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
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.
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
Arms and Equipment of the Civil War
by Jack Coggins