The Civil War was a study in contrasts — Northerner and Southerner, slave and free, West Point professional and homespun volunteer. The contrast extended even to geography. The conflict was played out on battlegrounds as different as the forested hills and valleys of Virginia, the Mississippi River’s mud flats, and the arid deserts of the Southwest. Some soldiers, transplanted from the familiar vistas of home, found their new environments more hostile than any human enemy. Others thrived in the unfamiliar climes and made the most of the opportunities they found there. Among these latter, more adaptable souls stood Union Captain James ‘Paddy’ Graydon, an Irish immigrant who made the desert Southwest his home and became the proverbial burr under the saddle to a Confederate general and would-be conqueror.
Graydon was an unlikely desert-dweller. Having fled the green shores of Ireland because of the devastating Potato Famine, he arrived in Baltimore in 1853. Four months later, he enlisted in the 1st U.S. Dragoons. After brief training at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, Graydon traveled west and joined his unit at Los Lunas, some 20 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory.
The boundless vistas of the Southwest, dotted with the bleached bones of horses, mules, and men, must have been a shock to the young Irishman’s system. Nevertheless, the famine had prepared Graydon for suffering and cruelty, and his new commander easily made up for any misery that his life lacked.
Captain Richard S. Ewell, who would later achieve fame as a Confederate general, commanded Company G of the 1st Dra-goons. Ewell was such an iron disciplinarian that even frontier veterans were taken aback by his methods. Graydon’s first nine months of duty included eight full months in the field, chasing the elusive Apache from the freezing heights of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the burning Sonora desert along the Mexican border. The next year, campaigning took his company east to the Pecos River, where deep snows and the Mescalero Apaches, highly competent warriors, took a heavy toll on Graydon’s company. The Irishman learned not only to follow orders during these journeys, but also to speak fluent Spanish and to hate Indians.
From 1854 to 1856, Graydon was posted at Forts Thorn, Craig, and Union, usually in pursuit of the Mescalero. As a newly promoted corporal in September 1856, he followed his new commander, Major Enoch Steen, into the area around Tucson. There, in the recently acquired Gadsden Purchase (an area in what is now southern New Mexico and Arizona, purchased from Mexico in 1853), the settlers were beset by Indian raiders, Mexican horse thieves, and renegade American opportunists seeking gold and silver.
Duty at Fort Buchanan, 60 miles south of Tucson, was grim, and two years of pursuing the Chiracahua Apaches through the surrounding mountains — for low wages — grew tiresome. In 1858, Graydon received an honorable discharge and soon opened the United States Boundary Hotel, three miles from his former duty station. He was 26 years old.
Graydon’s saloon attracted the toughest gamblers, prostitutes, filibusters, and gunslingers in the territory. He soon grew wealthy from his hotel and also thrived as a farmer, guide, interpreter, and horse-thief–catcher.
With the coming of the Civil War in 1861, the 1st Dragoons abandoned southern Arizona — and Graydon — to the Confederates. Graydon took action immediately. Drawing on his military experience, he led a wagon train with 70 fellow Union sympathizers through Apache ambushes to the comparative safety of the Rio Grande Valley. Then he hurried to Santa Fe, where Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, commander of Union forces in New Mexico, commissioned him as a captain in the newly organized New Mexico Volunteers. Graydon insisted on an independent command and received permission to raise a company for scouting duties. In October 1861, at the village of Lemitar, just north of present-day Socorro, he recruited 84 native Nuevo Mexicanos, who enlisted for 40 cents a day and provided their own horses and equipment.
The independent nature of Graydon’s command was apparent in the unit’s mustering-in ceremony. Graydon had prepared a blue silk battle flag, emblazoned with a cross. Each new applicant fell to his knees before the banner, swore by ‘Jesús Cristo y…Santa Maria’ to support the Union in general and Paddy Graydon in particular, and then kissed the banner. This ritual completed, the recruit was a member of Paddy Graydon’s Spy Company. The isolated hamlet of Lemitar seemed far away from combat, but Graydon and the other Union forces in New Mexico would soon have plenty of Confederate invaders in their back yard.
In the summer of 1861, a scouting party under Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John Robert Baylor entered New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley from Texas. After brushing aside Federal resistance at Mesilla on July 25, Baylor took Fort Fillmore and captured 11 Union companies, including a company of New Mexico Volunteers. The war was on.
Graydon’s scouts soon proved their worth, patrolling the roads along the Rio Grande and the so-called Jornado del Muerto (Journey of Death) — a long waterless stretch between the Rio and the San Andres mountains. In late December 1861, Graydon and his men rode to the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, and returned with a full report on Confederate forces at Fort Bliss and Mesilla.
Eight years of Indian-fighting and service under Ewell had made Graydon a tough, even ruthless, disciplinarian. Company rosters rarely indicated the loss of a single soldier, but there were deaths and desertions, as in any unit. Whenever Graydon’s first sergeant reported that a man had departed, Graydon made good the loss by riding up to the first male Nuevo Mexicano villager he saw that morning and saying in Spanish, ‘Juan Chacón [or the latest deserter’s name], you useless deserter, get back on your horse. I ought to shoot you.’ The poor fellow would drop his hoe and say something like, ‘No, señor, yo soy Jesús Garcia, y no estoy soldado.’ Graydon paid no attention: ‘Sergeant, I’ll forgive Juan this time. Give him a uniform and his horse and see that he does not desert again.’ Graydon’s impromptu draft kept his company’s numbers at a constant level.
Captured deserters received equally abrupt treatment. Graydon assigned one detail to hunt down the deserter and another to dig a grave, while he presided over the court-martial and pronounced the death sentence. In late January, when the first three-month enlistment for Graydon’s troops expired, only 20 percent of his men reenlisted. The mustering-out officer made the following comments regarding the condition of the men and their equipment, making it clear that service with Captain Graydon was a no-frills affair:
Discipline: Good; Instruction: Good;
Military appearance: Good.
But Graydon did more than exhaust his men and wear out his equipment. He also had a particular knack for harassing Rebel invaders.
Graydon’s greatest challenge came in the person of Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley. Sibley planned to assemble a band of Texans, march up the Rio Grande and capture Santa Fe, then strike northeast 60 miles to the huge Federal supply base at Fort Union. After disabling the Federal forces in northern New Mexico, he planned to move west, capture Arizona and California, then annex northern Mexico and join this vast territory to the Confederacy — forming a nation extending from Texas north to the Potomac and from the Atlantic Ocean to California.
On February 19, 1862, when Sibley’s army of Texans appeared south of Fort Craig, Graydon greeted the enemy force with a bold act of defiance that foretold trouble for the invaders. With typical dramatic flair, the Irishman spurred his gray horse through the fort’s gates, rode within musket shot of the Confederates, and put on a little circus show of horsemanship before returning to his cheering comrades.
The following night, as the Texans camped across the Rio Grande within earshot of the fort’s adobe walls, Graydon worked on a weapon he hoped would bring the invasion to an abrupt end. It was something like a guided missile — and yet nothing like it at all. He loaded boxes of 24-pounder howitzer shells on the backs of two old mules and led them through the icy waters of the river to the edge of the enemy camp. Assuming the mules would naturally join their Confederate counterparts tethered among the Rebel tents, he lit the fuses and sent the unsuspecting beasts trotting toward the Texans’ campfires.
Graydon’s assumption was dead wrong. The mules decided their fortunes lay with the last hands that had fed them: the Yankees. Graydon jogged toward Fort Craig, and the mules, with their sputtering fuses, trotted after him. He ran; they ran. Soon, explosions lit the night sky. Both Graydon and his intended victims escaped harm; the mules were not so lucky.
The next day, Sibley’s men met Canby’s small force at Valverde, a ford four miles upriver from Fort Craig. Graydon’s irregular troopers began fighting before sunrise and went on to halt a Rebel advance by mid-morning, help burn part of the enemy’s wagon train at midday, and repel an attack on Canby’s left flank late in the afternoon. One of Graydon’s men later recalled that ‘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.’
The battle ended in a stalemate. Canby retired behind the walls of Fort Craig and Sibley marched north, capturing Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Graydon’s small company hung on Sibley’s flanks, stealing hundreds of mules — the non-exploding variety — and sending Canby valuable intelligence. While the increasingly desperate Confederates foraged for food in the inhospitable desert, Graydon’s Spy Company buzzed around them like an annoying swarm of mosquitoes, picking them off piecemeal. On March 9, Graydon rode into Fort Craig leading 60 head of cattle that he had ‘liberated’ from the Rebels at Lemitar. At the end of the month, he arrived with 40 prisoners and 91 mules, and four days later he captured an entire Rebel picket of 10 men and an officer at Los Lunas. Graydon entered the fort on April 8 with 94 mules and two prisoners. At one point, he captured a Confederate quartermaster in Tijeras Canyon, where the Rebels had gone to forage.
Sibley’s invasion was blunted in the Battle of La Glorieta Pass, March 26-28, 1862, and the Rebels began a 300-mile retreat to Texas. Canby followed cautiously, not giving battle, on the theory that he could not afford to feed any Rebel prisoners in that long, despoiled valley. Graydon was more active in urging the Texans southward — harassing their rear guard, capturing their wagons, and making their lives generally miserable. One night at Socorro, Graydon and a single Federal soldier came upon a houseful of Rebels. Shouting commands to two imaginary companies of reinforcements, Graydon persuaded the Texans to surrender without firing a shot.
