The White Mule of Popocatapetl


I learned a lot reading Bruce Catton’s book Grant Takes Command, and it was enjoyable reading, given the grim subject matter.

The book, the third in a series begun by Lloyd Lewis, begins right after Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, and gives a great description of his subsequent victory at Chatanooga.

After that Lincoln made him commander of the Union Armies, and he set about the long, slow process of defeating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

After taking Petersburg and Richmond, Grant made good his victory with a rapid pursuit that cut Lee off from his supply lines and forced him to surrender at Appomattox.

There is a curious reference, in Catton and elsewhere, in which Grant is talking to General Rufus Ingalls, who served with him in the Mexican War, when they returned to camp after the surrender.

“Ingalls, do you remember the white mule that so and so used to ride in the City of Mexico?” And Grant went on to talk about the animal’s antics on an excursion to Popocatapetl, Mexico’s highest volcano. But there is no explanation of what called the mule to mind.

I was curious to know why the General-in-Chief of the Union Armies, after one of the most important military victories in American history, would be thinking of a white mule on a Mexican volcano.

I looked into it a bit further and found the full story in Grant’s Memoirs.

Turns out Grant’s party, which included many officers who later fought on both sides of the US Civil War, was traveling on a narrow cliffside road with a “yawning precipice on one side, hundreds of feet down to a roaring mountain torrent below.”

“One of our mules, loaded with two sacks of barley, one on each side, the two about as big as he was, struck his load against the mountain-side and was precipitated to the bottom.”

“The descent was steep, but not perpendicular. The mule rolled over and over until the bottom was reached and we supposed, of course, that the animal was dashed to pieces.”

“What was our surprise, not long after we had gone into bivouac, to see the lost mule, cargo, and owner coming up the ascent.”

“The load had protected the animal from serious injury, and the owner had gone after him and found a way back to the path leading up to the hut where we were to stay.”

I think Grant was thinking of his long and checkered military career, and how he had finally made it up the mountain, like the white mule of Popocatapetl.