Information for this article was taken from The Great Blue Army Wagon by Thomas Lindmier.
During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Armies used nearly every means of wagon transportation at their disposal. One of the most commonly used wagons was the Conestoga wagon, designed for heavy loads of supplies. The development of the Army Escort Wagon was in response to the need to transport supplies and troops in a more organized fashion. (View authentic reproduction of the 1878 Army Escort Wagon.)
In 1838, the Seminole uprising in Florida created a need for wagon transportation specific to Army use. The Quartermaster Department quickly sought out manufacturing firms to produce wagons to suit the Army’s particular needs. A description of the style needed was provided to wagon builders. These specifications were for a four-mule (horse) wagon, but were so general that the wagons were not standardized. This made acquiring parts for repair challenging unless they cannibalized another wagon of like manufacturer to find replacement parts.
The Four-Mule Wagon could withstand the rigors of various military duties, but could not carry the heavy loads required in frontier service with only a four mule or horse team.
Constructed along the same lines as the Four-Mule Wagon, the Six-Mule Wagon was built using the same basic specifications with the exceptions of heavier wheels, larger axles and increased dimensions to the lower side rails on the body. Both wagons weighed about 2000 pounds and could carry approximately the same load. However, with the addition of more pairs of draft animals, the loads could now be more easily transported over long distances without wearing out the team as quickly. This was a marked improvement for frontier use.
The first actual contract for the Six-Mule Wagon was on February 9, 1855. By 1858, with all the reports received back on the design, the final Quartermaster specifications were printed. These specifications would remain unchanged until the American Civil War. Based upon knowledge gained during the Civil War, a new set of Six-Mule Wagon Specification were prepared in 1865.
Throughout the Civil War period, the Army Escort Wagon underwent many modifications, some authorized and others not. Some of the modifications that were implemented were improved brakes consisting of a device called a brake chain as well as removable chains across the top of the wagon body to support heavier loads.
At the end of the Civil War, nearly 6000 wagons were in storage at the Quartermaster depot in Washington, DC. Many of these were shipped to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to forward for use at various military posts throughout the western frontier. Service throughout the frontier was especially hard on these army wagons. By 1875, the supply of serviceable wagons was so low that the Secretary of War authorized the manufacture of 200 wagons to meet the needs. A board of officers convened to discuss and propose changes to the wagon design.
While many changes took place to the Six-Mule Wagon during its use, there were many constants. From the beginning, the wagon had a Venetian Red running gear with the body painted a “pure Prussian Blue on the exterior and Venetian Red on the interior. All ironwork was painted black. It wasn’t until after the turn of the century that the Army switched these wagon colors for a dark olive green.
In 1875, a board of officers were directed to investigate the adoption of lighter weight “two-horse and four-horse or mule wagons, for use in the Army.” For economic reasons, the Army adopted a new lighter weight wagon, which would be less expensive to build, take fewer animals to pull and require less harness. Fifty of these wagons were produced for testing and after field observations and reports, changes were made to the wagon design specifications and approved in November of 1878.
Photo from usmilitariaforum.com
Throughout the history of the US Army Wagon several major changes guided its development. Three of these changes are perhaps considered the most significant. The decision by the Quartermaster General for universal parts in the production of the wagons was the first major step. The second major transformation was the utilization of the iron axle in 1848 and the final profound change was the iron hub wheel.