The common, ordinary, extraordinary army mule

Over the last three years, I have written extensively about heroic deeds undertaken to preserve the Union and have focused on regiments, batteries, and individuals to help chronicle the story of the Civil War. It recently came to my attention that there is one class of Union supporters who I have neglected in my chronicles, and upon his strong back and hooves belongs some mead of the measure of credit. He was a most reluctant volunteer, and he bucked and complained for much of his service, was a loud and obnoxious presence in every army camp, but proved to be the backbone of the army. He was singularly the most craven and heroic of individuals, as noted for his stamina as he was lampooned for his propensity to panic under fire. I write not of the sunshine patriot, summer soldier, or the much-maligned substitute. I am writing of the common, ordinary, extraordinary army mule.
Edwin Forbes created this sketch of an army mule in 1863, no doubt located a safe distance from the deadly rear hooves of this grumpy quadruped. The shaggy, long-eared army mule bore the weight of Union victory upon his back, and resented every minute of it!

That is not to say that the army mule and his service was completely ignored in the pantheon of Civil War literature. John D. Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery devoted an entire chapter to the army mule in his classic work Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. From Billing’s work we gain a great deal of insight into where the army mule came from, how he adapted to the stresses and strains of the service, and where he found his true measure of usefulness. [1]

The primary source of mules was Kentucky, and one could argue that its importance as a mule-raising center underscored its logistical value to both the Union and Confederate armies. The primary service rendered by the army mule was to haul wagons, whether they carried rations, ammunition, forage, camp equipment, a pontoon bridge, etc. As the war progressed, the availability of horses diminished and it was decided to concentrate horseflesh in the cavalry and artillery portions of the army, as his muleship had aptly demonstrated his unsteadiness under fire. “If he found himself under fire at the front, he was wont to make a stir in his neighborhood until he got out of such inhospitable surroundings,” Billings commented. “The explosion of a shell or two over or among them would drive the long-ears wild and render them utterly unmanageable.”
A four mule team pulling a typical army wagon, sometimes called a "prairie schooner."

However, mules had a big advantage over the horse: they were extraordinarily tough. Billings recounted that mules would “better stand hard usage, bad feed, or no feed, and neglect generally. They could travel over rough ground unharmed where horses would be lamed or injured. They will eat brush. When forage was short, the drivers were wont to cut branches and throw those before them for nourishment,” he wrote. Mules could go where horses could not, and survived on much less, but they were not indestructible. Disease killed off mules the same as it did horses, glanders and black tongue claiming the lives of many.[2]

The mule, being a smaller cousin to the horse, quickly replaced four horse teams in the army, six mules taking the place of four horses. When the mule team driver arranged his team, he took care to place the tallest mules nearest the wagon, called the pole team, a somewhat shorter team in the middle called the swing team, while the smallest pair selected to be the leaders. The driver usually rode on one of the pole mules, holding the reigns to the other five in his hand to guide the team.

A six-mule team in front of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia in April 1865. The lead horse has a small U.S. flag attached to his bridle and other flags are visible upon the other mules. 

The army mule was noted for his obstinance, but the mule driver (they objected to the term mule whacker but were universally called such by the infantry) possessed a fine tool to motivate the mule: the black snake or whip. “It was a badge of authority with which the mule driver enforced his orders,” recounted Billings. “It was the panacea for all the ills to which mule-flesh was heir.” The quickest way to get his muleship’s attention was to give him a nice hit around his long floppy ears, the portion of the mule’s anatomy “through which his reasoning faculties could be the most quickly and surely reached, accompanied by the driver’s expressive ejaculation in the mule tongue, which I can only describe as a cross between an unearthly screech and a groan,” Billings stated. The mule himself spoke in a voice Billings described as “nothing short of rattling, crashing thunder” and every army camp across the country echoed with the obnoxious braying of the army mules.
The Mule Driver
"As competent a disciplinarian as a colonel of a regiment."

The mule drivers themselves are worthy of notice. Freed slaves or contrabands often worked as mule team drivers and performed this challenging service in the Union cause. “An educated mule driver was, in his little sphere, as competent a disciplinarian as the colonel of a regiment,” Billings noted. When the mules resisted his drivers’ directions and demonstrated his legendary obstinacy, the mule driver had one more weapon in his arsenal. “The propulsive power of the mule driver was increased many fold by the almost unlimited stock of profanity with which he greeted the sensitive ears of his muleship. I have seen mules, but now most obdurate, jump into their collars the next moment with the utmost determination to do their whole duty when one of these Gatling guns of curses opened fire upon them.” In defense of the mule drivers, one can imagine few more frustrating and challenging assignments in the war than driving six obstinate quadrupeds through wind, rain, heat, cold, and enemy fire.

Regardless of their treatment, the army mule carried upon his back the weight of the Union war effort, ensuring that the army in the field was well-supplied with rations, ammunition, and equipment. There was not a single campaign in which the mule did not perform this important if often forgotten service: whether it was at Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg. Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Atlanta, or Petersburg, the army mule rendered his service and helped make the difference between victory and defeat.
A four-mule team crossing a stream. Mules were noted for the hardiness and sure-footedness over the harshest of terrain. 

The Civil War veterans themselves recognized the value of his muleship’s service during the war. “I have often wondered how we could have carried on that war without mules,” wrote Captain Henry C. Greiner of the 31st Ohio. “I cannot imagine how his place could have been filled by a substitute, yet history never mentions him; no one gives him any credit, nor was he shown much kindness. How ungrateful this republic was when it did not bring the patient, persistent, long-suffering, long-eared mules home when the war was over to be cared for in good pastures, with rest and plenty for a few years! The mule, after the long and weary pull of a hot or cold day would hear only the abuse of his driver and received only beatings and thumps from cruel teamsters.”[3]
A played out mule at the hospital as depicted by Edwin Forbes

Following the conclusion of the Chattanooga campaign, the length and severity of such cost the Army thousands of mules, a Federal soldier wrote of the “cemetery” constructed for the dead mules. “Not far from the place where I now write is a cemetery in which are deposited the remains of hundreds of dead animals who died an inglorious death from starvation,” wrote Joseph B. Newton of the 14th Ohio. “The highways and byways around Chattanooga are embellished with innumerable carcasses of dead mules and horses. The future historian who undertakes to narrate the events of the present war will prove an unfaithful chronicler if he neglects to devote one page to the privations and sufferings of the gallant army at Chattanooga, and to donate one line of pity to the poor, famished animals that moaned their lives away in their fruitless cries for food.”[4]

Where this mule cemetery resides is lost to history, and no monument marks the resting place of these faithful if stubborn defenders of the Union, so let this post serve as an epitaph for the common, ordinary, extraordinary army mule.

[1] Billings, John D. Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pgs. 279-297
[2] Billings, op. cit.
[3] Greiner, Henry C. General Phil Sheridan as I Knew Him: Playmate, Comrade, Friend. Chicago: J.S. Hyland and Co., 1908, pgs. 205-206
[4] “Letter from Chattanooga,” Daily Toledo Blade, February 4, 1864, pg. 2


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