South of Socorro, Sibley’s troops left the Rio Grande Valley and traveled southwest through the waterless canyons of the rugged Magdalena Mountains, apparently to avoid possible capture by Canby. Even here, Graydon’s men hung on Sibley’s flanks, urging the thirsty and starving Texans ever farther south in a desperate retreat through arid ravines and even drier mountain passes. As the fleeing Confederates struggled southward, their trail was littered with castoff equipment, including 19 wagons, 10 ambulances, six caissons, and three howitzers. Graydon found dozens of Confederate corpses in shallow graves; they were already being eaten by wolves as he passed by. Sibley’s ragged survivors staggered into El Paso, never to return. In May 1862, Canby gave Graydon command of a company in the reorganized 1st New Mexico Cavalry. Graydon was assigned to fight the newly resurgent Mescalero Apaches in the mountains of central New Mexico, and he departed for Fort Stanton with his company in October 1862.
Later that month, in the Gallinas Mountains north of Fort Stanton, Graydon encountered the aged chief Manuelito and a small band of Mescalero Apaches on their way to Santa Fe to meet with Brigadier General James Carleton, who had replaced Canby as commander of the Department of New Mexico. What followed next is one of the many debated chapters in Graydon’s life. Most accounts say he provided liquor to the Indians and, when they were thoroughly intoxicated, shot them and took their 17 horses with him back to Fort Stanton. Graydon’s report, however, stated the opposite. Graydon claimed he had refused to give whiskey to Manuelito, who drew his gun and declared he would fight for it. At that point, said the report, Graydon gave the order to fire upon the Indians. What remains undisputed is that at least 11 Apaches were killed, and twice as many wounded. Graydon’s extermination of this small band of Indians was not received well by his superiors, and both Carleton and Colonel Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, who had assumed command of Fort Stanton, expressed considerable annoyance. Graydon was reprimanded, and he accepted the rebuke with apparent equanimity. He was less gracious, however, about a letter that appeared shortly thereafter in a Santa Fe newspaper, denouncing his act as barbaric treachery.
A few weeks after the letter was published, Dr. John Marmaduke Whitlock, a friend of Carson’s, rode into Fort Stanton on business. Graydon had just learned that Whitlock was the letter’s author; when he learned that the doctor was at Fort Stanton and was calling him a ‘murderer and a thief,’ the Irishman determined to meet his accuser face to face.
On the evening of November 4, 1862, Whitlock was playing cards in the sutler’s store at the fort. Graydon burst in, confronted Whitlock, and demanded to know if it was true he had called him ‘an assassinating cowardly son of a bitch.’ Whitlock coolly replied that he ‘could not recollect exactly having used such language,’ but that the general intent was correct. Graydon left the room and returned with a letter, presumably a written challenge. Whitlock continued his card game, stating, ‘Captain, you see I am engaged, let the matter rest until tomorrow and I will give you an explanation and satisfaction if you desire.’
The next morning, Graydon confronted Whitlock again. ‘If you come to this post again and insult an officer, I will horsewhip you,’ he barked. ‘I am an officer and you are a pimp that follows the army.’
The surgeon turned away, then suddenly drew his pistol and fired at Graydon, who immediately reciprocated. Both men missed. Graydon retreated behind a wagon, while Whitlock crouched behind a Sibley tent. The two men kept firing. Suddenly, Graydon clutched his chest and yelled, ‘The son of a bitch has killed me!’
Graydon’s troopers, attracted by the gunfire, rushed to their wounded captain. Whitlock had been non-fatally wounded in his side and right hand; Graydon’s men pursued him and gunned him down. The doctor’s body was thrown into a ditch, and witnesses claimed that afterward, Graydon’s soldiers continued to fire round after round into the lifeless corpse. Carson estimated that more than 100 shots had been fired at Whitlock.
Four members of Graydon’s company — Lieutenant Phillip Morris and Privates John Murry, Albert Overall, and Estevan Aguilar — were charged with murder and sent to Santa Fe to stand trial. On January 1, 1863, Morris, Aguilar, Overall, and three other prisoners escaped from the jail. Overall was captured the next morning, but Morris and Aguilar remained at large until January 18, when they were apprehended by General Carleton himself.
Graydon died three days after his gunfight with Whitlock and was buried at Fort Stanton. A small collection taken up by his colleagues enabled his widow, Eliza, to travel from Santa Fe to pay her last respects. Twenty-four years later, Graydon’s remains were moved to Santa Fe National Cemetery.
By today’s standards, Paddy Graydon might be considered brutal and impulsive. In the harsh climate of wartime New Mexico, however, he was the right man at the right time. Contemporaries were quick to praise him as ‘always hovering around the foe, watching with eagle eye for a chance to strike a telling blow’; ‘an enterprising fearless leader of a desperate band’; and ‘a brave man…. No undertaking was too hazardous for him to attempt.’ Graydon died as he lived — as an independent, sometimes reckless soldier who never backed down from a fight.
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