"The trouble with Jeff is that he lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech."

Not Your Father’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’

chattanooga-wauhatchiePerhaps one of the more amusing tales of the Civil War is the nigh-forgotten Battle of Wauhatchie on October 28-29 of 1863. While there may be some myth amongst the tale, and a healthy dose of a soldier’s exaggeration of the truth, there are sufficient reports to suggest that one particular, peculiar incident did in fact occur, much to the amusement of the Federal troops who witnessed it.

Late October of 1863 saw the Federal Army of the Cumberland besieged in Chattanooga Tennessee following the disastrous Battle of Chickamauga that left Union General William Rosecrans “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head” according to President Lincoln. Rosecrans was sacked, and the man who fought a tremendous rear-guard action at Chickamauga, George Thomas, placed in his stead. Forces were rushed to the area to relieve the Army of the Cumberland from Virginia and Mississippi, but the men in Chattanooga were starving. There was only one tenuous link between Chattanooga and Federal depots– a narrow, snaking road through the mountains, bypassing the entrenched Confederate forces holding the mountains and hills around the city– and that too was soon cut off by a Confederate cavalry raid. By late October, the soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland were reduced to only “four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork” every three days. They were at risk of being starved out before help could arrive. The situation was truly dire.

The situation was ripe to come to a head when Federal relief forces finally began to arrive in valley in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, itself overlooking Chattanooga. Their mission was not just to reinforce Thomas, but also open “the Cracker Line”– a solid line of supply– and defend it against the rebels. In charge of this operation was Joe Hooker, a man who’d been metaphorically caught with his pants down time and time again, and whose failures in command of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville nearly cost the Union the entire army, and with it, potentially the war. Hooker made another blunder in Lookout Valley, marching his forces in without caring to battle lines or defensive positioning. This left the door open for Confederate General James Longstreet to make him pay dearly…

…but for Longstreet’s own overly cautious nature. Ordered by Braxton Bragg (in command of the Army of the Tennessee) to assault Hooker’s sloppy position in the valley in a rare night assault, Longstreet used far fewer men than authorized in the attack– only two divisions of his corps– and bungling delayed the attack a few hours. Confederate forces finally attacked the position (as it were) in a near-encirclement around midnight, shocking the Union troops who were caught completely unaware. None the less, they quickly formed battle lines in the shape of a “v” around their camp, and their wagon train that was caught up with them. It is ultimately the wagon train that is of interest to us.

The wagon train in Hooker’s corps was made up heavily of mules. These stubborn, surly beasts had a horrible reputation in the army, despite the strong service they gave in hauling rations and equipment in ways literal wagons could not, and in lieu of horses which were needed elsewhere. In front of where the mules were tied stood the 78th and 149th New York Infantry, opposed by Georgian sharpshooters of the Palmetto Rifles on the Confederate side. In the chaos of the encircling assault, the teamsters deserted their mules and took for cover. While the bullets whizzed around the mules, and the din of the musketry, both Federal and Confederate shook their ears at a far, far closer range than the pack animals ever heard, the mules became spooked, and more than a hundred of them tore loose from their ties and stampeded….

…right at the Georgian sharpshooters.
According to legend, it was this shocking sound of thundering hooves in the dark that in turn panicked the Georgians, who turned and fled themselves. As they were the left flank of the rebel line, this induced the center and finally the right to break and run for the safety of Lookout Mountain. Contemporaneous reports suggest that the remainder of the Federal forces under O. O. Howard coming up in the rear of the Confederate center had as much, or more to do with the rebel rout, but Howard himself seemed to think otherwise, noting in his memoirs:

“The mules tied to park wagons became very restive under the noise of the night firing. Many of them as soon as the cannon began to roar broke away and, strangely enough, rushed straight for the enemy. Doubtless in the dim light this was taken by the Con¬≠federates for a cavalry charge. This is the battle in which occurred the charge of the mule brigade!”

Given that Howard never turned down a chance for self-promotion, it seems unlikely he would reject the opportunity to place the credit on his own head rather than that of two hundred frightened mules, if in fact he thought it was credible to do so. In the aftermath of the battle, staff officer Captain Thomas Elliot reportedly suggested in a tongue-in-cheek fashion that perhaps the mules should be given a brevet promotion to “horse” in light of their valiant service. Still another soldier put the tale to verse, echoing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famed “Charge of the Light Brigade” in somewhat more humorous terms.

Half a mile, half a mile,
Half a mile onward,
Right through the Georgia troops
Broke the two hundred.
“Forward the Mule Brigade!
Charge for the Rebs,” they neighed.
Straight for the Georgia troops
Broke the two hundred.

“Forward the Mule Brigade!”
Was there a mule dismayed?
Not when their long ears felt
All their ropes sundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to make Rebs fly.
On! to the Georgia troops
Broke the two hundred.

Mules to the right of them,
Mules to the left of them,
Mules behind them
Pawed, neighed, and thundered.
Breaking their own confines
Breaking through Longstreet’s lines
Into the Georgia troops
Stormed the two hundred.

Wild all their eyes did glare,
Whisked all their tails in air
Scattering the chivalry there,
While all the world wondered.
Not a mule back bestraddled,
Yet how they all skedaddled —
Fled every Georgian,
Unsabred, unsaddled,
Scattered and sundered!
How they were routed there
By the two hundred!

Mules to the right of them,
Mules to the left of them,
Mules behind them
Pawed, neighed, and thundered;
Followed by hoof and head
Full many a hero fled,
Fain in the last ditch dead,
Back from an ass’s jaw
All that was left of them, —
Left by the two hundred.

When can their glory fade?
Oh, what a wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Mule Brigade,
Long-eared two hundred!

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