“And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth – an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.” – Mark Twain, 1879 Reunion of the Army of the Tennessee
With those words, Mark Twain concluded his toast entitled “The Babies.” Silence descended on the Chicago ballroom where the reunited Union soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee held their collective breath as they looked for the reaction of the “illustrious guest” of honor – General Ulysses S. Grant. Both then and now, the former Union general and President of the United States was seen as a man with carefully controlled emotions.
At the time of Twain’s speech, Grant was a national figure who was particularly revered among the men of his former command collected in Chicago for this reunion. Today, as time has gone on and the Reconstruction myths surrounding Grant have taken hold, the American public has come to view General Grant as a failure of a president, an alcoholic general, and a man who brought destruction to the South.
No one, it seems, knows Grant the way Twain did. The friendship between the iconic American writer and the decisive Union general is perhaps a frequently overlooked footnote in both their histories. These two frontier boys could not have followed more different paths, and yet they continue to fascinate Americans with their triumphs and their failures. The friendship between these two great, complex individuals began after the Civil War and Grant’s presidency. It was after Twain had served as a Confederate soldier for three weeks before deserting, and after his writing had won him national acclaim; after Grant had won the war and after his presidency was plagued by scandal, that these men found in each other a kindred spirit. Though personal woes and a changing America worried both, they nonetheless continued to exude a wonderful sense of humor.
The first meeting of Mark Twain and Ulysses Grant occurred during Grant’s presidency when Twain was introduced at the White House. After the initial handshake, an awkward silence reigned. In true Mark Twain style, the writer remarked, “Mr. President, I am embarrassed. Are you?” Unfortunately for Twain, who deeply admired General Grant, the president did not respond, leaving poor Twain feeling even more awkward than he had before. The Grant of this encounter seems much more like the enigmatic figure that history remembers.
However, the one who spoke to Twain at their next official meeting would be the one history often forgets. Almost a decade after Twain’s White House embarrassment, the two men found themselves thrown together once more. At which point, the now celebrated author Mark Twain was too nervous to say much of anything. General Grant, however, broke the silence with the quiet quip, “I’m not embarrassed. Are you?”
Returning to the Chicago ballroom of assembled Union veterans, we wait with bated breath, wondering just how the solemn and controlled former general will react to being likened to a baby with his toe in his mouth. At last, the tense silence is broken. General Ulysses S. Grant laughs.
For further reading:
Perry, Mark. Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America. New York: Random House, 2003.
Twain, Mark. “The Babies.” 1879. In Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain, edited by Walter Blair, 167-169. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.
Twain, Mark, and William Dean Howells. Selected Mark Twain-Howells Letters: 1872-1910, edited by Frederick Anderson, William M. Gibson, and Henry Nash Smith. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.
Both portraits are from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.