Friday, May 18, 2012

“Wagon Boss and Mule Mechanic” Part 1

“Wagon Boss and Mule Mechanic”
by R.M. Peck
National Tribune, 21 July 1904
pg. 8, cols 1-5


So much has been written of the services of the soldier in the Civil War, that every conceivable phase of that strenuous life seems to have been thoroughly delineated: and the richly-merited praise that has been bestowed on those glorious “boys in blue” has so overshadowed some less important auxiliary branches of the service, that the public scarcely knows that there was such an important and essential assistant to the fighting man as the “mulewhacker.”

It is for the purpose of giving the reader an insight into the field life of the man who wields the "blacksnake” in time of war, that I have written the following story of my observations and impressions while serving as a Wagon-Master and teamster.

I am one of those cranks who believe that writers of historical matter should tell the literal truth to the best of their knowledge and belief, and place censure or praise where it justly belongs.  I am no whitewasher.

On the same principle, had I shown up only the virtues of the “mule-skinner,” and omitted his vices, I would have failed of my object of portraying his real life.  I have, therefore, found it necessary in this true story to record much reprehensible conduct of officers, soldiers, Wagon-masters, teamsters and others, and have shouldered a fair share of it myself.

As citizens in time of peace now, we would not think of committing such culpable deeds as then, under the usage of war, were so common as scarcely to be considered wrong.

Be it remembered, I write from the standpoint of the “Wagon Boss.”- R. M. P.

The Outfit

During the Civil War railroads and telegraphs compared with the present time, were few and scattering, especially in the West.  At the beginning of the war there was not a foot of railroad, that I can remember, west of the State of Missouri, and a very few short lines within that State- only one reaching as far as its western boundary line (the Hannibal & St. Joseph).  Most of the Western roads were newly built, poorly equipped, and, as lines of transportation, inefficient.

The rebel bushwhackers of Missouri frequently amused themselves by burning railroad bridges, wrecking and holding up trains, robbing passengers, and usually killing any Union soldiers or officers so captured.

Telegraphs were correspondingly scarce, and mails irregular and uncertain.  These conditions compelled Uncle Sam to furnish his own transportation, to a great extent, for moving and supplying troops in the field, and to carry his own official mails, which were usually transmitted from one point to another by special mounted messengers, called “express riders.”  The rebel bushwhackers also made a specialty of lying in wait for these “express riders” to kill them and capture the official mails.

Organization of Trains

The army transportation question brought into use a vast number of six-mule teams, which were formed into trains of 25 teams each, commanded by a Wagon-master 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 less 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 command of a Chief, called a Brigade Wagon-master, and such a collection of trains was a brigade train.

All army transportation, whether steamers, 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 Wagon-master to be used as his mess wagon, carrying no freight but the “Boss’s tent, messchest, and the baggage of the Wagon-master’s mess, together with tools and material for repairing wagons and harness.

The “Boss’s” mess included the Wagon-master, Assistant, lead teamster, extra hand, and cook; 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.

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 Wagon-masters.

Trains In Park

Mule trains usually camp in “open park,” that is, in double ranks, with intervals of 80 feet between ranks, and 30 feet between wagons in line, with the Boss’s mess wagon in rear.  This style of camping is in order to give room for picketing the mules of each team adjacent to their wagons.  When the mules are sufficiently gentle they are sometimes turned loose and herded while in camp, but when “green” and not thoroughly “broken,” herding is not safe, as they are liable to stampede, and are hard to catch.

Ox trains, or “bull trains,” as they are commonly called always camp in circular corral; but mule outfits seldom camp so expect to repel an attack, or to form an inclosure for catching mules when herded.  The diagram will give a clearer idea of the manner of camping each kind of train.

The Wagons

The wagons are provided with bows, and double sheets or covers of canvas to protect the loads from the weather.

The left is “near” side, and the right the “off” side of a team, which is supposed to be handled from the near side.  The first span of mules, or those hitched on the tongue of the wagon, are called “wheelers,” the next “swings,” and the front ones “leaders.”

