He was rebellious, had attitude, and invented the iconic American sense of humor. He had a knack for addressing issues of his day with a simple eloquence that can be translated to fit our modern times. He made his claim to fame in 1865 and the world has known his name ever since. He wasn’t just an American, he was the American. His name was Mark Twain.
We remember him today as the riverboat captain-turned-humorist that authored the classic American novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but few know that before his fame he served as a Confederate soldier for a whopping two weeks during the American Civil War in 1861. But the war wasn’t just black and white, right and wrong, or Union versus Confederacy for Twain. His loyalties were split in twain, just like his identity in future years.
When the Civil War broke out, Mark Twain was in his mid-twenties and known by his Christian name, Samuel Clemens. He returned to his boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri after his steamboat was fired upon by Union soldiers to stop Confederate trade on the Mississippi River. Along with a group of his friends “in a secret place by night” (very Huck Finn-ish, no?), they formed a pro-South military company and called themselves the Marion Rangers after the county of Missouri they called home.
Though Twain became a rebel, he claimed to remain “strong for the Union” and opposed Southern secession. He grew up in a contradictory world that challenged his beliefs and outlook on life, and would eventually shape him into the infamous icon in future years. His father owned a slave, yet he believed “slavery was a great wrong.” Young Twain spent the summers of his childhood on his Uncle John Quarles’s 230-acre farm that was the residence of several slaves. He played with slave children similar in age, enjoyed the cooking of Aunt Hannah, and absorbed the spirituals and folklore of “Uncle Dan’l.” This early exposure allowed Twain to gain a deep respect and fondness for African Americans and their culture that lead to his ruthless criticism of racism in the United States in later years. Though he would never quite escape the “casual racism of his upbringing”, like the black minstrel shows that he enjoyed in his youth, adult Twain would always recall the real and brutal horrors of slavery.
Perhaps these memories were going through Twain’s head when he joined his friends’ Confederate squadron of volunteers. Why did he choose to be a Confederate? Because of his loyalty to his friends and his home? He didn’t really explain his motives, but, in 1885, Twain recalled his brief service in the Confederate army in his story “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.” This story beautifully captures the prideful ignorance of young men blindly rushing into war. The tale is humorous and allows for chuckles to be had as Twain describes his rag-tag crew of buddies who have no idea what they are doing or what they are getting themselves into, but who have the times of their lives along the way – at least in the beginning.
From the moment the Marion Rangers were conceived, they found themselves in misadventures left and right. When assigned his rank, Twain was given the command of second lieutenant although there was never even a first lieutenant. One soldier was unhappy with his name, Dunlap, and insisted it be spelled and pronounced as d’Un Lap. His wish was granted – eventually. On one of the Rangers’ very first expeditions, they neared a farmhouse allegedly occupied by five Union guards. One foolish member wanted to antagonize the Federals while the others decided to “flank the farmhouse – go out around.” They did just that and were ecstatic with themselves for it was their “first military movement, and it was a success.”
Through their cheerful and miserable mishaps, the Rangers were full of “idle nonsense and laughter.” From long, tiring marches to ridiculous quarrels between a corporal and sergeant who did not know who had a higher rank, the young men saw war as a “holiday frolic” like so many other young and inexperienced men on both sides of the war. North and South alike, these green troops were, in the words of Twain, “young, ignorant, good-natured, well-meaning, trivial, full of romance, and given to reading chivalric novels and singing forlorn love-ditties.” War was a way for boys who had never before left their hometowns to see a change of scenery and to meet new people. None of them were ready for “actual war” – that would be “realized with a cold suddenness.”
Apart from the guard post, the Rangers still hadn’t seen any action. Twain put it very bluntly, “I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating.” With only a few days of service under their belts, the young men suddenly found that soldier life wasn’t so fun anymore. Whenever rumors of the enemy’s advance reached Twain and his friends, they used simple logic: “all we had to do was not to retreat toward him [the Union]; any other direction would answer our needs perfectly.” But these rumors kept on circulating to the point when the Rangers decided to stay put and not retreat one particular time. Under the exterior of their adolescent pride, an uneasiness settled within all of them. If they did not retreat, who knew what could possibly happen?
Suddenly, the sound of hoof-beats became audible and a shadowy figure on horseback could be made out in the distance. The Rangers were frightened. How many were following behind? What were they to do? They’ve never actually been in a battle, let alone seen battle! Twain recounted, “I got hold of a gun in the dark… hardly knowing what I was doing, I was so dazed with fright. Somebody said, ‘Fire!’ I pulled the trigger.” The initial adrenaline rush raced through Twain’s veins while he congratulated himself on his first kill like a sportsman. The Marion Rangers waited for more of the enemy to arrive.
No more came.
An eerie silence overcame the inept band of brothers and they decided to approach their first casualty of war. Twain rehashed what he saw:
His mouth was open and his chest heaving with long gasps, and his white shirt-front was all splashed with blood. The thought shot through me that I was a murderer; that I had killed a man — a man who had never done me any harm. That was the coldest sensation that ever went through my marrow.
War was real now. It wasn’t an adventure filled with honor and glory. It was scared boys wielding guns while pretending to be men. Twain was not the only murderer; five other Rangers also shot at this man who turned out to be a random stranger. No enemy at all, just a stranger in the night. Shortly after, Twain deserted with a number of other men disappointed by the realities of war. Maybe even disappointed in themselves, too.
Even though he spent an incredibly brief time in war and saw no major action, Mark Twain has one of the most insightful pieces of American Civil War literature. He artfully intertwines the humor of everyday while still conveying the seriousness of what was happening around his cast of characters. Twain had a rare gift of intuitive observation that translates easily onto the physical page. One such observation is one of the truest of anything that has ever been uttered about the Civil War, or any war for that matter: “All war must be just that — the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it.”
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Blount Jr., Roy. “Big River, Small Town.” Time Inc. Specials, 2015.
Blount Jr., Roy. “A Fresh Start in the West.” Time Inc. Specials, 2015.
Carter, Stephen L. “Beyond Black and White.” Time Inc. Specials, 2015.
Twain, Mark. “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.” In Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain, 206-223. Edited by Walter Blair. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.