Part of the USA Today Network

A man with a white mule. CDV by T. L. River of St. Louis. From the collection of the Wilson's Creek Battlefield.

A Mule That Drank Whiskey?

Stories abound here in historic York County, Pennsylvania, of the interactions between the residents and the Rebel raiders during the June 1863 Gettysburg Campaign. Jim McClure and I have included more than 200 such anecdotes in our book, Civil War Stories from York County, Pa.

Here’s a, say we say, “unique” local story that I found after the book went to press.

This is from the March 11, 1891, edition of the York Gazette and is typical of the types of Civil War material that found their way into the media in the late 19th century:


A Mule That Drank Whiskey

Representative Shillito Recalls An Incident of War Days

“Representative [John Lawrence] Shillito, of this county, tells some good war stories up at Harrisburg now and then. Here is his latest.

“When General Lee invaded Pennsylvania, General Jubal Early penetrated York County with a large army. Mr. Shillito lived on his father’s farm, and when the Rebs passed through they took all the horses about the place and everything worth taking, leaving in lieu thereof a broken-down and exhausted mule. A day or two subsequent to this the battle of Gettysburg was begun, and Mr. Shillito had two sisters living near there, about whose safety he was concerned, he and several friends decided to proceed at once to the scene of the conflict. They had no means of conveyance but a one-horse wagon and the mule aforesaid; but they hitched up and started.

“They had not traveled far before the mule began to droop his head and look weary, but they plodded along to the next village. Here they stopped at a tavern to refresh the inner man, and, while engaged in this duty, it occurred to one of the party that a drink of whiskey would help the mule. A beer glass full of the stuff was accordingly poured down the mule’s throat, and, when the procession started again, the mule was thoroughly himself again.

“He trotted along as chipper as a spring colt for three or four miles. Then his knees began to shake again and Abe Thompson, who was the physician on this occasion, gave him another half-pint with a like reviving effect. This treatment was regularly thereafter every three miles and the mule was thus enabled to take them to Gettysburg in time to be of great service not only to Mr. Shillito’s sisters, but to others as well. The mule was pressed into service to haul dead bodies off the field, and, by receiving his regular rations of whiskey, kept his spirits up and his knee joints stiff.

“Mr. Shillito says he is not sure that whiskey is a good thing for man, but he knows it is excellent for a mule.”

So, there is the amusing story that our state representative told to his colleagues and a listening reporter in Harrisburg in 1891, perhaps over a pint or two at a local watering hole in the capital city.

What are the known facts?

Shillito filed a postwar border claim with the three-man, state-appointed commission that was taking sworn testimony from York Countians who lost items to the Confederates during the invasion. Shillito, a lieutenant in the 87th Pennsylvania, was from near Rossville in Warrington Township. He filed a claim for $135 for the loss of a 12-year-old gray mare taken from his stable. Jeb Stuart’s Confederates indeed left a “broken-down and exhausted” mule as they passed through the region on July 1, 1863. That same day, Shillito also lost five sheep that he kept in the barn of David Finefrock of Cumberland Township in Adams County. That barn, on the Emmanuel Harmon farm where Finefrock was a tenant, burned during the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, killing all the livestock inside it.

Shillito was a saddler, auctioneer, farmer, and president of the board of supervisors of Warrington Township. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1888 and 1890. He was appointed to the Pennsylvania State Road Commission in 1890. Two years later, he decided to retire to his farm and not run reelection to the House. Shillito died on January 14, 1911, in Warrington Township and is interred in the Warrington Friends Meeting House Cemetery.

To read many other incidents of the Confederate invasion, please pick up a copy of our latest book.