The driver, or “skinner,” as he is commonly called, rides the “near wheeler,” or “saddle” mule, and guides the leaders by means of a “lead line” attached to the bit of the near leader, which mule is taught to turn to the left, or “haw,” at a pull, and to the right, or “jee,” at the jerk of the lead line.  The near leader governs the off one by means of a “jockey stick,” which is attached at one end of the bottom of the hames of the near leader, and 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.”

Brakes were not attached to 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 the holding back of his wheelers.  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” or “broke,” and soon got broke into the work.

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 a knack of controlling unruly teamsters and getting good prompt service out of men and teams; and keeping mules, wagons and harness in good condition.

Getting Into Shape And The First Trip

On applying to the Master of Transportation at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for a position as Wagon-master, in the Spring of 1862, I 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 was reached- and then come and draw 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.

Next day I was ordered to take my men to the corral and go to “catching out” a train.  On arriving at the mule corral I found that a half dozen new six-mule wagons- with bows, sheets and harness for six mules in 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 whom are green, how the different parts go together.  The harness is subsequently fitted to the mules by taking up or letting out to suit the different-sized animals.

“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, tie ropes (30 feet long) around the mules’ necks, and then bridle them.

The fun incident to this operation may be faintly imagined when I say that many of these mules had 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 are then worked up gradually to the wagons and securely tried 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 largest for the wheelers, and all the mules of a team to be 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 means of the rope, and harnessed nolens volens.  And as most of the mules are addicted to such playful pranks as kicking, rearing and striking with the 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” mules are found, wild ones must be broken in for those places.  With both hind wheels locked, and with two, three or more men to each team, they are finally “strung out,” the driver mounts his saddle mule and we are started.

After executing a variety of acrobatic feats they settle down to something like work, and are then 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 bridlebits.

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 up and drilled.

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.

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 experts 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.

An Expedition For New Mexico

After getting my train all fitted up in good shape, but before the mules were fairly broken in, I was ordered to hitch up and go to the Commissary Store and load up for a trip to New Mexico. 

As good a way to break wild mules as any is to load up and go on the road.

At this time an expedition was being fitted out to go to New Mexico, and my train and a number of others were to accompany the command.

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 enter 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 the 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 and prompt delivery of same at its destination.  The bill of lading 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 and condition, which I agree to deliver, without unnecessary delay, in good order and condition to Lieut.______, Acting Assistant Commissary of Subsistence at Fort Union, N.M.

One copy of the 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, and I was ordered to turn in my load to the Commissary officer at Fort Riley and return with empty train to Fort Leavenworth, the receiving officer indorsing my bill of lading in acknowledgment of having “received the foregoing freight in due time and good condition.”

On arriving at Fort Leavenworth I returned my indorsed bill to the Commissary officer, and again reported for duty to Levy Wilson, Master of Transportation.

He gave me a couple of days to have my wagons repaired, some shoes put on my mules, etc., and then 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.

“String Out,” “Roll Out,” And “Go Ahead.”

When traveling, the Boss or Assistant sees that the “skinners” 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 generally about sunrise.

After breakfast the Wagon-master gives the command, “String out!” when each teamster hitches his mules in their proper places in the team, leaders first, swings next and wheelers last, and gets everything ready for moving.  When all are “strung out” the Boss commands, “Roll out!” and the lead teamster drives 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 guide the outfit through all difficult places.  The Assistant is near the rear and sees that the teams are kept closed up; and in case of any accident necessitating a halt, the call is passed from the rear to front, “Hold on!”  the train halts, and the Boss gallops back to see what is the cause of 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 a stream, if the Boss thinks that the mules need water, he gives the order, “Water!” when each skinner stops his team, dismounts, and unreins 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 or 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 rear of where the train is to be placed- proceeds to park the teams as they arrive, in double rank, open-order style before mentioned.  (See diagram.)


In winter when hay is procurable and there is no grass for picketing on, the wagons are parked closer together and the mules are left tied to the fore wheels and 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, even on bare ground, after giving them their grain, else for want of “roughness,” they will gnaw the tongue, wagon box, 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.

