Battlefield Dispatches No. 250: 'Wagon Boss and Mule Mechanic: Part 3 Army Mules on the March'

Friday, January 28, 2011

This column is the continuation of Wagon Boss Robert M. Peck's experiences in eastern Kansas and the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) from 1862-1865. During the Civil War, the "Union" Quartermaster Department hired civilians to be in charge of mule drawn wagon trains that transported almost all of the supplies that were necessary equip a field army to wage war and to furnish various forts and installations as necessary. Peck's memoir was included as a series of articles in the National Tribune Newspaper in Washington, D.C., and the following was published on July 21, 1904.

In the early Spring of 1862, Peck was the Wagon Boss of a supply train that left Fort Scott on its way to Humboldt, Kan., with supplies for the "union" expedition or campaign that was going south to recapture and occupy the northern part of the Indian Territory. The following is Beck's account of how a supply train moves on a given campaign or march.

"String Out"

When traveling, the Boss or Assistant sees that the "skinners" (teamsters/drivers) are called in the morning in time to feed, get breakfast, harness up and be ready to start on the road in good season, the start from camp being made generally about sunrise.

After breakfast the wagonmaster gives the command, "String Out!" then each teamster hitches his mules in their proper places in the team, leaders first, swings next and wheelers last (next to the wagon) and gets everything ready for moving. When all are "strung out" (in line) The boss commands, "Roll Out!" and the lead teamster drives (his wagon) out into the road followed in succession by the others.

On the road the wagon-master rides a little in advance of the head of his train to look out the best route, best crossings and to guide the outfit through all the difficult places. The Assistant is near the rear and in case of any accident necessitating a halt, the call is passed from the rear to the front, "Hold on!" The train halts and the boss gallops back to see what is the cause of the delay and to hurry the repairs. When all is ready again, the word is passed to the lead teamster, "Go ahead" and the long procession of teams is soon in motion again. Trotting of teams is forbidden. Teamsters are not allowed to lag back and then trot their teams to regain their places, but if they unavoidably lose distance, it must be regained by a brisker walk.

Before fording (crossing) a stream, if the boss thinks that the mules need water, he gives the order, "Water!" then each skinner stops his team, dismounts (from his "Near Wheeler, Saddle Mule") and un-reins his mules so that they can reach the water to drink when crossing. No halt is made at noon, generally, and when a sufficient day's drive has been made -- usually 15 to 20 miles, according to watering places and grass - the Boss rides on ahead far enough to select his campground by the time the teams begin to arrive and after locating his mess wagon where he desires it -- conveniently in the rear of where the train is to be placed -- proceeds to park the teams as they arrive, in double rank, open order style as before mentioned.

In winter when hay is procurable and there is no grass for picketing (letting the mules graze by attaching a long rope to their halter and the other end of the rope to a metal stake in the ground.), the wagons are parked close together and the mules are left tied to the fore (front) wheels of the wagon and the wagon tongue, with hay packed under the tongue and front end of the wagon. But if no hay is to be had, the mules must be picketed out on the bare ground, after giving them their grain, else, for the want of roughness (hay) they will gnaw the tongue, the wagon box, cover sheets or anything else in reach.

As soon as the teams halt in their places for camp and even before, the tired and hungry mules set up a great braying, for they know by the maneuvers that their day's work is done and they will soon be watered, fed and picketed out. The braying of mules is one of the most familiar sounds of a military camp and always reminds me of wartime scenes. (Now then, a choir of 100 or more braying mules must have been something to hear!)

After un-harnessing the teamster leads his mules to water, usually two or three and sometimes the whole six at a time and as they generally are reluctant to leave the vicinity of the wagon before feeding. It is a patience trying job to lug a lot of tardily moving mules along and they stopping to nip grass every few steps, the skinner having his hands and arms full of ropes and picket pins. At such a time, among the great profusion of vulphurous expletives (the mule skinners were great at cussing.) One can occasionally hear such remarks as: "Talk about the patience of 'Job,' but it ain't recorded that 'Job' had to 'skin mules for a livin.' "

After watering, the mules are again tied to the wagon and the feed trough is un-slung from the hind end and fastened in place on the (wagon) tongue and a feed of grain is poured into it. The tongue of a six mule wagon is braced stiff and stands about level with the front axle of the wagon.

One who is unused to them would imagine, to see the mules kicking and fighting each other over their grain and that it would be a dangerous undertaking for the "skinner" to go in among them at such a time and it would be for a stranger. However, they soon learn to know the one that drives them and takes care of them and he doesn't hesitate to walk right in between them whenever occasion requires it, first speaking to them and making them "stand over" (move). A good "skinner" governs his mules by kindness and firmness. Treating them kindly, even petting them affectionately, when they obey well and punishing them promptly when they don't.

It is an important part of a Wagon Master's duty to see that the mules are not neglected or abused and when he finds a teamster ("skinner") who is habitually brutal to his team or fails to take good care of them, the Boss "fires" him as soon as a man can be picked up to take his place. But on account of the scarcity of men in the latter years of the war, we could not afford to discharge teamsters for neglect of duty and to adopt modes of punishment similar to those inflicted on the soldiers.

As soon as the mules are done eating their grain they are picketed out. Each mule is tied to a 30-foot rope adjacent to their wagons, care being taken to give each room enough so that they will not get tangled in one another's ropes. The skinner makes and carries in his wagon a wooden mallet with which to drive down the iron picket pins."

Next week, the teamsters' supper, mess kits and weapons are described as Peck's supply train continues on its journey to Humboldt and of course the war went on!