Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

What life story I have that’s worth telling, started in 1860-61 when the Yankees forced the southern states, one by one, to secede from the Union and then started the War of Northern Aggression. I was a fifteen-year-old country bumpkin; a big, shy, Georgia plow boy with a wanderlust that made it hard for me to stay home on the farm. I had stayed though, because my ma and pa were older and I was all they had. We weren’t rich plantation owners, though. Instead, we were proud independent farmers scratching out a fair living from the red Georgia clay. We grew corn and raised hogs mostly, but pa also made some locally famous corn squeezin’ liquor. Ma frowned on the liquor but didn’t forbid it as long as pa only sold it. She didn’t tolerate drinking in our home. Mama didn’t allow unmannerly conduct of any kind for that matter. She managed through love and a will of iron to keep civility in our house.

My ma was a gentle and refined woman and my pa was a big gentle man. I was born when my ma was near forty-three years of age. Both my parents said I was a welcomed miracle. I had two older half brothers, Jacob and Joshua; both had married, and were living in houses they built within a quarter mile of my parents’ home. My father gave each of my brothers a third of his property to start their own places. Pa’s original land grant was for a four hundred and fifty acre tract anchored on the Chattahoochee River near Bartlett’s Ferry. Jacob was twelve years older than me and Josh was ten years older.

Both pa’s first wife and ma’s first husband had died during the cholera epidemic of 1845. Ma had an adopted daughter named Rachael, who was six years older than me. Rachael was married to a brakeman on the Georgia Southern Railroad. Rachael and her husband lived over in Cataula, about ten miles away. They lived in Cataula because the railroad went through there and Rachael’s husband could jump on and off the train when it slowed down to cross the Mulberry Creek Bridge. Ma had been a schoolteacher once, so my brothers, Rachael and I received a good education at home.

In the spring of 1861, after helping my pa with spring planting, I snuck away from home to join General Lee’s Army. I was spurred to action when the treacherous Federals attacked Virginia to impose their tyranny on the freedom loving people of the Confederacy. It was the first time I’d ever disobeyed my parents on such a grand scale. I couldn’t really put into words my feelings about leaving home that early spring morning. On one hand my heart was heavy with the thought of hurting my parents. On the other, my brain was convinced I was doing the right thing.

I decided on joining Lee’s Army in Virginia based on a story I’d read about him in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. Lee was portrayed as a man of honor and the best general in the service of the Confederacy. I had very strong and romantic notions about honor, so I knew immediately that I wanted to serve under someone of his character. Another reason that I went all the way to Virginia was because of my age. I wasn’t old enough to enlist and I was scared everyone in Georgia probably knew that.

Since the war I’ve had Yankees go on and on at me about how the war was fought against the evil of slavery, and I’ve had them ask me how I could fight for a cause like that. Well I’m here to tell you that I was no advocate of owning slaves. My family didn’t have any and no one we knew did either. I fought in the war because the Unionists attacked us and I was defending my country, same as it was during the Revolutionary War I suspect. I do know this: I will go to my grave believing the war was just an excuse for greedy Yankee carpetbaggers to take what was ours. I see the same thing out here in the west with the Red Indians. The same people, who were a hollering about the Black Man, treat the Red Man worse than any slave. So it goes, I guess, and I figure that’s why I like mules better than most men.

When I left the farm I was riding Zeke, one of our mules, and I was carrying the old Kentucky rifle my pappy gave me for my last birthday. Zeke was four years old, smart as a whip and he was big as mules go. I had pretty much raised him from a foal. We were a team, Zeke and I. I took care of him and he took care of me. I always had a way with the mules we kept on our farm. I was able to get them to do things that surprised and delighted my father and brothers. I really never saw what all the fuss was about because all I did was show the mules what I wanted and let them figure out how to do it.

I ambled Zeke up the road that ran beside the Chattahoochee River to where the river turned northeast towards Atlanta. The name of the bend in the river was West Point because it was the western most flow of the big river. From West Point the river slowly meandered downstream a little east of due south. Making the inland turn upstream at West Point took me out of Harris County not to return for four long years.

I kept the pace down to about twenty-five miles a day because we had a long trip ahead of us and I wasn’t going to wear out Zeke before we arrived in Virginia. I walked beside Zeke about as much as I rode him. I was a big man even then at six foot - one inch and two hundred pounds, and I had about fifty pounds packed behind Zeke’s saddle. It didn’t bother me to walk and it was only fair to Zeke, no matter how big and hard working he was.

It took me four days at that pace to reach Atlanta, the first big city I’d ever seen. I was the typical yokel, gawking at the sights. Atlanta was like a kicked over anthill because of the war. Soldiers were everywhere, bustling about as the Georgia Capital converted to a war footing. I politely turned down an invitation to join the 3rd Georgia Volunteer Regiment while I was passing through the city. With the bravado of the young and foolish I said, “I reckon General Lee has a bigger need for a man like me than the Georgia Light Infantry.”

From Atlanta I continued northeast traveling to Spartanburg, South Carolina before taking the coastal post road north through North Carolina and on up toward Richmond, Virginia. Zeke and I traveled alone because it was easier to forage for food and I was more welcomed at farms along the way. It was easier for folks to offer hospitality to a lone man than it was to feed a group. I was treated well at every farm at which I stopped. People looked kindly on the fact that I was off to join in the war. No one questioned my assertion that I just turned eighteen because of my size and the mature way in which I spoke. My mother’s efforts to make sure my brothers and I were gentlemen, regardless of our circumstances, paid off for me.

I did find a traveling companion just after I crossed the Virginia state line near Emporia, though; whether I wanted one, or not. I was walking beside Zeke just after crossing a small stream when I ran up on a man camped under a swamp maple tree cooking a rabbit over a small fire. I nodded hello and started to walk on by.

“Hold on a minute, boy. Come share lunch with me. Any man riding a mule is my kind of people,” he said, with a sweep of his arm.

I looked in the direction he was gesturing in and saw nine of the finest looking mules I’d ever seen. I walked Zeke over and ground tied him with the other mules then introduced myself to my host. I looked him over as we shook hands. He was a medium sized, grizzled fellow with long black hair tied behind his head by a piece of rawhide. He also had a thick bushy beard. His face above the beard was tanned ruddy by the sun and wind; his eyes were brown and crinkled at the corners. I guessed he was a few years older than my brother Jacob, early thirties, maybe.

“Pleased to meet you Jeb. My name’s Colbert, J.C. Colbert. My family was so poor they couldn’t afford to give me a real name, so I got initials instead. I am a muleteer and I hail from Texas. I’m heading to Richmond so I can show General Lee how to whomp some Yankees.”

And that’s how I met the self-proclaimed greatest muleskinner, lover, fighter, gambler and dancer who ever lived. Mr. Colbert was also never without a scheme. Over rabbit and spicy pinto beans, JC made me a part of his latest.

“Jeb, I’m glad a fellow mule man came along today because I need your help. See, I’m a sergeant in the Texas Militia with the duty of becoming a teamster for General Lee. I served with Lee in the 2nd Calvary on the Texas frontier and he’s the finest man that ever climbed on a horse. Anyway, the problem I have is I need a corporal to help me with the stock, plus with your mule we have the number for needing both a sergeant and a corporal. See, in Texas a sergeant tends six mules and a corporal tends four, while helping the sergeant. Jeb, I want you to be that corporal.”

Of course he was tipping the outhouse with me, but as young and impressionable as I was I immediately said ‘yes.’ I had not even reported to General Lee yet and I was already a corporal. I soon enough learned that ‘helping out the sergeant,’ meant I took care of all the mules, while he chased women and gambled.

JC smiled at my eager acceptance and went over to a pack that was sitting on the ground by one of his mules. Out of the pack he pulled a set of corporal stripes and handed them to me.

“By the power vested in me by the great state of Texas I frock you Muleteer Corporal Jeremiah Brock, 71st Teamster Company, Texas Militia,” he solemnly intoned.

It wasn’t until after the second battle of Bull Run that I found out JC had been shining me. Of course by then he’d done the same thing so successfully to the general staff of the Army of Northern Virginia that there actually was a Teamster Company and Captain Colbert was its commanding officer. Old JC parlayed a string of mules he claimed he bought (which I began very much to doubt) in Missouri, his service under Lee in Texas, and a hayseed Georgia plow boy into his own command. Not only that, he also wrangled it so that we were the company responsible for moving General Lee’s headquarters whenever it relocated. JC shared his good fortune by having me appointed the company lieutenant. I received the education of a lifetime at the knee of the biggest cow pie tosser in the country!

Meeting JC was the most fortuitous thing to happen to me during the war. Although we were not front line troops, JC and I were involved in some fierce battles as we were often thrown into the line because of the sadly depleted state of the Confederate Army. As in most things, JC was a good soldier when it was necessary or suited his purpose. His advice and experience fighting Indians saved my bacon more than once. In addition, JC took me under his wing as if he were my father or older brother.

We were in the lines at Fredericksburg and Bull Run where we were victorious as well as at Antietam and Gettysburg when the Army of Northern Virginia suffered horrific defeats. We watched as many of our comrades and friends were felled by Minié balls and even more died from disease. Through it all we did our jobs and waited for the war to end. We muleteers became a close-knit group during our travails together. It was heart warming to have such men for friends and heart wrenching to see so many of them succumb to shot, shell and sickness.

Despite everything, we had it much better than the normal troops of the line because of our position in support of the general staff, and because of JC’s foraging ability. In the world of JC Colbert, food and women were only slightly less important than oxygen. JC had no trouble finding either, usually at the same place. For instance, we had been in Richmond for only two days before he found us a place to stay with the wife and daughter of a naval officer who was at sea. The women were no raving beauties but Sergeant Colbert told me, “Jeb, my boy, all women are beautiful in some way, it up to you to find out what way that is.”

I was skeptical about his proclamation until the mother took me upstairs and made a man of me. When she was standing at the stove the next morning frying me some ham and eggs I reckoned that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. The night before, while Constance was showing me the Promised Land, JC was doing the same service for her eighteen-year-old daughter, Prudence. Anyone walking by the Spooner house that night must have though a group of Alpine yodelers were strangling cats in the upstairs bedrooms!

Richmond was the new capital of the Confederacy and the headquarters of the Confederate Army Staff. General Lee was not in the field at this point in the war. Instead, General Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee was the military advisor to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America. JC presented himself to the Adjutant of Lee’s staff, convinced the man of his bona fides, and lobbied for inclusion into the headquarters. Instead, General Lee, who always put the soldier’s in the field’s welfare first, had us shipped up to Manassas to join General Johnston. Lee himself came out to the alley behind the War Department building and gave JC his orders.

“I remember you from Texas, Sergeant Colbert,” General Lee said dryly. “So I know a man of your unique abilities would be wasted here in the Capital. It is better for all concerned that I send you forward where we can use your talents and avoid your vices. If I’m posted to the field, I will request you be assigned to my headquarters.”

I stayed as hidden behind the mules as I could, as I watched the exchange between JC and Marse Robert. So I saw the wink that the General shot JC, and the snappy salute he received from JC in return. I guess the most lasting memory of my first sight of Robert E. Lee, though, was his age and bearing. Lee appeared to be even older than my father, yet he carried himself with a dignity and purpose that immediately marked him as a man you had to respect. During the war I never saw General Lee do the slightest thing that changed my initial opinion of him. General Lee was also the only officer that JC never schemed against or tricked.

After a tearful farewell from the Spooner women, JC and I left Richmond a couple of days later pulling two new wagons loaded with supplies for General Johnston’s field headquarters. We had four mules harnessed to each wagon and a fifth mule tied to the back of the wagon bed. JC took charge of four other wagons along our route and still made the run to Manassas in record time. That feat made JC the darling of Colonel Bowden, the Commandant of the General Johnston’s Headquarters, a position JC quickly exploited.

