Primary sources, to include letters, diaries and official correspondence, as well as postwar memoirs and regimental histories, should form the foundation upon which any historian constructs their narrative. Still, officers often crafted their official reports so as to leave the most favorable impression of their own actions, as well as the actions of their men. In doing so they often drifted far afield from the truth. And, after the war, how many old soldiers decided, as did the 1st Maine Cavalry’s regimental history committee, “that no unpleasant thing should appear relating to the personal record of any comrade?” In following this principle the cagey old veterans willfully obstructed our ability to discover the truth. All of which begs the question – How much faith should we put in primary sources?
The following is offered as a case in point.
The winter of 1862-63 was especially severe. A constant mix of heavy snow, freeze and thaw left the roads, especially the trails connecting the Union cavalry pickets, awash in mud. The thick quagmire could entomb mules and wagons, and made supplying the men and horses nearly impossible. Cold, wet, dirty and often hungry, Gen. George Stoneman’s troopers lived a miserable existence. Unable to procure sufficient food for themselves or their horses, the men watched their starving animals struggle through the clinging mud as they moved to and from their picket posts. In addition to preventing supply wagons from reaching the outposts, the mud also ruined the hooves of the horses and mules, further exacerbating the supply problems.
Limited numbers of packmules had been with the army for at least a year, but they were not the primary means of transporting supplies. Rather, the army relied upon mules to pull the hundreds of wagons attached to the army. One army wagon carried between one and two tons of supplies and was pulled, usually, by six mules, but the snow and mud had brought the wagons to a stand. An alternative was needed, and quickly.
On January 22, 1863, Gen. William Averell, commanding the 2nd Cavalry Division, ordered Col. James Spear, 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, to “detail all the available mounted men without arms and the pack mules to report at once to… Stoneman’s Switch for the purpose of carrying out rations to the troops at the front, the roads being such as to preclude wagons from transporting them…”
By mid-February, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was also looking to park the wagons in favor of packmules. Responding to a request from army quartermaster Rufus Ingalls, Col. Daniel Rucker reported he had only “180 pack saddles” at the Washington depot, “but will send to Philadelphia at once for 2000.” A solution to the crippling supply problem was in the works.
A week later, Rucker explained to Ingalls, “I have no mules on hand except those in teams. I do not wish to break up any of my teams, but if it is a matter of imperative necessity I can supply you at once with 200 or 250 by breaking up teams. I expect 2000 mules from the West which should be here in the course of 10 days or 2 weeks.” Eight days later, Ingalls told Rucker, “Stoneman wishes that you procure 50 pack saddles of the [Frank] Woodcock patent. He says [Maj. Stewart] Van Vliet [Asst. Quartermaster] can find plenty in New York City, says they are very superior. He wishes his pack saddles and the pack mules as early as possible.” Rucker advised, by way of reply, “About 1500 pack saddles will leave [Washington, D.C.] tomorrow morning for Aquia Creek.”
Three days later, Stoneman, whose command was most affected by the weather and bad roads, began hounding Ingalls, who, in turn, hounded Rucker. “I applied…a week ago for an order for mules – to break up teams if necessary… Stoneman wants mules very soon. Will you break up teams enough to send 2000?” The following day, March 4, Rucker shipped the first 600 mules to the army.
As many as 900 mules may have been shipped to the army’s supply base at Aquia Landing on the fifth. One of Rucker’s assistants told his counterpart at Aquia, “I am shipping at this time a large number of mules. Please give the boats quick dispatch as there is a large number yet to ship.”
On the fifth, and with the mules now arriving in large numbers, Stoneman issued the first of many directives governing the use and management of the pack trains.
“The following regulations are established for pack and supply trains for the Cavalry corps.
There will be allowed for the Head Quarters of each division 8 pack mules [and] 6 for each brigade Head Quarters. To each regimental field officer one pack mule. To every ten regimental officers one pack mule. For hospital stores for each regiment 2 pack mules. To the officers of each company one pack mule. To every ten enlisted men one pack mule.
There will be retained with each regiment two army wagons with four horses or six mule teams, which will be devoted exclusively to the transportation of regimental and company papers and records. All wagons and teams over this will be turned over to the division Quartermaster, who will at once organized a division supply train of fifty wagons, preferably six mule teams.
After organizing the supply train the remaining animals, except such horses as are fit for cavalry purposes, as well as all surplus wagons will be immediately turned in to depot Quartermaster at Falmouth Station.”
The animals were now arriving in large numbers, but they could not be used without halters, blankets and packsaddles, and there may have been delays in requesting, and thus receiving, sufficient quantities of these items. Orders to ship 2,000 halters were issued on March 10. Three thousand packsaddles were already en route, with another thousand expected. The Cavalry Corps was “authorized to draw 2000” of the saddles as soon as they arrived.
