Friday, October 4, 2013

The Missouri Mule

As Stubborn as a Missouri Mule

According to, a “mule” is defined as “the sterile offspring of a female horse (mare) and a male donkey (jack)”; the cross between a male horse (stallion) and a female donkey (jenny) is called a “hinny”.  The mule has long been valued as a hard-working animal, having strong muscles, a body shaped like a horse, and long donkey-like ears.  While mules are commonly associated with stubbornness, they typically only display this trait in times of confusion or anxiety; ordinarily mules exhibit a calm and obedient disposition.  Male mules (horse mules or johns) and female mules (mare mule or molly) inherit the best traits from both their sire and dam.  For example, mules get their athletic ability from the horse, whereas strength and intelligence come from the donkey.  Because of this exceptional inheritance, mules became the perfect animal to serve in several helpful capacities during military combat.

Photograph of soldiers working with a mule at Camp Clark, Nevada, Missouri.  1984.72.75

Lathrop, Missouri:  The Former Mule Capital of the World

Photograph of soldier attempting to ride a mule.
Although the Union and Confederacy heavily utilized mules during the American Civil War, the industry was greatly diminished and took the majority of the reconstruction era to be reorganized.  The firm of Guyton and Harrington played a large role in reorganizing the Missouri mule industry.  Well before World War I, Guyton and Harrington, located in Lathrop, Missouri, began selling equine to the British during the Boer War (1898-1901).  They provided approximately 55,000 mules to the British.  Because of the quality animals provided by Guyton and Harrington in the 1890’s, the British requested another staggering number of Missouri mules during World War I.  James A. Burkhart and Eugene F. Schmidtlein state in their book Mules, Jackasses and Other Misconceptions, “The British prized the mule’s military capability so much that they bought over 300,000 mules and horses from the Guyton and Harrington Company in Lathrop, Missouri.  The English soldiers praised their mules--‘those bloody creatures so hard-hearted under fire.’”

Healthy as a...Mule

In shipping animals by rail and by ocean transports, the British soon learned that mules were hardier than horses.  In his memoir, Horses, Mules and Remounts, veterinarian John J. Riordan discusses the questionable conditions endured by animals during transport.  “Some of the animals were running temperatures of 106 [degrees] or more, and incredibly were placed in open corrals subject to inclement weather and rain, which of course resulted in many of the animals developing pneumonia.”  In Shavetails & Bell Sharps, Emmett M. Essin discusses how the catarrhal or lobular strain of pneumonia, frequently referred to as “shipping fever”, was often accompanied by pleurisy and proved particularly damaging to horses.  He states, “[The strain] was especially fatal to horses whose death rate was thirty to one compared to that of mules.”

While mules were generally healthier than horses, mules entered combat with at least one major fault, its unique bray.  Mules had the propensity to bray at inopportune times, revealing the location or movement of his troops to the enemy.  During World War I, some say veterinarians performed corrective surgery on the mule’s tail to prevent the uncontrollable braying.

Photograph of soldiers "putting a gas mask on a mule".  1981.16.65
American Army Mules

When the United States joined World War I in 1917, plenty of mules had been reserved for the American war effort.  According to Essin, “At the time of America’s entry into the war, the army possessed 27,624 draft and pack mules.  Within six months, it had purchased and trained 7,444 more for duty in the AEF.  By September 1917, 35,068 trained mules were awaiting shipment, yet a total of only 29,910 mules were shipped to France throughout the remainder of the war.”

The first American Army mules arrived in France in July 1917, in the same convoy with the troops of the same outfit.  However, because of the high demand of American material aid by the French, the practice of sending animals with their soldiers prematurely halted.  Alternatively, the French offered to supply animals for the American Expeditionary Force in order to free space for the requested aid.  When it became apparent the French would not be able to supply the necessary number of animals, American quartermasters sought and acquired mules from across Europe.

While quartermasters were not enamored with the foreign mules because of the notable differences in size and strength, they purchased more than 9,000 French mules, 6,000 American mules from Britain, and nearly 13,000 Spanish mules.  In Shavetails & Bell Sharps, Essin quotes QMG Henry G. Sharpe in saying, “there was no comparison between the small, poorly nourished mule secured in Spain and those purchased in Southern France and the powerful upstanding, mealy-nosed product of the Middle West.”  While the smaller mules were not as desirable as their bulkier counterparts, they were more than capable of hauling machine-gun carts, relieving the sturdier animals for heavier work in artillery and ammunition trains.

By April 1918, the American Army had resumed shipping Missouri mules from the United States.  According to Burkhart and Schmidtlein, another prominent Missourian owed a small part of his success as a military officer to the mule.  “Harry S. Truman achieved his officer status as an artillery officer partially because of his farm-learned skills in handling mules and horses.  In addition, Truman had learned the effective art of cursing from his mule handling background.”

Mechanization vs. Mules

Photograph of a four mule team pulling a load of supplies.
The army used mules and trucks in similar capacities during World War I.  Trucks, preferred only when mules were not available, needed excessive maintenance from the rough terrain, often became stuck in muddy conditions, and required large amounts of fuel for power.  Because of these characteristics, soldiers still relied heavily on mules to move ammunition and meals.   Despite mules proving their advantage over motorized vehicles, the power and speed of trucks replaced animal-power during later wars.  In Shavetails and Bell Sharps, Essin states that “by 1938 horses and mules had been replaced by motor transportation in most military units, including infantry.  By 1940 the army maintained only two horse cavalry divisions, two animal-drawn artillery regiments, and two mixed animal and motor transport regiments, with an authorized animal strength of 20,300, that is, 16,800 horses, and 3,500 mules.”  By the time the United States became involved in Vietnam, the mule had retired from American military service.


1980.47.  National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

Burkhart, James A. and Euegene F. Schmidtlein.  Mules, Jackasses and Other Misconceptions.  Columbia, MO:  Stephens College, 1995.

Essin, Emmett M.  Shavetails and Bell Sharps: the History of the U.S. Army Mule.  Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Guyton and Harrington Mule Company Collection.  2007.205.  National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

Riordan, John J. and John F. Riordan.  Horses, Mules, and Remounts: the Memoirs of a World War I Veterinary Officer. Glendale, CA:  J. F. Riordan, 1983.

Signal Corps.  Catalogue of Official AEF Photographs.  1981.16.  National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

Smith, Richard T. Collection.  1984.72.  National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.