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Beasts of Burden

On this date in 1860, the St. Cloud Democrat noted that mule teams regularly passed by on their way to Fort Abercrombie on the Red River in present day North Dakota. Teams of six mules pulled each wagon. September 1st saw a half dozen teams travel through, followed on September 4th by a train of thirty teams. Each train carried a variety of supplies including food, tools, and machinery.

The mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse. Mules combine the intelligence of the horse with a donkey’s sure-footed endurance. A mule’s hide and hooves are tougher than a horse, and they have more stamina – able to carry heavier loads or pull wagons for longer distances. Generations of mule skinners learned that the animal can be temperamental, giving rise to the phrase “stubborn as a mule.” But people who work with mules are willing to put up with the stubbornness, in exchange for the intelligence and reliability.

The United States Army relied on mules during the Civil War. In one year alone, Army quartermasters purchased almost 88,000 mules. The soldiers quickly learned that a mule’s hearing is very sensitive. They tended to panic if too close to the guns. So, horses were used to pull artillery while mules pulled wagons and stayed behind the lines.

Officers preferred to ride horses rather than mules. George Custer made fun of Buffalo Bill Cody for riding a mule. But Cody knew that a mule could travel farther. He also thought a mule could detect an imminent ambush. He had the last laugh when his mule outpaced Custer’s fancy horse.

The Army sold off its last mule in 1957. Mules were seen as a relic of history, not suitable for the nuclear age. But the Army purchased mules once again when the Special Forces moved into Afghanistan where they were helpful on the rugged landscape. Today, the Marine Corps Mountain Training Center in California provides training in feeding, loading, packing, and safely handling the animals.

Horses get all the glory when it comes to service in wartime. Statues depict generals on snorting war horses, not the humble mule. But we should remember that throughout the history of the United States military, mules did much of the heavy lifting.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher



St. Cloud Democrat. “Fort Abercrombie.” 6 September 1860. St. Cloud MN. Page 2.

Defense Media Network. “The Virtue of Stubbornness: Mules at War.” https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/the-virtues-of-stubbornness-mules-at-war/  Accessed 29 July 2018.

Army Warfare Network. “Army Mules: The Beasts of Burden in War.” http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/army-mules-the-beast-of-burden-in-war/  Accessed 29 July 2018.

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