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We’ve had a lot of “mule talk” here in the Four-Footed Friends forum, including several threads highlighting candidates for the title of “Last Army Mule” of the Civil War. Claims began to be made in the 1880s, and continued through the end of the century. Doubtless they were all honest claims; after all, nobody was keeping record of the thousands of broken down or unneeded animals sold off by the army since the summer of 1865. So, any very old mule with the requisite government brand on his flank, was suspected of being the last, or at least one of the last of his kind.
In perusing this literature, trying to identify the “true” last army mule, I find the story of Old Pete, who passed from this world to a mulishly better one, about Christmas time of 1898. His tale has not previously been told on CivilWarTalk. It is a long story, and I’ll reprint in three parts.
Old Pete’s story is, of course, mostly apocryphal. Who, after all, could have recounted the day to day details of an old Pete’s life 30 or more years before but old Pete himself? And, he doesn’t seem to have been talking. But, that doesn’t really matter. Every detail is believable, and most certainly occurred to some army mule at one time or another (or to many, and frequently, for that matter). When one reads about, or better, observes the behavior of mules, it becomes clear that NO tale is too outrageous to be true.
Although this story originated with the New York Sun, it was repeated, usually in an abridged form, in papers across the country. I have not been able to find a copy of that issue of the Sun, so this comes from the Spokane (WA) Semi-weekly Spokesman Review, of 12 Feb. 1899, which appears to have reprinted it in its entirety. And, please try to ignore the mildly demeaning language used when speaking of African Americans -- those were still ”the bad old days” of racial insensitivity -- though there is nothing here that is hateful or vicious.
Old Pete was probably the last army mule of the brand of ‘65 to give up the ghost. He “winked” out Christmas week on a farm down near Atlanta, at an age of not less than 34, which is older than mules of the very best morals and constitutions usually get to be. It is safe to say that he was the very last of his useful race.
A few years ago his kind was plentiful, especially in the south, where both armies left so many. They were readily distinguishable from the every-day run of mules by the brands on their thighs, and the negroes say they were wickeder and tougher. They could be seen everywhere, pulling plows in the country and drags in the cities, hardy little ones and gaunt, bony, long-legged fellows, gray, sorrel, dun, mouse-colored, chestnut, black,, and even spotted. Lots of them were left in the early eighties. They then began to grow rapidly fewer. They passed out of sight unnoticed, for all their splendid part in the war, hauling cannons and tents and food and ammunition.
Old Pete’s death was quite ignoble. It seemed to mock his better days when his heels were light as a deer’s and he came marching into Georgia with Sherman as proud as a colt. The brand on his thigh was fresh then, and his coat was sleek as a panther’s. In his latter days he was a dingy white, his ears were fallen down, his eyes bleary and dim, his teeth gone and his gait stiff. He had no longer any relish for his oats, and no heart for chasing the calves and pigs or going over the fence into the green corn.
Worst sign of all, he no longer heeded the report of a gun. The bang of a musket had acted on him like the smell of the sea on an old sailor. His head would fly instantly into the air, and he would go dancing about in a fever of excitement, ready to drag the big guns right into the face of the enemy if wanted there. Under the influence of this wild notion one day he had run away, demolishing a new buggy to which he was hitched. Ploughing in the fields, a shot would send him off like lightning, his plough flying behind him, but now naught remained to him of his old days save the army brand, and that and a nick in his left ear, which, it used to be said, was done by a rebel bullet.
He had fallen very low in the world. He was now the property and almost the sole wealth of George Washington Lafayette Nix, whom he had helped to liberate. The Nixes treated him as kindly as they could. Old Aunt Mandy devised a tempting gruel for him of cornmeal and water, which he didn’t even notice; he didn’t seem to notice anything any more. The little Nixes, his friends, though they had formerly delighted to torment him, brought whisps of hay and apples, smoothed his crumpled old head, and made sympathetic speeches to him.
“Po’ ole Pete,” said Aunt Mandy, “dey say dat nobody ain’ nebber seed a gray mule daid yit, but I’se monstrous feered youse gwine ter fool ‘em.”
And sure enough, one morning they found him stark dead, The little Nixes gathered around and set up such a wailing as would have sent Pete dashing off like a wild steer in his younger days. The eyes of old Aunt Mandy and of George Washington Lafayette Nix were not entirely dry. Pete had been a member of the family almost, and they mourned him as such.
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