Each teamster as he swings into line dismounts from his saddle mule, locks a hind wheel, and goes to unhitching and unharnessing.  First he gets out his ropes and halters, and lays them convenient to the front of the wagon; then unhitches his wheelers, halters and ties them back to the fore wheels, quickly strips the harness off, hanging it on the hind wheels, putting collars and bridles under the wagon.  Then the swings and leaders are brought back, tied to the tongue and each harness, as it is removed, is hung, one set on top of another, on the hind wheels.  It is not always possible to keep the harness dry in wet weather, and little or no effort is made to do so, but the collars must not be allowed to get wet, for a wet collar will upon gall a mule’s shoulders.

After unharnessing the teamster leads his mules to water, usually two or three, and sometimes the whole six at a time; and as they are generally 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 sulphurous expletives 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

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

One who is unused to them would imagine, to see the mules kicking and fighting each other over their grain, 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; but they soon learn to know the one who drives and takes care of them, and he doesn’t hesitate to walk right in between them whenever occasion requires it, first speaking to them, however, and making them “stand over.”

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 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 had to adopt modes of punishment similar to those inflicted on soldiers.

As soon as the mules are done eating their grain they are picketed out- each one 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.

Teamster’s Supper

While the mules are eating, the teamsters, in messes of five or six, are carrying up water making fires, cooking and eating.

The “kit” of each mess consists of a sheet-iron camp kettle, for boiling purposes; a cast-iron oven or skillet, and lid, for baking; a frying pan; coffee pot; a mess pan to mix dough in; a tin plate and cup to each man.  Some members of the mess will generally extemporize a mess chest, to carry their grub and plates and cups in, out of an empty packing box.

The Boss’s mess kit is the same as the teamster’s and rations the same- soldier’s rations- but his mess chest is a large, commodious affair, so constructed as to be very handy to contain all sorts of extra rations and etceteras, and at mealtime is easily transformed into a camp table.  The average Wagon-master is a good “forager,” and the Boss’s mess is usually better supplied with what the Commissary Department and country affords than the commanding officer’s table.

The skinner’s fuel is laid in as he travels along the road by stealing (it is called “jayhawking” in Kansas) a fence rail here and there.

To clear my conscience I always took the trouble to caution my teamsters that if they found it necessary to “confiscate” (another term for stealing) a rail occasionally, to not be hoggish about it, but only to take the top rail, and each one would obediently take the rail on top, which is always the top rail-till the bottom is reached.
On coming into camp frequently the ends of fence rails sticking out from under the wagon sheets would look like we were moving fences instead of army supplies.

Wagon-masters and teamsters generally carry a navy revolver apiece on their own account, but are not furnished arms by the government, as they are supposed to be non-combatants, and in dangerous times are intended to be protected by military escorts- not that this protection is intended for mule whackers so much as for the U.S. property in their care.  But as the protection of soldiers is not always a safe dependence the skinner feels safer to be prepared to “look a leetle out” for himself.

Each skinner furnishes his own blankets, generally buying them for a song from some soldier who is hard up for whiskey money; and in like manner most of a teamster’s clothing is procured.

On the march, when traveling with a military command, Wagon-masters have to move and camp their trains to suit the convenience of the commanding officer; but where the military is acting merely as an escort, the Wagon-master is allowed to use his discretion as to drivers, camps, etc., the escort conforming to his movements.

Buying Feed

When traveling in Kansas we were usually furnished money by the Quartermaster, to purchase feed along the route for the mules; this being preferable to carrying our feed.

During the fall of 1862 corn, oats and hay were abundant and cheap in Kansas.  I sometimes bought the grain as low as 15 cents a bushel, and 25 cents was the highest price I paid for grain that season.  I could get good prairie hay delivered at my camp for $2 a ton.  When I had not the money to pay for feed I was authorized to give the seller a receipt for the amount purchased, giving price of same, and the bill would be paid at the Quartermaster’s office when presented.

After 1862 the prices of all kinds of feed- and in fact horses, mules and all materials used in carrying on the war- advanced.

Indian Soldiers

On arriving at Humboldt I found that my train had been transferred by mail to the Quartermaster of the Indian Brigade, my teamsters being transferred also, but as said Quartermaster already had a friend waiting to take my place, I was ordered to Fort Scott, about 40 miles east of Humboldt, to look for another job.  After transferring my freight to the consignee, Quartermaster of the Indian Brigade, taking his receipt for the same, I was allowed to retain a riding-mule and received transportation for my baggage in an empty train that was to return to Fort Scott in a few days.

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