During the frigid night of Thursday, Feb. 20, the Confederate Army of New Mexico under Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley encamped on the east side of the Rio Grande River across from the Federal Fort Craig, commanded by Col. Edward R.S. Canby.
Seeing their campfires and hearing their voices carried along by the stiff cold wind, Capt. James “Paddy” Graydon, an Irish-born Union officer, determined to initiate a rare night attack with his Independent Spy Company and drive the Confederates back to the south. To accomplish this, he selected two old pack mules from the fort and loaded them each with two boxes of howitzer shells and powder. Graydon’s plan was to cross the river and lead the mules into the herd of resting Confederate mules. He would light the fuses and wait until the two mules and their cargo exploded, causing a stampede of the Confederate mules into the sleeping Southern troops.
In the confusion he knew would ensue, Capt. Graydon would lead his men into battle with the Confederates. His plan would have worked except that, about 150 yards from the Confederate camp, the fuses to the shells were lit, and the mules were sent toward the Southerners. Graydon and his men made a hasty retreat back across the river to the safety of the fort, where the attack would begin.
To the surprise of the Federals, the mules returned at a gallop to the fort. Suddenly the night exploded with a roar as the mules and their cargo blew up. Other than the two mules, there were no casualties but the Confederates were now wide awake. A surprise attack would not take place.
By sunrise on Feb. 21, the Confederates broke camp and started to move north. Major Pyron and 180 men moved to the river to water their horses on the north side of the volcanic Mesa de Contadera. At the same time, Capt. Graydon and his company were crossing the river to keep an eye on the Confederates. A volley of gunfire shattered the cold morning and the battle at the Valverde ford was on.
Col. Canby brought up his force from the fort and engaged the Confederates on the east side of the river. The Confederates were now commanded by Col. Tom Green of the 5th Texas Cavalry; Gen. Sibley was reported to be ill (some said he was highly intoxicated) and not on the field. The battle was fierce and lasted until 6 in the evening, when a Federal battery of six cannon commanded by Capt. Alexander McRae was overrun and the captain killed.
The Confederates advanced to the west side of the river, and Col. Canby ordered his men back into Fort Craig. The Battle of Valverde, a decisive Confederate victory, was over and the Confederates resumed their march to the north towards Santa Fe, now equipped with the six captured cannon they called the Valverde Battery. The Federals lost 68 killed, 160 wounded and 35 missing; Confederate loses were 31 killed, 154 wounded and one missing.
In the pouring rain in Richmond on Feb. 22, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the regular rather than provisional President of the Confederate States, beginning a six-year term. This was also the date when President Lincoln had ordered his armies to begin offensive operations in Tennessee and Virginia. There had been fighting in Tennessee but Gen. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac in Virginia had not moved.
President Lincoln and his family did not participate in the Washington’s Birthday celebrations in Washington. They were mourning the loss of 12-year-old Willie Lincoln two days before, and they were concerned for their youngest son, Tad, also still quite ill.
During the last week of February, funeral services were held in Washington for Willie Lincoln, and Federal forces occupied Nashville. President Davis told the Confederate Congress he wanted to establish a Supreme Court, and the Federal government assumed control of all telegraph lines in the country to facilitate military operations.