the ensuing six months. In February 1862, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley led the 2500 men of his “Army of New Mexico” in a full-fledged effort to overrun the rest of the territory, reach the gold fields of Colorado, and establish a Confederate bastion in the Far West. He was opposed by regular U.S. Army troops and regional volunteers of the Department of New Mexico, under the command of Colonel E.R.S. Canby.
By 20 February, Sibley was encamped behind the Mesa del Contadoro, on the east side of the Rio Grande across the river from Canby’s headquarters at Fort Craig. After a skirmish during the day, the mostly Texan soldiers settled down for a peaceful evening in a waterless camp. Little did they know that the night would produce one of the strangest stories of the Civil War.
As the story goes, Captain James “Paddy” Graydon, commander of the Union “Spy” Company of New Mexico scouts, decided to initiate a raid on the Confederates. He took two of his oldest and most faithful mules, and lashed wooden boxes containing howitzer shells to their backs. Graydon and a few of his men crossed the Rio Grande and stealthily led their mules close to the enemy camp, within about 150 yards of their pickets. The raiders lit the fuses on the explosives and started the mules on their way into the Confederate lines. Unfortunately the animals proved to be too faithful. As the soldiers withdrew, they noticed quickly and with much consternation that the mules, instead of cooperating in the destruction of the enemy force, were following them. The withdrawal became more precipitous as Graydon and his men scrambled to outdistance their faithful followers, who shortly began to explode. The Confederate camp was alarmed and went to full alert, and 200 of their horses and mules panicked and dashed to the river, where they were captured. The Union soldiers returned to Fort Craig unharmed.
While this saga of the mule bombs was reported by Mark Twain and in the postwar Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, historical evidence for it is sketchy at best. But the exploit is very much in keeping with Graydon’s independent and impulsive reputation. He died later that year after being fatally wounded in a gunfight over accusations he had massacred Indians.
The day after the raid Canby and Sibley’s forces fought the Battle of Valverde. The Confederates achieved a tactical victory but at considerable logistical cost. Losing so many horses and mules in the stampede following Graydon’s raid contributed to Sibley burning some of his own wagons early on February 21. New Mexico militia destroyed other immobilized Confederate wagons late that day. Then five weeks later, the Battle of Glorietta Pass on March 26-28 proved even more pyrrhic, as the Graycoats held the ground, but the Northern troops burned most of the remaining supply trains. Since Sibley could not capture either of the primary Federal posts and depots at Fort Craig or Fort Union, he was eventually forced to retreat back to Texas with a starving and bedraggled force. Though Graydon’s raid had not destroyed his foe, the loss of the horses and mules had begun the process that reduced Confederate mobility and logistical capability, eventually leading to their defeat in the campaign.
(Report by Dr. Conrad Crane, U. S. Army Military History Institute.)
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI), research catalog . The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC).
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