As operations wound to a close in the fall of 1863, one member of the Sixteenth Maine offered a “special reference to the most abject, patient, long-suffering of God’s creatures,—the army mule.”
At the time, the Army of the Potomac had somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 horses and mules. Historian Al Conner, Jr., called characterized them as “a significant non-human component of the army” that provided its “logistical ‘lift’ and mobility.”
My daughter owns a pair of donkeys—close relatives of the mule—so I appreciated the Mainer’s description. “He took no account of the oath and lash of the driver,” the soldier said of the mule:
but through the deep mud, often to his body, over rocks, stumps, and side hills, through ditches, brooks, and streams, he pulled the fuel of the campaign in the shape of salt pork and hard-tack. He literally went through fire and water, and submitted to the most inhuman and reckless treatment at the hands of brutal drivers, as if abuse was condiment of army life, strictly in accordance with the regulations.
We had one whole-souled fellow in particular, who duly appreciated this most useful animal. The only time we ever saw him thoroughly angry was at a creek ford, when a half savage driver was mauling a leader with a fence rail. There is no language in the army dictionary that will do credit to “Gideon’s” voluntary literary effort in photographing a human jackass. When Ruskin said, “There is in every animal’s eye a dim image and gleam of humanity, a flash of strange light, through which their life looks up to our great mystery of command over them, and claims the fellowship of the creature, if not of the soul,” he possibly included the mule collectively, but this particular “critter” ignored it when his harness fell off, and he demonstrated an old theory without any “mystery,” and photographed a “dim image” of his two hind feet on the body of that other brute, who, in the “flash of a strange light,” saw the “gleam” of a rapidly-moving mule who was ashamed of the kin.
The average veteran has a green place in his memory sacred to the army mule, for, without him, many campaigns would have ended in defeat for want of sustenance. But for him many disasters would have been laid at the door of Providence, the convenient scapegoat for the result of jealousy, inefficiency, and too much spirit of a wrong distillation.
from The Sixteenth Maine Regiment in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 by A. R. Small. Portland, ME: B. Thuston & Co., 1886. Pp. 156-7.