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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches 244: 'Wagon Boss and Mule Mechanic No. 1'

Friday, December 17, 2010

During the Civil War, the War Departments of the United and Confederate States were faced with many logistical problems.

Logistics is the branch of military science that involves the purchasing, maintaining and transporting of material and personnel. In the Civil War, the Quartermaster and Commissary departments were responsible for most of these functions. The primary vehicle used to transport the supplies and materials of war and sometimes troops was the four-wheeled Army freight wagon that was normally pulled by six mules. The driver did not sit on a seat in the wagon. Instead, he rode one of the two largest mules that were closest to the wagon who were called the wheelers. The middle pair of mules were the "swingers" and the front pair were the leaders. The driver was called a "teamster" because he was driving or handling a two, four, or most commonly, a six-mule or horse team. He controlled the team with a long leather line that was attached to the bridle of near or left leading mule and a long leather whip called a "bullwhip" or "blacksnake" and voice commands.

Today, the "International Teamsters Union" derives its name from the pre-20th century wagon drivers.

In the Civil War, the Quartermaster Department purchased thousands of freight wagons for $100-$150 each and mules for $25-$40 each. Normally the teamsters were not soldiers, but were usually civilians who were paid $25 a month plus rations. A wagon boss earned $45 and an assistant wagon boss was paid $35 per month. These jobs were much more lucrative than that of a private soldier in the Union army who was only paid $13 per month and this may be the reason that former soldier Robert Morris Peck applied for and was hired as a wagon boss at Fort Leavenworth in the spring of 1862.

Robert M. Peck was born in Covington, Ky., and enlisted in the U.S. Army at Cincinnati, Ohio, on Nov. 26, 1856. He served as a private soldier in Companies E & K of the 1st Cavalry Regiment in Kansas and Colorado until he was discharged at Fort Wise, Colorado Territory, on Nov. 5, 1861. After Peck and two of his friends were discharged from the Army, they spent the winter of 1861- 1862 hunting buffalo and wolves on the Kansas prairie. For the duration of the Civil War from 1862-1865 Peck served as a wagon boss, assistant wagon boss and teamster for the Union Army in eastern Kansas, western Missouri, northwest Arkansas and the eastern part of the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). After the war, he and his family lived in Baxter Springs and Leavenworth, Kan., for a short period of time before moving to Whittier and Los Angeles, Calif., It was in California, late in life, that Peck wrote his remembrances of the Civil War. It was fortunate that he did, because compared to the hundreds if not thousands of surviving memoirs written by soldiers of the Blue & Gray, very few by civilian teamsters exist today.

Almost all of Peck's Civil War experiences were published as long articles from 1900-1904 in the National Tribune, which was a newspaper published in Washington, D. C., from the end of the war until the beginning of the 20th century.

The passage of time did not appear to diminish Peck's memory and his writing does seem to be embellished or exaggerated in his memoirs. Therefore, this is the beginning of a mini-series of columns that will periodically feature excerpts from Teamster Peck's reminiscences of the Civil War with the same title and are going to be numbered sequentially beginning with this as No. 1. The following is from the edition of the "National Tribune, Washington D.C., Thursday, July 21, 1904: "On applying to the Master of Transportation at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a position as wagon-master, in the spring of 1862, one was directed to go to Leavenworth City and hire a few teamsters to begin with, more to be added from time to time till the regulation number (Minimum of 25 wagons) was reached and then come and draw (be issued) a camp outfit which I did.

A tent and lot of mess "kits" and rations were issued to me and hauled by one of the post teams to a point in the timber on the Missouri River bottom that I had selected as my camp. (The) next day, I was ordered to take my men to the corral and go to "catching out" the (mules for his supply) train. On arriving at the mule corral, I found that half a dozen new six-mule wagons with bows, sheets (covers) and harness for six mules for each wagon had been delivered there for me. The harness, however, was in pieces; that is one package contained hames, another trace chains, another bridles, another breeching, etc. The first thing to do was to put the harness together. In this, the wagon boss has his hands full, showing the teamsters, many of who are green (inexperienced), how the different parts go together. The harness is subsequently fitted to the mules by taking up or letting it out to suit (fit) the different sized animals.

After getting my train all fitted up in good shape, but before the mules were fairly broken in (trained), I was ordered to hitch up and go to the Commissary Store (warehouse) and load up for a trip to New Mexico. (Note: The Commissary Store was where the food (rations) for the soldiers was stored.) As good a way to break wild mules as any is to load up and go on the road. The troops and trains intended for the expedition were ordered to rendezvous at Fort Riley, Kansas, preparatory to starting across the plains.

In loading the wagons, I entered in a pocket memorandum book, carried for that purpose, each article of freight that is put into the wagon and hold the teamster thereof responsible for the good condition and safe delivery of same. The whole cargo is itemized in a "Bill of Lading," made out in triplicate by the clerk of the Commissary or Quartermaster who delivers the freight to me, which bill I sign, thereby making myself responsible for the safe & prompt delivery of same at its destination. The Bill of Lading (form) is about as follows:

"Fort Leavenworth, K. T.

May ___ , 1862.

Received of , Captain and Assistant Commissary of Subsistence, the following Commissary Stores, in good order & condition, which I agree to deliver without necessary delay, in like good order and condition to Lieut. , Acting Assistant Commissary of Subsistence at Fort Union, New Mexico."

No. of Pieces ------------

Articles --------------

Weights --------------

(Signed) R. M. Peck,


One copy of this "Bill of Lading" is forwarded by mail to the destination of the freight, one is retained by the officer from whom received and one copy is given to me.

After reaching Fort Riley I found that the order for the expedition to New Mexico had been countermanded (canceled) and I was ordered to turn in my load to the Commissary Officer at Fort Riley and return with the empty train to Fort Leavenworth, the receiving officer endorsing my bill of lading in acknowledgement of having "received the foregoing freight in due time and good condition."

On arriving at Fort Leavenworth, I returned my endorsed bill to the Commissary Officer and again reported for duty to Levy Wilson, the Master of Transportation. He gave me a couple of days to have my wagons repaired, some shoes put on my mules, etc. and ordered me to load up with commissaries and go to Humboldt in southern Kansas, near the Indian Territory, where the Indian Brigade, three regiments of Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles had just been organized."

Next week's column will feature, the organization of the supply trains, the training of the mules and R.M. Peck and his supply train will be off to "Humboldt" and the War went on!