Mule-Drawn Wagon Trains

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2001, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2001.

Among the many responsibilities of the Union and Confederate quartermaster departments was that of furnishing army supply wagons, the mules and horses to draw them, and their support and repair facilities. A standard wagon body was ten feet long. A canvas top, which usually bore the corps and unit names and identified the nature of the contents, could be drawn closed at both ends. At the front of the wagon there was a box for tools. At the rear was the feed box, and when it was time to feed the mules, the feed box could be set up on a pole to feed the mules three to a side. Grease and water buckets hung under the rear axle.

A Civil War supply wagon

Although a mule was not as steady under fire as his half-brother, the horse, mules were generally used in preference to horses for wagon trains because they could more readily endure the rough roads, poor fodder and generally hard treatment. Horses were ordinarily used for artillery teams where stability and speed were more important. While horses were also preferred for ambulances, most units used the more available mules.

Mule teams were hitched to wagons in three pairs, the lead pair in front, then the swing pair, then the pole (or wheel) pair nearest to the wagon. The driver, called a mule skinner, rode the near (left) pole mule, which had a saddle, and guided the lead team with a long single rein that traveled through loops on the harness of the swing pair to the bit of the near leader, from which an iron rod led to the bit of the off (right) leader. A steady pull on the rein while shouting “Haw!” would head the team to the left. Short jerks and “Gee!” would head them to the right. “Yay!” meant straight ahead. For downhill travel, a wagon brake could be operated from the saddle.

Mule skinners were reputed to have used original and colorful vocabularies when addressing their mules, but a skinner with a good team could guide them using only his voice. Although a six-mule team was the norm, fewer mules could be and frequently were used depending upon the load.

The supply train

Typically, twenty-five wagons were needed to supply a thousand men. Sherman used some five thousand wagons during the Atlanta Campaign. His trains in one line would have strung out along sixty miles of road. The order of wagon priority on the narrow roads of the era was ammunition, then troops and artillery, and lastly quartermaster supplies.

Wagons were built and repaired and horses and mules re-shod at large wagon parks, which contained repair shops, saddlers, carpenters, harness makers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and other craftsmen, and could service hundreds of wagons and animals at one time.

There aren’t many photos of Civil War wagon trains, especially close shots, since mules and horses would not stay still for the requisite ten seconds, as existing photos attest.

Arms and Equipment of the Civil War by Jack Coggins

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