Old Pete, the "Real" Last Army Mule (?)

John Hartwell

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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.​

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Old Pete
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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John Hartwell

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Old Pete's story continues ...
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A Wayward Creature

Pete was a wayward creature, and, in his younger days, of quite a humorous turn of mind. His early history is a little obscure, but it was generally believed that he ran away from home and joined the army for sheer love of adventure. He was a wicked young rover then, always ready for a lark. However he got into the army, he was doing gallant service with Sherman when the latter reached Atlanta. Tugging great loads over the Kennesaw and the hills between Dalton and Atlanta had not taken the snap and enthusiasm out of him. He was brisk and young and loved a racket and the smell of gunpowder.

He had an astonishing facility for breaking loose from camp and suddenly appearing in the most unexpected places. It was said, with what truth nobody knows, that prowling through the woods one night he set off on a mad run through. A company of confederates, hearing the tremendous commotion, took flight, and it was reported in Hood’s camp that the whole of Sherman's army had moved out for a night attack. He made a panic in his own camp at the unholy hour of 2 one morning, by galloping in, snorting like a whale. Most of the soldiers were for shooting him. Nobody knows how near he came to death in those days. He ran picket lines constantly and was fired on almost every night.

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The soldiers used to say it was not the things he ate but the things he wantonly kicked and overturned that did so much damage. He was tricky with his heels and would bite, too. After a time everything -- strange noises at night and depredations of every description -- were laid at his door. “Pete did it!” explained nearly everything that went wrong. At least those were the stories that were told about the old veteran in after years.

It was one night, weeks after Sherman had moved from Atlanta toward the sea that Pete hove to at dead of night in front of a small farm house 30 mies below Atlanta. He was serene and undisturbed, but a little hungry. The broken strap of a bridle clung to his wicked head. He nosed around in search of food or mischief. Inside the house a soldier’s wife slept. Her husband was away with Lee’s vanquished army in Virginia. She heard Pete moving about with a sort of dumb terror, which was not new to the women of the south at that time. But, the women had learned to be as brave as the men and this soldier’s wife crept to the door and looked out.

In the darkness she descried Pete beside the pigpen, thoughtfully regarding its occupant and doubtless meditating some form of outrage not calculated to increase His Pigship’s comfort. The little woman was not slow to take in the situation, and gathering up a stand of rope, she slipped out. She was all unconscious of the depraved character of Pete, and the deceptive rascal pricked up his ears and gazed curiously at her. No doubt his first impulse was to snort and run, but he forgot it, and before he knew what was happening to him the woman had put the rope over his neck and tied him fast to a tree.

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The morning found him there. If Pete had been blessed with the gift of speech along with his other varied talents, he would, no doubt, have expressed his disgust and mortification at thus being ensnared by a woman, but the warrior felt better over it when she gave him a nice feed of oats for breakfast. He tugged at the rope, but to no purpose; the disgraced adventurer took his meals as they were brought to him.

Pete’s captor expected a claimant every hour, and after a few days the slim hope that none would come presented itself. The war had ended, her husband was coming home; what a fortune Pete would be to them in their wretched state of want and impoverishment! After a fortnight she woke up one morning to find Pete gone. He had broken his tether and made off in the night, and with him had gone her hopes. But, that night she heard noises again, and, looking out, saw Pete. After that he stayed, tired, for the time, of his wandering. He behaved with the best of manners toward his new mistress, and only once or twice, when he forgot himself did he try to kick her.

When the soldier-husband came home Pete was quick to rue his choice of homes, but it was too late. If ever a poor army mule had to haul and slave, Pete was that mule. The gaunt soldier, who went to the field by sunrise in his faded gray suit and army cap, plowed until sunset with the very energy of desperation. Pete was worn thin and he grew crabbed and ill-natured. He chased the cows and snapped at people when they came to bridle him. But, it was a wonderful crop he made for the soldier and his wife that year. The rested lands did their best. The acres of corn grew high and green, with good solid ears to every stalk. The cotton bore bolls in profusion, and the little garden gleamed out like a flower bed. There was none like it in all that part of Georgia. It was Pete’s work, and the soldier’s wife blessed the night that bent his vagrant footsteps to her door. It is not giving Pete undue credit to say that he was responsible for the beginning of a most successful Georgia farmer.
 

