TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 10 Feb 2020 06:51:26 -0600
text/plain (182 lines)
The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac


_Mark Twain's Civil War: "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed"_.
Edited by Benjamin Griffin. Heyday and The Bancroft Library, 2019. Pp. 177.
CAD $32.99. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN 9781597144780.

 Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.

Copyright (c) 2020 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

In the early months of 1861, the lives of most Americans abruptly changed.
The change imposed on Sam Clemens was as disruptive as any: The Civil War
closed down traffic on the Mississippi River, ending his career as a
steamboat pilot. He briefly joined a rag-tag company of the state guard in
his home state of Missouri, whose mission it was to protect Missouri from
an impending Union "invasion." But by July young Sam clicked "opt out" on
the American Civil War and headed west with his brother Orion, the freshly
appointed Secretary for the Nevada Territory. Mark Twain biographers have
explained Sam Clemens's attitudes toward the war and his motivations for
opting out in various ways, and virtually every biographer begins with an
examination of Twain's own account in "The Private History of a Campaign
That Failed." Of course, the problem with Twain's account is that it blends
historical facts with dramatic fictions, and omits key events along the
way. Most of the confusion about Twain's account has centered on the
question of whether he actually joined the Confederate Army and whether he
really killed a stranger. He did neither.

Mark Twain's Civil War years have been discussed in many books, among them
Joe Fulton's _The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate
Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature_ (2010), Jerome Loving's
_Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War_
(2013), and Steve Courtney and Peter Messent's _The Civil War Letters of
Joseph Hopkins Twichell_ (2006). Ben Griffin's book is not even the first
book with the title _Mark Twain's Civil War_; two books have been published
with this same title. The first was a 2007 compilation of Twain's Civil War
writings by David Rachel that curiously classified Twain's own account as
"nonfiction." The second, published in 2012, was a sometimes racy modern
novel by William R. Macnaughton, best-known for his _Mark Twain's Last
Years as a Writer_ (1979), that chronicled Sam Clemens's close brush with
the Civil War before he headed west with his views on race in flux. All but
the first of these books have been reviewed in the Mark Twain Forum.

Griffin's new book certainly does not classify Twain's account as
nonfiction, and the only racy moment perhaps occurs when Sam Clemens beats
a hasty retreat walking backwards from an angry woman wielding a hickory
stick in order to protect a painful boil on his behind from getting
thwacked. This incident, by the way, can be confidently classified in the
nonfiction column; Twain left it out when he published "The Private History
of a Campaign That Failed" at the behest of editor Robert Underwood Johnson
in _The Century Magazine_ in December 1885 as part of a series of memoirs
the magazine was then publishing, "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War."

That was only one of several significant omissions in Twain's account,
which brings us to the valuable service Griffin has performed in editing
Twain's narrative. He sorts out the facts and the fictions in Twain's
account, a problem common to much of Twain's biography, especially his
autobiographical writings. Griffin begins with a 76 page "Introduction"
that provides the background on how Twain came to write his heavily
fictionalized memoir, and documents its early reception. This is followed
with a comparison of Twain's account with various sources, including a
recently discovered lengthy letter Twain wrote from New Orleans on January
27, 1861, comments Twain made in a speech at Hartford in 1877, and a
response to Twain's account from Twain's fellow steamboat pilot and state
guardsman, Absalom Grimes (1834-1911), that appeared in a newspaper in 1886.

Griffin doesn't just edit and comment; his documentation is fastidious, and
he conveniently provides complete texts of his key sources. Here we have
Twain's text as it was first published in 1885 (79-110), explanatory notes
( 113-128), Twain's 1877 speech (129-133), Grimes's 1886 account (135-152),
a textual apparatus (153-157), and references (159-175). The paginations
are given here to emphasize the abundance of material presented, all of
which deserves close reading.

As often happened during Twain's lifetime, his writings and celebrity
attracted ridiculous testimonials and rumor-mongering from
attention-seekers and those with an ax to grind. This tribe of false
claimants is as large and varied as the aphorisms falsely attributed to
Twain. Sure enough, soon after Twain's account appeared in 1885, two such
men stepped forward with outlandish stories. The first was a western
newspaperman, John I. Ginn, who published a narrative in which he garbled a
few facts with a fanciful tale that was picked up by other papers (63-66).
The second was from a fellow who had known Clemens in Nevada, Thomas Fitch,
who in 1910 published what Griffin calls an "apocryphal tale" featuring a
resignation letter that has been relied upon by several Twain biographers
over the years, "not all of whom note its uncertain status," most recently,
Gary Scharnhorst (67-68). Griffin carefully separates the facts and
fictions in both of these responses to Twain's story.

Adding to the confusion created by the false accounts are Twain's own
comments on the Civil War that may seem contradictory to modern readers. At
times he praised those who fought for the south and engaged in "lost cause"
rhetoric, but he also praised Abraham Lincoln. He edited and published
Grant's memoirs, and his publishing company published the memoirs of
several other Union generals. Griffin unravels the complexity of Twain's
views, suggesting that "Clemens's attitude toward the war was less informed
by his brief military experience than by the long era that followed" (72).

The real fun begins when Griffin compares what Twain wrote about his
experiences with Absalom Grimes's 1886 response. Grimes's 1886 account
served as a first draft of the chapter about Twain that appeared in
Grimes's posthumously published autobiography, _Absalom Grimes, Confederate
Mail Runner_ (1926). The 1926 version was edited by Grimes and his daughter
during the last year of Grimes's life, and was later edited further by M.
M. Quaife for the book publication. Grimes prided himself on telling the
unvarnished truth and using the real names of the people he describes. More
importantly, his memoirs are based on a shorthand diary he kept during his
Civil War years, which accounts for the specificity of names, dates, and
other details in his account. Griffin judges the 1886 version more reliable
because it was written when Grimes's memories were fresher, and it is a
text that has not been "refined" by later editors.

In his response to Twain's story, Grimes supplies the actual names of some
of the young guardsmen whose names were disguised by Twain, and he reveals
events Twain left out of his narrative. He quotes a "speech" Clemens made
before his fellow guardsmen, perhaps the shortest of his speeches on record
(139). He describes Clemens's suffering with a boil before his encounter
with the angry woman with the hickory stick (144), as well as his further
suffering from a sprained ankle (149-150). Grimes could tell a humorous
story, and he describes how Clemens, riding on a mule named "Paint-Brush,"
fell behind during one of several "retreats" and was very nearly mistaken
for the enemy when he finally caught up with his fellow guardsmen (142).
Grimes also tells a hilarious story of some hay catching fire during the
night, resulting in Clemens scampering down a hillside on all fours with a
flaming pile of hay on his back (149). All of these stories appear in
Grimes's 1926 book, but not always as vividly told.

At times, the accounts of Twain and Grimes align. Grimes (138) confirms
Twain's description of the company of fellow guardsmen they encountered who
were armed to the teeth with enormous Bowie knives (107-108), and Grimes's
description of the sword presented to Clemens (140) accords with Twain's
own recollection (86). But their accounts also differ: Grimes's description
of a retreat (141-143) makes for an interesting comparison with Twain's
(92-98). Of course, the best-known difference is Twain's dramatic
confession that he killed an innocent stranger (104-105) and Grimes's
correction of Twain's tale with the pathetic story of another drunken
guardsman mistaking the sounds of his own horse for the approaching enemy,
and shooting it dead (143-144).

Griffin corrects other fictions that have flourished in connection with
"The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." Twain tells the amusing
story of a pretentious guardsman who changes the spelling of his name from
Dunlap to D'Un Lap. In truth, John L. Robard, that friend of Clemens who
changed the spelling of his name to RoBard, was never a member of the state
guard (117-118). Griffin notes that some have claimed that Clemens and
other former guardsmen were "liable to be shot on sight" injecting a dark
element of danger into Twain's tale, and cites Scharnhorst as the most
recent example; Griffin presents convincing evidence that this is simply
wrong (36-37). Other fictions are fact-checked: Twain's oft-repeated claim
that he and General Grant missed crossing paths by a few hours is
disproven; they missed crossing paths by at least ten days (37-38). Twain
calls his state guard company the Marion Rangers, when they were likely
called the Ralls County Rangers (24, 117). Twain falsely claims seeing
Grant at Cairo, Illinois (127), and he combines the characteristics of two
steamboat pilots into one character (113).

By the end of this book, Twain's creative weaving of facts with fictions
has been carefully unwoven, showing how Mark Twain the literary artist
could elevate an episode in the life of a young and disillusioned Sam
Clemens into an engaging tale, skillfully combining humor and pathos to
construct a convincing commentary on the futility of war, and perhaps
explaining his actions not only to others, but to himself. To be sure, Sam
Clemens was a rebel who joined and then deserted a militia that was later
absorbed into the Confederate Army, and although he did not kill a
stranger, he came close to getting killed himself by friendly fire (like a
certain horse). A war descended on him that brought an end to his
realization of his childhood dream of living out his days as a Mississippi
River steamboat pilot. He witnessed just enough of that war to know that he
wanted no part in it, and this led to a career path that has been
celebrated ever since. Griffin's book is not intended to settle all of the
questions surrounding Sam Clemens's Civil War years, but it lays a solid
fact-based foundation with which future studies of those years must reckon.