Colonel Bowden and the rest of General Johnston’s inexperienced staff were putty in old JC’s double dealing hands. Within a week he was promoted to First Sergeant and put in charge of all the headquarters wagons, livestock and teamsters. When the rest of the nonexistent 71st Texas Militia Teamster Company failed to materialize after two months, Colonel Bowden reconstituted the headquarters transport as the Headquarters Transportation and Trains Company and JC was made its commanding officer. Captain Colbert had sixty mules, ten horses, twenty wagons, twelve oxen, twenty-five teamsters, forty roustabouts and one newly minted lieutenant (me). Although I looked eighteen and was well spoken, I didn’t want a commission and argued vehemently against it. However, JC said I was his right-hand man, so he made the promotion stick.

We were disappointed not being assigned to General Lee but JC said that the situation was temporary. “Retrograde Joe won’t last,” JC predicted. “He is too deliberate and that makes him appear timid. Old Jeff (President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis) wants aggressive generals punishing the Yankees every time they have the nerve to cross the border.” It took until June of 1862 for JC’s prediction to come true and it happened because Johnston was wounded during the Peninsula Campaign.

On August 29, 1862 during the Second battle of Bull Run, my brother Jacob was killed. Jacob and Joshua were both members of Company H, The Harris County Bartows, Benning’s 17th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Colonel Henry L. Benning was from Columbus, Georgia, the closest city to our farm in Harris County. Benning raised the Regiment from men in Harris, Muskogee, Chattahoochee and a few other surrounding counties. Benning’s Regiment was part of the right wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. In the Army of Northern Virginia’s order of battle, the 17th Georgia was part of Toombs’ Brigade that was in turn part of General Jones’ and later General Hood’s Division. The division was one of three in General Longstreet’s First Corps throughout the war.

General Lee and I shared our first words two days after Jacob was killed. I was often around the headquarters on business but I kept my distance from what I considered the real officers. General Lee came up to me as I was supervising the striking of the headquarters tents. He was astride Traveler, his warhorse, ready to move out when he spotted me. He reined Traveler in and rode over to where I was working. I called my men to attention and saluted him. General Lee returned my salute, leaned down in his saddle and put his hand on my shoulder.

“I’ll pray for your brother Lieutenant Brock. His loss saddens me, as does the death of any good soldier.”

I gulped and nodded; he squeezed my shoulder once and rode off. To this day I don’t know how he knew my name or how he knew Jacob was my brother. I do know that he insisted on reviewing the casualty list every day. I also know that he took every death personally and did pray for those that were killed and wounded.

Because of the difference in the ages of my brothers and me, they were more uncles to me than anything else. Despite that, Jacob’s death was a staggering blow and made the carnage of war much more personal. I mourned for Jacob and I fretted for his wife and children. I also worried about how my parents were handling the death of their beloved eldest son. I had written home as soon as I had a unit address to give my parents and my mother had written me back with information about my brothers. My mother’s worry for all of us was palpable in her letters. She was distraught that I had run away to enlist but soothed somewhat that I was not in a front line unit.

I will be forever thankful that I had a chance to visit with my brothers before Jacob was killed. As the three of us sat around in front of their tent, my brothers treated me as a man and their equal for the first time. They gave me a fit about being an officer but I could tell they were secretly proud of the fact. I asked them if I could lobby for them to be transferred into the teamster company but they both refused to consider it.

“This is our unit, Jeremiah. We belong here fighting beside our friends and neighbors,” Jacob said.

“Then I belong here too,’ I said.

My brothers vehemently asserted that I did not.

“Try it and we will tell everyone how old you actually are, Lieutenant. We ought to anyway, come to think of it,” Joshua threatened.

As I rode Zeke back to the headquarters encampment I felt closer to my brothers than ever before because for once we had something in common to share. It was a stain on the soul of humanity that what we had to share were the horrors of the most savage conflict ever fought. Just a week or so ago I heard Colonel Bowden postulate that more men had already died in this war than in all the ones before it back to the time of the Romans. My brothers were supremely competent and capable men, so my immaturity led me to believe that made them invincible. A well-placed ten-pound artillery shell soon disabused me of that childish notion.

Edited By TeNderLoin

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