Scouting on Mule Back with the 6th Iowa Infantry

John Hartwell

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Round about Christmas time, 1895, Austin P. Lowery, late private, Co. I, 6th Iowa Infantry reminisced about events of some 33 years before. He sent his recollections to the National Tribune (14 December).

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-https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/meetthemules.htm

Scouting on Mule Back

Tribulations of a First Attempt to Mount the 6th Iowa on Uncertain Steeds

Did you ever try to ride an army mule? If not, be wise, and don’t. An army mule is different from any other animal on earth. He will stand on his head when that end should be up. He will lie down and roll over when he should be getting away from that spot as fast as his legs could carry him. He will plunge head first into a mud hole or deep water when he should shy around both.​
A whole regiment of soldiers cannot get him over two rails of a fence at a time when he should be skipping over it and flying from the danger lurking near. He will not eat a bite of the forage you have carried for him 10 miles on your back, but will slip his halter, steal into your tent, and get into your cracker-box with both hind feet. I would swear to this statement, for my regiment was once mounted on army mules.​
In the winter of 1862-63, the 6th Iowa was stationed along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad between Memphis, Tenn. and Corinth, Miss. In December, the regiment was doing guard duty, stationed in small squads, on the line. South of us, in Mississippi, was the rebel Gen. Chalmers, in command of numerous bands of rebel cavalry; while north of us, in Tennessee, the rebel Gens. Forrest and Shelby were hovering close by.​
These commands were mounted on the fleetest horses the Southern States could furnish. An infantry command could do nothing toward capturing them. Almost daily a squad of these rebel cavalrymen would dash down upon a small squad of our command guarding some small bridge, capture them, take them a few miles from the place of capture, and shoot them as though they were dogs. There was not enough Union cavalry in that locality to hunt down and capture these guerrillas, and the infantry only wasted their time when they undertook to go after them, for they would not stand and fight.​
Gen. Sooey Smith was in command of the Union troops, and he was determined he would put a stop to these raids. He consulted Gen. Hatch, of the 2d Iowa Cav., and decided that the 6th Inf., mounted on the wagon mules of the two commands, could either whip the Johnnies, capture them, or frighten them out of the country.​
The members of the 6th were consulted, but expressed grave doubts as to the success of a mount on mules; but they were there to put down the rebellion, or get put down themselves, they were willing to try it, on mules or any other way.​
On Christmas Day, 1862, the bugle sounded fall-in for our Christmas presents. We were marched to the reserve camp of the 2d Cav., where each man was to receive his ration of army mule. The mules were tied to trees, and were harnessed with a short rein blind-bridle, which perhaps had been off that mule since it left St. Louis, some months before. There was no choice; each man took the mule he happened to be halted behind. Not one in six had ever been ridden. Not a saddle could be had, and each man took his mule to the camp as best he could.​
When we returned to camp word ws brought in from the front that a body of rebel cavalry had dashed down upon a small squad of our regiment, captured all of them, took them a short distance into the woods, and murdered every one of them. This report made every man who had a mule eager to jump onto its back and hasten out to capture the merciless guerrillas. We cut the tent ropes, made ropes of bark, and everything we could twist into a rope with which to tie a blanket on the back of a mule, prepared ourselves with rations and ammunition, tied our blankets on the mule's back, and were ready to mount.​
To be continued ...
 
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John Hartwell

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Pvt Lowery continues his tale:

