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Battlefield Dispatches No. 273: 'Splendid mules, Fort Gibson bound'

Friday, July 15, 2011

Without a doubt, the major "beast of burden" during the Civil War was the mule and not the horse, and this does not include the "pack mule" that was used prolifically by the U.S. Army after the Civil War until the 1950s.

As has been mentioned in previous columns, the mule was the major draft animal that was used to pull supply wagons, ambulances and many other wheeled vehicles during the Civil War. This was done by having two, four or six mules pull an individual wagon that on a good day on a good road, depending on the cargo, could travel between 12 -- 20 miles.

In garrisons or at posts such as Fort Scott or Fort Leavenworth that were huge supply centers, the Quartermaster Department had and used "post teams" of mules to move materials in and about the fort.

Wagon boss and mule mechanic R.M. Peck describes the "post teams" of Fort Scott and an unusual way for a "teamster" to travel approximately 150 miles south to Fort Gibson in the "Indian Nation" (present Oklahoma).

Peck's memoir was published in the Aug. 4, 1904 edition of the National Tribune newspaper in Washington, D.C.

"Post teams were composed of the finest and largest mules that could be selected from among all the vast numbers of such animals passing through the hands of the post quartermaster and were, therefore, always splendid teams.

A man who aspired to the position of a post teamster (mule driver) must be an ex-wagon master (boss), or known to be a first-class teamster, to entitle his application for the job to be forwarded for the consideration of the post wagon boss.

During the winter of 1862 and 1863, our crews of post teamsters were largely composed of ex-wagon masters waiting for (supply) trains. As a natural consequence, post teamsters hold themselves as ranking several notches above the common mule skinners of the road.

Post mules are always well and regularly fed, well groomed and well stabled and, consequently, look sleek and fat. Their harness is made especially for them, as the contract harness used in ordinary (supply) trains is neither large enough nor strong enough.

A post teamster would never think of driving his team faster than a slow walk and considers it beneath his dignity to load or unload his wagon -- he simply drives the team and takes care of it! For the loading and the unloading, a detail of soldiers or prisoners out of the guard house, under guard, is furnished.

Early in the spring of 1863, my old friend Capt. "Shorty" came to Fort Scotten route to Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation, and was surprised to find me driving a (post) team. After I had informed him that I had been driving a post team at Fort Scott all winter, waiting on the prospect of getting a train of which there didn't yet seem to be much hope, he said:

'Well, Peck, if this is the best these folks can do for you here, you go and settle up with the (post) quartermaster, quit him and come long down to Gibson with me. Of course, I don't know how they are fixed there for wagon masters, but I'll help you get a place somehow. I think we can surely find something for you down there better than driving a team. I have just been appointed Lt. Col. of the 2nd Indian Regiment (of home guards), Col. Ritchie being on detached service in Kansas.

There will be a large "brigade train" going down under the command of Brigade Wagon Master George McGee. You see him and arrange to drive a team down there or to work your way through in some capacity, and we'll see what we can do for you after you get there.'

Taking Col. Shorty's advice, I immediately notified Billy Armstrong, our post wagon boss, to get another man in my place, got my 'time' from him, went to officer and drew my pay, sent the money to my wife in Leavenworth and hunted up George McGee, the brigade wagon master.

He sent me to Wagon Master Jeff Anthony, who wanted some teamsters to take a lot of light artillery teams and caissons to Fort Gibson with the big train, which battery outfit was being sent there to complete the fitting out of a field battery (consisting of eight cannons), the guns and limbers of which had lately been captured from the rebels by Capt. Henry Hopkins' Company of the 2nd Kansas Cavalry, which company was now being turned into a light (artillery) battery.

Taking my roll of blankets and "saratoga" (a mule skinner's trunk is generally a gunnysack locked up with a hame string), I joined Jeff Anthony's camp to play artilleryman for a short time.

We had six caissons (a two-wheeled wagon for transporting artillery ammunition) and one battery wagon, carrying forage, tools, etc.

Each caisson and the tool wagon is drawn by six horses. To each span (pair) of horses there is a driver who rides the near (left front) horse, designated as wheel (nearest the wagon), swing (middle horse) and lead drivers. I was assigned as a lead driver.

A battery team is hitched together very differently from a six-mule team. Instead of using fifth chain and spreaders, the traces of the swing (middle) horses are hooked into the harness of the wheelers and the traces of the leaders to the harness of the swing (horses).

All the wheels of the batteries (fore and hind) are the same size and interchangeable, and each caisson carries an extra wheel, on a fixed spindle, elevated a little in the rear of the hinder box and wheels, to be used to replace any wheel that gets broken in action (combat).

We had two six-mule teams; one for the mess wagon, to carry our tents, blankets, rations, mess kits, etc., and one empty wagon and team for foraging.

We started out of Fort Scott in a wet, muddy time and had heavy (muddy) roads nearly all the way. McGee's brigade train consisted of five trains of 25 teams each (or 125 wagons), besides our battery outfit and, in addition to these, we were accompanied by a large number of two-and-four-horse teams hauling goods for sutlers (general store operators).

When this long train was strung out, it took up several miles! We were escorted by several companies of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry Regiment and about 500 Indians (some mounted, some afoot) from Fort Gibson.

Besides our advance and rear guard of a company each, the rest of the escort is marched along on the flanks (sides) (always giving up the road to the teams) and strung out so as best to guard the train from attacks.

Each team, besides its load of commissary or quartermaster stores, carries its grain for the trip -- sacked corn and oats.

In addition to this, we have one entire train loaded with sacked corn and oats from which we draw our rations of grain each day, or as needed, for the battery horses; but for roughness (hay, corn fodder or straw), we have to depend on foraging along the line of travel. And for that reason, McGee choose to travel down the old line road, as it was called, running near the boundary line that separated the state (Missouri) and the Nation, passing through the towns of Lamar, Carthage, Neosho and Pineville, Mo.

At Maysville, Ark., we turned westward through the Nation by way of Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, to Fort Gibson.

This route is longer and also more dangerous on account of the country being timbered and infested by bushwhackers, but as there is generally considerable forage to be picked up along it.

The trains often take it in preference to the "Old Military Road" -- the one I traveled to Flat Rock and back last summer (in 1862)."

Now, then, this must have been quite an experience for R.M Peck, because he was riding a lead artillery horse and not a favorite mule all the way from Fort Scott, Kan., to Fort Gibson, Indian Nation.

Next week his journey continues as they search for forage along the way, and some of the escort encounters some venemous she rebels, and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches