A Few Words in Praise of the Army Mule

otis01As 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.

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10 Responses to A Few Words in Praise of the Army Mule

  1. Dale Fishel says:

    And who can read Sam Watkins account of his “capture” of a mule at Shiloh and the subsequent ride without enjoying a good laugh? It’s on pages 67 & 68 of “Company Aytch”. I’ll be happy to type it out if anyone wants to read it!

  2. Bob Huddleston says:

    A tribute to “the Army Mule,” Henry Castle addressed a Minnesota veterans’ gathering by poking fun at his comrades’ pride. “The longevity of a mule is proverbial,” said Castle. “The endurance of a hallucination is, perhaps, equally great. . . the mules employed in the army are nearly all dead,—not so the hallucinations. There still survives in every town and village in the North at least one man who habitually asserts, who is willing to verify by affidavit . . . that he put down the Rebellion.”

    Captain Henry Castle, “The Army Mule,” April 3, 1889, MINN MOLLUS, 1889, 338

  3. Dale Fishel says:

    “Company Aytch” excerpt – By Sam Watkins: (Broadfoot Publishing Company, Wilmington, NC)

    On Monday morning I too captured me a mule. He was not a fast mule, and I soon found out that he thought he knew as much as I did. He was wise in his own conceit. He had a propensity to take every hog path he came to. All the bombasting that I could give him would not make him accelerate his speed. If blood makes speed, I do not suppose he had a drop of any kind in him. If I wanted him to go on one side the road he was sure to be possessed of an equal desire to go on the other side. Finally I and my mule fell out. I got a big hickory and would frail him over the head, and he would only shake his head and flop his ears, and seem to say, “Well, now, you think you are smart, don’t you?” He was a resolute mule, slow to anger, and would have made an excellent merchant to refuse bad pay, or I will pay your credit, for his whole composition seemed to be made up (of) the one word – no. I frequently thought it would be pleasant to split the difference with that mule, and I would gladly have done so if I could have gotten on-half of his no. Me and mule worried along until we came to a creek. Mule did not desire to cross, while I was trying to persuade him with a big stick, a rock in his ear, and a twister on his nose. The caisson of a battery was about to cross. The driver said, “I’ll take your mule over for you.” So he got a large two-inch rope, tied one end around the mule’s neck and the other to the caisson, and ordered the driver to whip up. The mule was loath to take to the water. He was no Baptist, and did not believe in immersion, and had his views about crossing streams, but the rope began to tighten, (and) the mule to squeal out his protestations against such villainous proceedings. The rope, however, was stronger than the mule’s “no”, and he was finally prevailed upon by the strength of the rope to cross the creek. On my taking the rope off he shook himself and seemed to say, “You think that you are mighty smart folks, but you are a leetle too smart.” I gave it up at that that mule’s “no” was a little stronger than my determination. He seemed in deep meditation. I got on him again, when all of a sudden he lifted his head, pricked up his ears, began to champ his bit, gave a little squeal, got a little faster, and finally into a gallop and then a run. He seemed all at once to have remembered or to have forgotten something, and was now making up for lost time. With all my pulling and seesawing and strength I could not stop him until he brought up with me at Corinth, Mississippi.

  4. Andy Hall says:

    The Army mule proved its worth in more recent wars, too, including in mountains of Italy during WWII, as noted by the great Bill Mauldin:

  5. You should check out Gene Armistead’s book: Horses and Mules in the Civil War: A Complete History with a Roster of More Than 700 War Horses
    https://www.amazon.com/Horses-Mules-Civil-War-Complete/dp/0786473630

  6. How about this from the diary of Captain (later Major and Lieutenant Colonel) Lewis D. Warner of Co. C, 154th New York, in his entry of April 26, 1863, during the Chancellorsville campaign: “If there is any animal subjected to man’s control that is to be pitied it is the poor mules attached to the army trains. They are damned, beaten, and abused without restraint and without remorse. The drivers seem to vie with each other in swearing and pounding, and between the heavily loaded wagons, the miserable roads, the scant feed, and the worst of all cruel drivers, the poor brutes have indeed a hard time and will no doubt rejoice when the war is over and they can return once more to the quiet pursuits of peaceful life. When I say the drivers are cruel and inconsiderate I do not say this is so without exception. There are indeed drivers who are humane, and among these are the Negro teamsters, who are quite numerous in the army trains, and are among the best. It seems as if there is a sympathetic understanding between the mule and his black driver. They certainly understand each others natures, if not their languages. But enough of mules for now.”

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