Each company took mules to company quarters, the company officers stationed themselves at the head of the company, and the bugle was sounded to mount. But, the mules had not been consulted, and no mounting occurred at that command. Another ‘Ready’ was sounded by the Bugler, the command to ‘Mount’ given, but the mules either did not understand the order or suddenly changed their minds, for no soldier could be seen on a mule’s back.​
Time was flying fast; horrible reports of the butchering of our comrades came into camp thick and fast, and no time could be lost. Every fourth man was detailed to hold the mules until the other three could mount at will; but, then, the mule had not yet understood the order, or was not ready or willing to be mounted, and but few were mounted in this way. Several hours had been consumed in these efforts to get the boys on the backs of these wild mules without success, and some other plan must be adopted. Three out of every four mules were tied, and the three soldiers whose mules were tied were detailed to put the fourth soldier on the back of his mule. In this manner, after a little time, a little over half the regiment were mounted in a half-day and started on a scout after the rebels.​
This scout was the event of the soldier’s life of the 6th Inf. boys never to be forgotten.​
“Them mules are peculiar critters” could be heard from every line when we returned to camp. One comrade was mounted on a mule full 16 hands high, which when it got into a mud hole, where the mud was three feet deep, dropped as though shot, rolled over on its side, and buried completely out of sight its rider.​
Another very small one, where the holly and thorn-brush were the thickest, took a shoot into the brush and hung its rider, a la Absalom in the brambles/ Another, whose rider had done all in his power to induce it to drink when crossing Coldwater River, refused to touch the water, but soon after plunged over a steep bank into deep water, stood there and took a big drink, and nothing would induce it to move until its rider was soaking wet.​
An army mule sometimes fears everything in sight, then again it does not fear a whole regiment of soldiers.​
They are better than a horse in retreat, for they cannot be stopped as long as they can hear the roar of a cannon or the crack of a rifle. They get out of danger in good shape. But an army mule in camp is the meanest creature on earth. He cannot be kept tied; he will destroy everything he can get at, and no soldier could tell what damage he would do or mischief he would be in if left alone an hour.​
Our mount on mules was a success. No Johnnies ever stopped long enough in our path to see what they looked like, after we made our first scout on mules. An Iowa soldier soon learned many tricks, and we soon learned the trick of transforming an army mule into a fleet Southern horse.​
--- Austin P. Lowery, Co. I, 6th Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa​


If you get the feeling the writer is exaggerating a bit ... not to say extravagantly embroidering ... you're not alone. I went to the regimental history of the 6th Iowa, in search of an "official" account of this Christmastime, 1862 "scout." Nary a word! I read that
"On the 27th of April (1863) the regiment was designated by General Hurlburt to serve as mounted infantry, and it was ordered that the mules and horses captured from the enemy during the recent raid should be used for that purpose. During the day each man in the regiment able for duty was provided with a beast. Then the task of breaking them to the service commenced in earnest. There were many serious hurts and bruises sustained by both men and mules during the process of lassoing and breaking the wild herd to the new service. All were delighted with the idea of being mounted and associated with the cavalry arm of the service. The next day saddles and full horse equipment were issued, after which company and battalion drills were the order of the day, with a mounted dress parade in the evening, and marching orders for an early hour the next morning." (p.184)​
The 6th Iowa joined the cavalry brigade of Col. Edward Hatch (2nd Iowa, 4th Illinois, and a detachment of West Tennessee Cavalry, plus 4 10-pounders), and moved "against the forces of General Chalmers concentrating at New Albany and Pontotoc to intercept the return of Colonel Grierson."

It all sounds rather matter-of fact, and not nearly as colorful as private Lowery's recollections.

But, of course, I suppose it's possible that the veteran was describing a different, earlier "first attempt" at scouting on muleback, that somehow was left out of the regimental history. I'd like to hope so ...
 

EJ Zander

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Aug 23, 2011
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Gettysburg, PA
Enjoyed reading that.
If it was the bosses idea to mount mules and they had a hand in writing the regimental history. Not surprised those antics didnt make the cut.
From what the guy describes it sounds like classic get the unwanted weight off my back behavior.
 

John Hartwell

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What a happy face. I use to like the Frances The Talking Mule movies. They showed them on TV when I was young.
Ah, yes, I remember Francis well.

He was really a handsome animal, at least in these clips ... I don't know if the same 'actor' played Francis in all of his movies. YouTube has a few clips. I tried watching "Francis Joins the WACs", but I'm afraid it's too silly for me nowadays (not Francis, but Donald O'Connor's character is pretty hard to take sometimes). It was great fun when I was 9, though.
 
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Rtutor75

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Feb 17, 2020
This reminds me of the pursuit by Forrest through northern Alabama. The union general decided that their best option would be to use mules to cover the terrain toward Rome. They did offer a good means of transport and the cavalry were able to keep Forrests men at bay. The problem was that an army of mules seem to make a lot of noise. Several of Forrests men commented that the mules never quit braying even during the middle of the night. They kept them up all night much less the soldiers camped and riding them.

It is worth noting that one of the reasons given for the men surrendering to Forrest at Rome was that the men were falling asleep in the ranks.
 
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