In about a week, my son and I will head north and east to make a film about a touching relationship. It’s a music video for the song “Major Williams’ Mule,” which is drawn from a hobo stew of fact, imagination and a writer’s affection.
The focus of the film will be a man named Robert Williams and Jule, an Army mule.
Williams was a Confederate major in the Civil War. Some of the story’s details may be factually hazy, but its power and the magnetic quality of the time period are crystal clear.
It’s about a lasting bond between a man and an animal, both surviving wounds, both veterans of a terrible war.
The major has become a pleasant obsession for me, one that’s given me a song, relationships, geographical intimacy and much more.
Williams came from Swanwick, a small community west of Richmond. In some people’s minds it still exists; as far as maps go, it’s gone.
The major survived a Union ball to the hip, and legend has it that Jule, a faithful Union Army mule, was wounded by Confederate fire — in fact, more than once.
Both carried on until the war ended for them in Mississippi in April 1865.
The major returned home to a hilly part of Ray County, ran a successful coalmine and became wealthy, and was a respected member of the community.
His material successes and civic standing have little bearing on the song. How he returned to Swanwick and what happened later clearly do.
When the war ended, the story is that Williams was given Jule, a battery mule who’d carted Union munitions and cannon. After four years of furious bloodletting and bitter animosity, it may seem odd the Federals would suddenly bestow a gift on the enemy.
But people say that Williams had ridden with Gen. U.S. Grant before the war and was given transportation home as a courtesy by a former comrade.
Even today, it’s a long haul from Mississippi to Northwest Missouri. Imagine that experience on the back of a mule in 1865. It was a time when word of the ceasefire traveled slowly and loyalists on both sides could still be considered armed and dangerous.
There’s a small, overgrown family cemetery on the north side of a gravel road in what was once Swanwick. Major Williams is buried there, his resting place marked by a contemporary stone that replaced the original.
The graveyard is a stone’s throw from Leland Jones’ Country Pickin’ Opry, a Saturday night music venue that may well lie in the path of the major’s route home.
There are other graves in the Williams family cemetery, but none that interests me as much one that’s not marked at all and is lost to time.
According to the historical record and the major’s great-great-grandson, Ray County Commissioner Allen Dale, Williams kept Jule on his farm until the mule died at 37. Now it’s only family history — maybe factual, maybe not — and a song that note the major was so attached to his four-legged companion and so saddened by his passing that he had a casket made for a proper burial.
“When Jule’s life ended
after 37 years,
the major buried him
with much regret
in the same ground
where he’d later be laid down.
They were joined at the heart
And the hip.”
It’s not certain where Jule was buried — in the family cemetery or in a nearby pasture where Williams’ slaves were buried — but the major’s sentiment was clear.
He and Jule had been through hell together, and then a peaceful time, and after so many years of shared experience they were one, wherever they lay.