If you are like me, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about mules these days, but a passage from Faulkner brought them to mind. Collectivism so far has not taken root in the South, but things are so rapidly changing with the “Woke Revolution” there is no telling the future. But whatever the future holds, the “woke” will have to contend with the ubiquitous individuality of the native Southerner, and one of the most individual of that breed is the mule. As William Faulkner wrote in Flags in the Dust:
Some Cincinnatus of the cotton fields should contemplate the lowly destiny, some Homer should sing the saga, of the mule and of his place in the South. He it was, more than any one creature or thing, who, steadfast to the land when all else faltered before the hopeless juggernaut of circumstances, impervious to conditions that broke men’s hearts because of his venomous and patient preoccupation with the immediate present, won the prone South from beneath the iron heel of Reconstruction and taught it pride again through humility and courage through adversity overcome; who accomplished the well-nigh impossible despite hopeless odds, by sheer and vindictive patience…
As a city boy growing up in Lynchburg right after the Second World War, I didn’t have much occasion to come into contact with mules. My father had come home and was a manufacturer’s representative for a farm machinery company, but he told me they still used mules in the tobacco fields, pulling the sleds down the rows where a tractor couldn’t go. Most of those broad tobacco fields that I remember seeing below Lynchburg when we were driving to South Carolina to visit my grandparents are gone now, and the mules with them, too, I suppose.
I remember one day in South Carolina seeing a car load of colored men in an old car, with one leaning out of the window leading a mule trotting alongside, with harness jangling, in a picture surely worth a thousand words.
My long-time “ol’ podner” Doug Wakefield (may God rest his soul) grew up in the little town of Iva, South Carolina. In an early manifestation of his innate patriotism – before serving two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Navy – he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol. He said on Sunday afternoons they would muster on the roof of Claude Finley’s mule barn to watch for Communist airplanes. Finley’s mule barn was the tallest structure in town, and CAP “intel” had evidently determined that a Communist strike on his establishment – the largest mule distributorship in the South - was likely most immanent on Sunday afternoons after church. I recently attended a funeral in Iva, but I saw no sign of any mule barns in the growing town or its environs.
Mules, horses, and oxen were the farm tractors before steam power replaced muscle power as the prime mover of civilization, and they carried history on their backs. In my front yard when I was growing up, there was a swale over which my tire swing hung. It was part of the remnant of General Jubal Early’s defenses of Lynchburg in 1864 when the Yankees came - the old road that connected Ft. McCausland on Langhorne Road with the redoubt held by the Lynchbug Home Guard – “The Silver Grays” – and the VMI Cadets up on Rivermont Avenue, where Villa Maria is now. My father rigged up my tire swing for me. He tied a chisel to the end of a heaving line, threw it high up over a limb on the big oak tree, bent the end of the heaving line to the main line for the swing, pulled that over the limb, tied a slip knot, pulled it taught against the limb, and secured the other end to the tire. Then he cut a drainage hole in the bottom of the tire and I was “good to go” (except for the wasps that you had to watch out for that would build a nest in the tire) getting a good running start and swinging out over that little depression in the front yard where ninety years before teamsters pulling wagons, and artillerymen pulling guns and caissons cracked whips and swore at hard-headed and recalcitrant mules:
… Father and mother he does not resemble, sons and daughters he will never have; vindictive and patient (it is a known fact that he will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once); solitary but without pride, self-sufficient but without vanity; his voice is his own derision. Outcast and pariah, he has neither friend, wife, mistress nor sweetheart; celibate, he is unscarred, possesses neither pillar nor desert cave, he is not assaulted by temptations nor flagellated by dreams nor assuaged by visions; faith, hope and charity are not his. Misanthropic, he labors six days without reward for one creature whom he hates, bound with chains to another whom he despises, and spends the seventh day kicking or being kicked by his fellows…
After The War, there were the “forty acres and a mule” that the carpetbaggers had promised the freedmen in exchange for their votes. It worked pretty good for the carpetbaggers, but not so good for the credulous freedmen. While they got top hats and cigars, the carpetbaggers got the votes and the forty acres. What they did with the mules is not recorded. They did not need mules to plow the ground for votes, or to harvest taxes, or to foreclose on the forty acres.
It front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – before Monument Avenue was desecrated and the Confederate monuments were vandalized and torn down – there stood a sculpture of a war horse. He was gaunt and starving, saddled with a McClellan, and with head drooping, worn to a frazzle. The new carpetbaggers and scalawags of the VMFA evidently felt that he looked too much like a Confederate horse, so to placate the tender sensibilities of the “woke” who abound these days, the War Horse was moved around back, lest he offend anyone, and the front of the museum is now graced with Kehende Wiley’s barbarian thug on horseback, “Rumors of War,” created by the artist to mock the “Jeb” Stuart monument (now torn down) - and unintentionally glorifying, sanctifying and enshrining the highest aspirations that those who adulate it are likely to attain.
There has been much talk about the replacements for the monuments on the Avenue that were torn down (the Lee monument has been thoroughly vandalized, but it is still standing, albeit under litigation.) A number of replacement heroes of a “woke” multicultural nature have been suggested, but none that remotely match Lee and Jackson for shaking the Lincoln Empire to its foundation while Jeb Stuart rode circles around it in defense of our independence. I don’t know how “woke” he is, but may I suggest a monument to the multi-cultural mule?
A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, the author graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1967 with a degree in Civil Engineering and a Regular Commission in the US Army. His service included qualification as an Airborne Ranger, and command of an Engineer company in Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star. After his return, he resigned his Commission and ended by making a career as a tugboat captain. During this time he was able to earn a Master of Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, with an international focus on war and cultural revolution. He is a member of the Jamestowne Society, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Society of Independent Southern Historians. He currently lives in Richmond, where he writes, studies history, literature and cultural revolution, and occasionally commutes to Norfolk to serve as a tugboat pilot