By the eleventh, regimental commanders were drawing up orders governing their respective pack trains, as evidenced by this order for the 1st Maine Cavalry.
“There will be a pack mule train for this regiment organized according to the following directions.
Each company commander will immediately detail one man to be a permanent driver, the driver if possible to have some skill and experience in the care of mules and at the same time care must be taken not to lessen the effective strength of the company.
There will be a daily drill of the train under the charge of the train master between the hours of 1000 and 1100, the mules to be loaded with wood or grain not exceeding two hundred pounds in weight. For the purpose of drill the company commander will detail as many men as necessary from day to day to assist the driver.
The drivers and train masters will be considered on extra duty and will be paid by the Quarter Master accordingly.
Corporal George H Steele, Co K is hereby appointed train master of the pack mule train of this regiment. His orders will be obeyed and respected as such.”
Over the next several days, division and brigade commanders issued additional orders further defining the organization of the pack trains. On March 13, Gen. Pleasonton, commanding the 1st Division, issued the following:
“The pack trains for cavalry commands…will be organized in each brigade of this division under the orders and directions of the respective brigade commanders. Regimental Quartermasters will be placed in the charge of and [have] the responsibility for the regimental trains. Each brigade train [will be] under the supervision and control of the brigade Quartermasters. Brigade commanders will give the necessary orders from time to time for such details, guards and other assistance as will be required by these pack trains. The mules of these trains will be kept exclusively for packing and will not be used for riding or any other purposes.”
The following day, Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis, commanding the 1st Brigade in Pleasonton’s Division, further refined the process, based upon a directive from army headquarters which allowed two wagons and 66 packmules per cavalry regiment.
“Regimental Quartermasters will turn in to the division Quartermaster tomorrow morning all pack mules, saddles [etc.] in excess of the above allowance
Regimental commanders will at once organize their pack trains as follows – A permanent detail of one man to every three mules will report to regimental Quartermaster as packers… The detail will be made from the men having the poorest horses.
Regimental Quartermasters will have exclusive control of the pack mules. Great care will be taken that the details are well instructed in the best mode of packing. Quartermasters will give their personal attendance.”
By March 18, Colonel Rucker had depleted his stock of packsaddles. Having already sent 3,610 saddles to Aquia, Rucker asked if Ingalls would need additional saddles ordered.
The following day, with 2,000 of those saddles ready for issue, army headquarters outlined the manner in which the mules would be distributed and utilized by the infantry corps. The order of March 19, which is the only reference in the Official Records as to the manner in which the pack trains were to be organized, ignores the Cavalry Corps completely and could leave the reader wondering whether the cavalry received any packmules.
In the order, Ingalls specifically stated, “Water-proof pouches will be used to protect the ammunition in rainy weather…. The animals for the ammunition pack, if there are none extra on hand, will be taken from the ammunition wagons, in which case the wagons…will be turned in to the quartermaster’s department.” Infantry officers may have objected to this idea, prompting Ingalls, recently promoted to brigadier, to send the following: “I have tried the experiment of packing small arms ammunition on mules. I have known it to succeed well in New Mexico and California. There is no doubt about its practicability.”
The Cavalry Corps was utilizing their packmules by March 23, as confirmed by Pleasonton’s directive of that date, ordering “Regimental Quartermasters [to] take charge of and proceed with their mule trains to the Landing for forage and subsistence stores. They will see that the mules are properly packed and not overloaded, and will return with them to camp. Horses will not be used as pack animals.”
“It required a large amount of work to organize the mule train,” Edwin Tobie, 1st Maine, later recalled, “and unpleasant work, too.” Tobie did not see the mules as a viable solution to the supply problem. Once the trains were in “working order it was no small job to transport forage and rations…by” the packmules, with some of the trips between the supply base and the outlying pickets requiring ten days. “In short,” Tobie explained, “the men were kept busy all the time, and gladly welcomed a detail for picket or fatigue duty away from camp.”
Rev. Frederic Denison, Chaplain of the 1st Rhode Island, saw the institution of the pack trains as early evidence of the coming change in cavalry tactics, and the manner in which the new Cavalry Corps was to be utilized in the future. He also recalled, “These mules…occasioned no little merriment, as the men, attempting to ride them, were thrown and tumbled.”
Rather than replacing supply wagons completely, the newly instituted pack trains would supplement the wagons, and, for the present, carry the larger share of the army’s supplies. The process had taken about two months and winter was largely gone when the packmules became serviceable. The roads were becoming passable again and the soldiers would soon abandon their winter huts, as Gen. Joseph Hooker finalized his plans for the spring offensive. The experiment was about to be tested on campaign.