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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches No. 245: 'Wagon Boss and Mule Mechanic 2 - Smart and Stubborn Mules'

Thursday, December 23, 2010

By choice, the "Beast of Burden" during the Civil War in the Quartermaster and Commissary Departments was the mule and not the draft or work horse. The following description of a good mule was published in Scott's 1861 Military Dictionary in 1861 on Page 334:

"The mule may be usefully employed from its 4th year to beyond its 25th. It is usually 13 1/2 to 15 hands high; is hardy, seldom sick, fears heat but little, is easy to keep, is very surefooted and especially adapted for draught (pulling) or packing. The mule is preferable to the horse in a very rough country, where its surefootedness is an important quality."

The following description of the organization of the supply trains and the training of the mules was described by "Union" Wagon Boss R. M. Beck in his column that was published in the July 21, 1904 edition of the National Tribune newspaper that was published in Washington, D.C.

"Organization of Trains"

The army transportation question brought into use vast numbers of six-mule teams, which were formed into trains of 25 teams each, commanded by a wagonmaster and assistant and manned by 25 teamsters, one extra hand and one cook for the wagon-master's mess to each train. The teamsters were divided into messes of five or six men and did their own cooking. A lesser number of teams than 25 was also called a train, but 25 was the regulation full train. Two or more of these trains were sometimes combined under the command of a Chief, called a Brigade Wagon master and such a collection of trains was a brigade train.

All army transportation, whether steamers (steamboats), railroads or mule teams came under the control of the Quartermaster's Department and all citizens in government employ were allowed rations.

The lead team of a train, usually the best one and driven by the most skillful teamster, was allowed to the wagonmaster to be used as his "Mess Wagon," carrying no freight, but the Boss's tent, mess chest and the baggage of the wagonmaster's mess, together with his tools andmaterial for repairing wagons and harness. The Boss's mess included the wagonmaster, assistant, Lead Teamster, Extra Hand and Cook and usually, any military officer chancing along; who happened to be temporarily separated from his command, sought some Wagon Boss's mess for his grub. This often swelled the mess to double its regulation number. Wagon-masters and assistants are allowed two riding mules each, so as to have a change, as they have a great deal of riding to do and having the whole team to select from usually provide themselves with good riding stock. The men selected for Wagon "Bosses" were usually those known to be good and experienced teamsters and familiar with all the details of the work. They are also supposed to have a certain commanding ability and the knack of controlling unruly teamsters and getting good and prompt service out of men and teams and keeping the mules, wagons and harness in good condition.

Hospital transportation for the sick and wounded consisted of four-mule ambulances, covered spring wagons made for that purpose. These also, when used in numbers were in charge of wagonmasters.

"Catching Out!"

Then comes the "catching out." A herd of mules is driven into a pen which opens into one where our wagons are, by means of a "chute" or narrow gang way, through which only one mule can pass at a time. When the "chute" is full, we climb on the fence and reaching over (the mule) tie ropes (30 feet long) around the mules necks and then bridle them.

The fun (if it could be called that) incident to this operation may be faintly imagined when I say that many of these mules have never had harness or even a bridle or rope on before! When all are roped and bridled the door to the "chute" is opened and the mules are led out, one at a time with two or three men swinging on each rope! They the mules are then worked up gradually to the wagons and securely tied to the wheels.

After "catching out" six mules to each wagon in this way the Boss has them arranged according to size and color, the larger for "wheelers" and all the mules of a team to be of the same color, as near as practicable.

Then the fun of harnessing begins. Those that will not stand to be harnessed peaceably are "bucked" to the side of the wagon by swinging them broadside against the wagon by the means of the rope and harnessed in place. And as most of the mules are addicted to such payful pranks as kicking, rearing and striking with their forefeet and biting, this is always lively work!

Mules that give evidence of having been worked before are selected for "Wheelers" and "Leaders," the largest at the wheel; but if no "broke" (trained) mules are to be found, wild ones must be broken in for those places. With both hind wheels of the wagon locked and with two, three or more men to each team, they are finally "strung out," the driver mounts his saddle mule (the near or left "Wheeler") and they are started. After executing a variety of acrobatic feats, the mules settle down to something like work and are made to haul that heavy wagon around, with hind wheels locked, till thoroughly tired. The same performance has to be gone through each day for several days before the team becomes sufficiently "broke" to enable the driver to handle them single-handed. Those mules that pull too freely are tied back by means of "coupling straps" attached to the bridle bits. When the first batch of teams is sufficiently "broke" and some more hands have been hired, I go to the corral and catch out more teams, repeating the operation until I have attained the regulation number of 25. Every day, I have all the teams hitched and drilled.

After the teams have been drilled for a while, the mules are led to the shoeing shop, a few at a time and shod. As may be imagined, this is lively work also, but as the blacksmiths are usually experienced in that line, they claim to be able to "shoe anything that wears hair" and a mule is never let go out of the shop without a set of new shoes, even if he has to be thrown and tied or lifted off the ground in a sling.

"Trains in Park"

Mule trains usually camp in "open park," that is in double ranks (files), with intervals of 80 feet between ranks and 30 feet between wagons in line, with the Boss's mess wagon in the rear.

This style of camping is in order to give room for the picketing the mules of each team adjacent to their wagon. When the mules are sufficiently gentle they are sometimes turned loose and herded while in camp, but when "green" and not thoroughly broken (trained), herding is not safe, as they are liable to stampede and are hard to catch. Ox trains, or "Bull Trains," as they are more commonly called always camp in a circular corral; but mule outfits seldom camp so except to repel an "attack" or to form an enclosure for catching mules when herded.

"Wagons and Mule


The wagons are provided with wooden bows (to support the covering) and double sheets or covers of canvas to protect the loads from the weather. Brakes were not attached to the U.S. Six Mule Wagons and the driver had to depend, for retarding the speed going down hill, on locking one or both of his hind wheels and holding back of his "wheeler" mules.

The driver or "skinner," as he is commonly called, rides the "near wheeler" or "saddle" mule and guides the leaders by the means of a long "lead line" that is attached to the bit of the near leader, which mule is taught to turn left or "haw," at a pull and to the right or "jee" at a jerk of the lead line. The near (or left) leader governs the off (right) one by means of a "jockey stick" which is attached at one end of the bottom of the hames of the near leader and at the other to the bit of the off mule. The "skinner" carries a limber "blacksnake" whip in the use of which he soon becomes quite expert, as well as very proficient in the use of "cuss words." The average "skinner" seems to be happiest when guiding his team through some difficult piece of road where his skill as a driver is brought into play. As with "skinners" so with mules, on account of the great demand they were taken whether "green" (not or partially trained) or "broke" (basically trained) and soon got broke into the work!"

The next episode of "Wagon Boss" and "Mule Mechanic" will feature "Rolling Out," "Foraging," "Going Ahead" and traveling to Humboldt, Kan., as the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches