Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXX

The Soldier

Clemens spent a few days in St. Louis (in retirement, for there was a pressing war demand for Mississippi pilots), then went up to Hannibal to visit old friends. They were glad enough to see him, and invited him to join a company of gay military enthusiasts who were organizing to “help Gov. ‘Claib’ Jackson repel the invader.” A good many companies were forming in and about Hannibal, and sometimes purposes were conflicting and badly mixed. Some of the volunteers did not know for a time which invader they intended to drive from Missouri soil, and more than one company in the beginning was made up of young fellows whose chief ambition was to have a lark regardless as to which cause they might eventually espouse.20

20 [The military organizations of Hannibal and Palmyra, in 1861, were as follows: The Marion Artillery; the Silver Grays; Palmyra Guards; the W. E. Dennis company, and one or two others. Most of them were small private affairs, usually composed of about half-and-half Union and Confederate men, who knew almost nothing of the questions or conditions, and disbanded in a brief time, to attach themselves to the regular service according as they developed convictions. The general idea of these companies was a little camping-out expedition and a good time. One such company one morning received unexpected reinforcements. They saw the approach of the recruits, and, remarking how well drilled the new arrivals seemed to be, mistook them for the enemy and fled.]

Samuel Clemens had by this time decided, like Lee, that he would go with his State and lead battalions to victory. The “battalion” in this instance consisted of a little squad of young fellows of his own age, mostly pilots and schoolmates, including Sam Bowen, Ed Stevens, and Ab Grimes, about a dozen, all told. They organized secretly, for the Union militia was likely to come over from Illinois any time and look up any suspicious armies that made an open demonstration. An army might lose enthusiasm and prestige if it spent a night or two in the calaboose.

So they met in a secret place above Bear Creek Hill, just as Tom Sawyer’s red-handed bandits had gathered so long before (a good many of them were of the same lawless lot), and they planned how they would sell their lives on the field of glory, just as Tom Sawyer’s band might have done if it had thought about playing “War,” instead of “Indian” and “Pirate” and “Bandit” with fierce raids on peach orchards and melon patches. Then, on the evening before marching away, they stealthily called on their sweethearts — those who had them did, and the others pretended sweethearts for the occasion — and when it was dark and mysterious they said good-by and suggested that maybe those girls would never see them again. And as always happens in such a case, some of them were in earnest, and two or three of the little group that slipped away that night never did come back, and somewhere sleep in unmarked graves.

The “two Sams”— Sam Bowen and Sam Clemens — called on Patty Gore and Julia Willis for their good-by visit, and, when they left, invited the girls to “walk through the pickets” with them, which they did as far as Bear Creek Hill. The girls didn’t notice any pickets, because the pickets were away calling on girls, too, and probably wouldn’t be back to begin picketing for some time. So the girls stood there and watched the soldiers march up Bear Creek Hill and disappear among the trees.

The army had a good enough time that night, marching through the brush and vines toward New London, though this sort of thing grew rather monotonous by morning. When they took a look at themselves by daylight, with their nondescript dress and accoutrements, there was some thing about it all which appealed to one’s sense of humor rather than to his patriotism. Colonel Ralls, of Ralls County, however, received them cordially and made life happier for them with a good breakfast and some encouraging words. He was authorized to administer the oath of office, he said, and he proceeded to do it, and made them a speech besides; also he sent out notice to some of the neighbors — to Col. Bill Splawn, Farmer Nuck Matson, and others — that the community had an army on its hands and perhaps ought to do something for it. This brought in a number of contributions, provisions, paraphernalia, and certain superfluous horses and mules, which converted the battalion into a cavalry, and made it possible for it to move on to the front without further delay. Samuel Clemens, mounted on a small yellow mule whose tail had been trimmed down to a tassel at the end in a style that suggested his name, Paint Brush, upholstered and supplemented with an extra pair of cowskin boots, a pair of gray blankets, a home-made quilt, frying-pan, a carpet sack, a small valise, an overcoat, an old-fashioned Kentucky rifle, twenty yards of rope, and an umbrella, was a representative unit of the brigade. The proper thing for an army loaded like that was to go into camp, and they did it. They went over on Salt River, near Florida, and camped not far from a farm-house with a big log stable; the latter they used as headquarters. Somebody suggested that when they went into battle they ought to have short hair, so that in a hand-to-hand conflict the enemy could not get hold of it. Tom Lyon found a pair of sheep-shears in the stable and acted as barber. They were not very sharp shears, but the army stood the torture for glory in the field, and a group of little darkies collected from the farm-house to enjoy the performance. The army then elected its officers. William Ely was chosen captain, with Asa Glasscock as first lieutenant. Samuel Clemens was then voted second lieutenant, and there were sergeants and orderlies. There were only three privates when the election was over, and these could not be distinguished by their deportment. There was scarcely any discipline in this army.

Then it set in to rain. It rained by day and it rained by night. Salt River rose until it was bank full and overflowed the bottoms. Twice there was a false night alarm of the enemy approaching, and the battalion went slopping through the mud and brush into the dark, picking out the best way to retreat, plodding miserably back to camp when the alarm was over. Once they fired a volley at a row of mullen stalks, waving on the brow of a hill, and once a picket shot at his own horse that had got loose and had wandered toward him in the dusk.

The rank and file did not care for picket duty. Sam Bowen — ordered by Lieutenant Clemens to go on guard one afternoon — denounced his superior and had to be threatened with court-martial and death. Sam went finally, but he sat in a hot open place and swore at the battalion and the war in general, and finally went to sleep in the broiling sun. These things began to tell on patriotism. Presently Lieutenant Clemens developed a boil, and was obliged to make himself comfortable with some hay in a horse-trough, where he lay most of the day, violently denouncing the war and the fools that invented it. Then word came that “General” Tom Harris, who was in command of the district, was stopping at a farmhouse two miles away, living on the fat of the land.

That settled it. Most of them knew Tom Harris, and they regarded his neglect of them as perfidy. They broke camp without further ceremony.

Lieutenant Clemens needed assistance to mount Paint Brush, and the little mule refused to cross the river; so Ab Grimes took the coil of rope, hitched one end of it to his own saddle and the other end to Paint Brush’s neck. Grimes was mounted on a big horse, and when he started it was necessary for Paint Brush to follow. Arriving at the farther bank, Grimes looked around, and was horrified to see that the end of the rope led down in the water with no horse and rider in view. He spurred up the bank, and the hat of Lieutenant Clemens and the ears of Paint Brush appeared.

“Ah,” said Clemens, as he mopped his face, “do you know that little devil waded all the way across?”

A little beyond the river they met General Harris, who ordered them back to camp. They admonished him to “go there himself.” They said they had been in that camp and knew all about it. They were going now where there was food — real food and plenty of it. Then he begged them, but it was no use. By and by they stopped at a farm-house for supplies. A tall, bony woman came to the door:

“You’re secesh, ain’t you?”

They acknowledged that they were defenders of the cause and that they wanted to buy provisions. The request seemed to inflame her.

“Provisions!” she screamed. “Provisions for secesh, and my husband a colonel in the Union Army. You get out of here!”

She reached for a hickory hoop-pole that stood by the door, and the army moved on. When they arrived at Col. Bill Splawn’s that night Colonel Splawn and his family had gone to bed, and it seemed unwise to disturb them. The hungry army camped in the barnyard and crept into the hay-loft to sleep. Presently somebody yelled “Fire!” One of the boys had been smoking and started the hay. Lieutenant Clemens suddenly wakened, made a quick rolling movement from the blaze, and rolled out of a big hay-window into the barnyard below. The rest of the army, startled into action, seized the burning hay and pitched it out of the same window. The lieutenant had sprained his ankle when he struck the ground, and his boil was far from well, but when the burning hay descended he forgot his disabilities. Literally and figuratively this was the final straw. With a voice and vigor suited to the urgencies of the case, he made a spring from under the burning stuff, flung off the remnants, and with them his last vestige of interest in the war. The others, now that the fire was, out, seemed to think the incident boisterously amusing. Whereupon the lieutenant rose up and told them, collectively and individually, what he thought of them; also he spoke of the war and the Confederacy, and of the human race at large. They helped him in, then, for his ankle was swelling badly. Next morning, when Colonel Splawn had given them a good breakfast, the army set out for New London.

But Lieutenant Clemens never got any farther than Nuck Matson’s farm-house. His ankle was so painful by that time that Mrs. Matson had him put to bed, where he stayed for several weeks, recovering from the injury and stress of war. A little negro boy was kept on watch for Union detachments — they were passing pretty frequently now — and when one came in sight the lieutenant was secluded until the danger passed. When he was able to travel, he had had enough of war and the Confederacy. He decided to visit Orion in Keokuk. Orion was a Union abolitionist and might lead him to mend his doctrines.

As for the rest of the army, it was no longer a unit in the field. Its members had drifted this way and that, some to return to their occupations, some to continue in the trade of war. Sam Bowen is said to have been caught by the Federal troops and put to sawing wood in the stockade at Hannibal. Ab (A. C.) Grimes became a noted Confederate spy and is still among those who have lived to furnish the details here set down. Properly officered and disciplined, that detachment would have made as brave soldiers as any. Military effectiveness is a matter of leaders and tactics.

Mark Twain’s own Private History of a ‘Campaign that Failed’ is, of course, built on this episode. He gives us a delicious account, even if it does not strikingly resemble the occurrence. The story might have been still better if he had not introduced the shooting of the soldier in the dark. The incident was invented, of course, to present the real horror of war, but it seems incongruous in this burlesque campaign, and, to some extent at least, it missed fire in its intention.21

21 [In a book recently published, Mark Twain’s “nephew” is quoted as authority for the statement that Mark Twain was detailed for river duty, captured, and paroled, captured again, and confined in a tobacco-warehouse in St. Louis, etc. Mark Twain had but one nephew: Samuel E. Moffett, whose Biographical Sketch (vol. xxii, Mark Twain’s Works) contains no such statement; and nothing of the sort occurred.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00