Mules being very scarce, the lessees exercised their skill in supplying themselves with those animals. On my first arrival at the plantation, I took care to hire those negroes who were riding from the interior, or, at all events, to purchase their animals. In one day I obtained two horses and four mules. An order had been issued for the confiscation of beasts of burden (or draught) brought inside the lines by negroes. We obtained permission to purchase of these runaway negroes whatever mules they would sell, provided we could make our negotiations before they reached the military lines.
Immediately after my departure, Mr. Colburn stationed one of our men on the road near our house, with orders to effect a trade with every mounted negro on his way to Natchez. The plan was successful. From two to a half-dozen mules were obtained daily. During the two weeks of my absence nearly fifty mules were purchased, placing the plantation in good order for active prosecution of our planting enterprise. At the same time many lessees in our vicinity were unable to commence operations, owing to their inability to obtain working stock.
The negroes discovered that the mule market was not well supplied, and some of the more enterprising and dishonest sons of Ham endeavored to profit by the situation. Frequently mules would be offered at a suspiciously low price, with the explanation that the owner was anxious to dispose of his property and return home. Some undertook nocturnal expeditions, ten or twenty miles into the interior, where they stole whatever mules they could find. A few of the lessees suffered by the loss of stock, which was sold an hour after it was stolen, and sometimes to the very party from whom it had been taken. We took every care to avoid buying stolen property, but were sometimes deceived.
On one occasion I purchased a mule of a negro who lived at Waterproof. The purchase was made an hour before sunset, and the animal was stolen during the night. On the following morning, Colburn bought it again of the same party with whom I had effected my trade. After this occurrence, we adopted the plan of branding each mule as soon as it came into our hands. All the lessees did the same thing, and partially protected each other against fraud.
White men were the worst mule-thieves, and generally instructed the negroes in their villainy. There were several men in Natchez who reduced mule-stealing to a science, and were as thoroughly skilled in it as Charley Bates or the Artful Dodger in the science of picking pockets. One of them had four or five white men and a dozen negroes employed in bringing stock to market. I think he retired to St. Louis, before the end of May, with ten or twelve thousand dollars as the result of three months’ industry.
Some of the lessees resorted to questionable methods for supplying their plantations with the means for plowing and planting. One of them occupied a plantation owned by a man who refused to allow his own stock to be used. He wished to be neutral until the war was ended.