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The Fortunate Mistake

Published September 15, 2000
Countries: USA, USA (Civil War)
Age Levels: 9 and up

It helps to read historical stories with a little background knowledge.  This is true especially true when reading stories about the American Civil War.  In NO WAY was it CIVIL.  So, the term might not be the best for the conflict between the North and South from 1861 - 1865.  Yet it remains the popular name for what some of my southern friends still call the War of Northern Aggression against the South.

An important piece of knowledge for this true story (well at least reported to be true) is the term quartermaster.  Quartermaster is the title given to the individual or group of individuals in charge of making certain an army has the supplies it needs.  In peace time or in war, the quartermaster orders the uniforms and weapons for the soldiers.

During the Civil War, the quartermaster ordered tents for the soldiers to sleep in, food to eat, blankets to cover up with, wagons to carry everything when the army was on the march and even the animals to pull the wagons.

The perfect animal for pulling heavy supply laden wagons was the mule.  Oxen were strong but moved too slowly.  Horses were fast but tired easily when the load was too heavy.  What more, horses were needed by the cavalry. But - the mule was perfect.  It was strong and fast.  For the uninformed, a mule is a special breed of animal.  It is the result of breeding a mare (female horse) and a male donkey.  The four legged offspring of the mare grew as large as a horse.  It had long ears.  It is very strong and can pull heavy loads.

Major General James L. Donaldson was in need of mules.  He was the quartermaster for General Thomas in the Union army.  Thomas had a huge army under his command.  It was Donaldson's job to make certain the troops received everything they needed to wage war on the south, or the Confederacy.  The army sat in camp close to Chattanooga, Tennessee, waiting to begin an all-out effort to move south and defeat the Rebel army.  The quartermaster troops, or men working under Donaldson, had collected everything necessary to make the big move except for one thing.  The army had a huge shortage of mules to pull the wagons.  One wagon often needed a team of six mules.  Plus, extra mules were needed, since the mules had to be traded out to give tired mules time to rest when they had been pulling heavy loads over a long time.

Donaldson asked for the help of a trusted friend.  He gave his friend "chits" or "IOU's."  These were papers signed by Donaldson that could be used like cash for buying the mules that were needed.  Farmers who sold mules to the army were to be given these promises for payment.  The union army would honor the promissory notes and pay the bills within a set time.

"Take a bunch of men with you, and head into the northern states and the border states.  Buy me as many mules as you can find," said Donaldson.  "Get the best price possible, and work fast.  We need those mules."  This has been a few weeks back.  Now it was December, 1864.  The army was getting ready to march.  Donaldson was worried about how he would supply the army.  Then his friend came through.

His friend had a plug of tobacco in his mouth and a smile on his face as he entered Donaldson's office.  After proper greetings, General Donaldson asked," How many mules did you get?"

"The mules are on their way here.  You'll have quite a herd."

"But, how many?" asked Donaldson.

"You have to guess," said his friend out the side of his mouth, wiping tobacco juice off his mouth and chin. 

"Did you get 500?" asked the General.

"Nope!  Guess again.  Hee, hee." laughed the friend.

"Did you get 800?"  Donaldson looked into the twinkling eyes of his friend.

"Nope, guess again."  A lump of tobacco was spit into a spittoon that sat by the General's desk.

"Did you get 1200?  That would really help us."  The General began to get nervous as the man laughed.

"Nope, upwards of 25,000," the man said in a mutter that was hard to understand.

"HOW MANY?" asked the General in a panic.  He had not given a top number to the man.  He hoped there were not too many mules.  The General began to worry about spending too much government money without getting permission first.

"Upwards of 25,000" the man repeated in a clear voice this time.

The General got sick to his stomach.  He was in trouble.  He thanked his friend for the help.  But, his heart was not in the thanks.  Spending that much money without consent could get him court martialed.  He could be thrown in prison.  He could get thrown out of the army.  The army might try and make him pay for everything.  He would go bankrupt.  His family would live in disgrace.  The General went home early that day.

A knock on the General's door was not unexpected.  "General Thomas wishes to see you," Donaldson was told by an orderly."

The quartermaster reported to headquarters.  But, his heart was not in this visit.  "I hear you bought some mules that will be here soon," said the General in charge.

Donaldson muttered in a low voice, "Upwards of 25,000 mules, sir." 

"How many?" asked Thomas again.

"Over 25,000 mules, sir," said Donaldson, expecting to be led off to the guard house shortly.

"I cannot believe it," said General Thomas.  "You are a hero!  You saved us.  We needed that many mules to get our troops on the road and to keep  line of supplies running from here all across the south.

In less than one minute, Donaldson had gone from being a complete failure to being the man of the hour.

The above story was told in story format by Mike Lockett.  Lockett is a storyteller and a lover of history.  He taught social studies in public schools in addition to teaching other subjects and serving as a school administrator.  Consider bring Lockett to your school, library or community group to tell this story and other Strange-But-True Civil War Stories.

(Source:  R. H. Eddy, "General Donaldson's Fortunate Mistake," The Century Magazine, XXXIV, August, 1887, p. 617.)