John Hartwell

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Not an Easy Lot

Thus Pete changed from the vocations of war to those of peace. He put in perhaps eight or ten years with his soldier master and was sold for a song as having passed his prime. He went through five or six hands until some dozen or so years ago George Washington Lafayette Nix negotiated for him. The purchase of Pete was a tremendously ambitious venture for G. W. L. Nix. He had lived 63 years in the world, and it had been the ambition of his life to own a mule. He had never even owned a cow. For the promise of a 500 pound bale of cotton in the fall, Pete was his. It was a great day for the Nix family, and a sad day for Pete.

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"a mighty fine mule"

Pete was now perfectly white, and speckled with dingy gray spots, betokening age, but he still had some fire left in his heels and enough humor in him to play an occasional joke. George Washington Lafayette Nix felt a becoming pride in his property.

“Dat’s a fine mule, a mighty fine mule,” he was wont to say. “Yo’ doan’ s’pose Gin’ral Shurman’s gwine ter fetch ‘long no scrub mules, is yer? No suh! He ain’ dat kinder man. Yo’ doan’ s’pose he gwine ter buy a mule lak Pete an’ pay his good money fur him less’n he’s a good mule, is yer? Dat mule’s got mo’ sense ‘an half the N***ers in DeKalb county. He bin all thro’ the war.”

Pete’s lot was not an easy one. He was quartered in an old ramshackle stable, whose rickety door he could send flying with one vigorous blow of his foot, and usually did about five nights out of seven. He paid midnight visits to cornfields, despoiled gardens, aroused watchdogs, and became a general nighthawk, returning or being brought back to his own roof in the morning. Belated night travelers in that neighborhood were accustomed to meeting old Pete hobbling along in his search for food. He became a confirmed night-prowler. By day he pulled a crude little wooden plough, behind which followed George Washington Lafayette Nix, or else was driven to mill or to market hitched to Nix's screechy old wagon.

Sundays Pete was driven to the country meeting houses with all the Nix family seated in state behind. Once he came near disrupting a whole church. And did succeed in spoiling a most promising revival. True to his early training, he wrenched himself free from the tree to which he was tied and right at the critical point of the service went nosing about among the wagons and buggies for food. Where he found oats he scattered them improvidently, after taking a few bites. He emptied out whole basketsfull of fried chicken and pies that had been brought along for dinner. He took a bite out of all the watermelons as he came to them. Ths finished, he went around in his amiable fashion, causing the other mules and horses to break loose.

The mourners had just been called for and the shouting had just begun, when a wild stampede of horses was noticed outside. They were tearing about in every direction, some dragging harness after them and all bent on a frolic. Pellmell the negroes came falling over each other out of the door. There was a wild rush after excited mules and horses. Most of the horses and mules didn’t stop short of their homes. The others when caught had broken their harness beyond repair. The congregation at Rocky Mount had to walk home that day. As for George Washington Lafayette Nix, who was perfectly innocent, he fared badly. He narrowly escaped the violence of his enraged brethren, and for the unchristian things that he said and he did in reply he was turned out of the church. As for the revival, it was the poorest Rocky Mount ever knew.

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So Pete’s declining days went. He grew feebler toward the last, and ceased to care whether he made trouble at church or not. He walked every day with increasing difficulty and increasing slowness. Finally he little more than crept. Still he drew the creaking old wagon to the mill, still he dragged the plough at a snail’s pace through the furrow. His night rambles ceased. He dozed in his stable, dreaming. George Washington Lafayette Nix said, of the time when he came to Georgia with Sherman and all the embattled armies, thundering cannon, falling cities. His long old ears drooped like the broken feathers of a whipped fowl. The only badge of his greatness, the ghastly lettering on his gray thigh, told of his departed glory. That stood out vividly as he lay dead on his side, the little black Nixes wailing over him, the badge of his heroic service. He was doubtless the last of the army mules.
 

John Hartwell

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I do believe he was the father of Francis, the talking mule (Search the web for Francis's days in the movies).
I tried watching one of his movies a while back. I loved them when I was a kid, but couldn't stand it as an old f*rt.
Francis was wonderful ... it's Donald O'Connor who was unbearably foolish! The mule was the brains of that duo!
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Lubliner

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I think that was a key element of those movies, that the mule was wiser than it's master
So was Mr. Ed, the talking horse.
I always wanted a mule for camping back when I was a kid. A donkey would have been welcomed equally so. But I don't think I could have lived down the jokes that would befall me if I had a jacka**.
Lubliner.
 

donna

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I remember the Ma and Pa Kettle. They had them on TV. I would watch them. Always like the old Abbott and Costello movies too. Does anyone remember Charlie Chan? They had the old ones on TV. I liked them. Always was a big mystery / detective type movie fan.
 
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