Mark Twain’s Civil War

 

Mark-Twain-Samuel-Clemens-at-the-time-of-the-Civil-War

 

 

Mark Twain, like many young men North and South, decided that the Civil War was not to his taste, and went West.  In 1887 he addressed a reunion of Maryland Union troops and gave a short, humorous, and dark, look at his war:

“When your secretary invited me to this reunion of the Union veterans of Maryland he requested me to come prepared to clear up a matter which he said had long been a subject of dispute and bad blood in war circles in this country – to wit, the true dimensions of my military services in the Civil War, and the effect they had upon the general result.  I recognise the importance of this thing to history, and I have come prepared.  Here are the details.

I was in the Civil War two weeks.  In that brief time I rose from private to second lieutenant.  The monumental feature of my campaign was the one battle which my command fought – it was in the summer of ’61.  If I do say it, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought in human history; there is nothing approaching it for destruction of human life in the field, if you take into consideration the forces engaged and the proportion of death to survival.  And yet you do not even know the name of that battle.  Neither do I.  It had a name, but I have forgotten it.  It is no use to keep private information which you can’t show off.  In our battle there were just 15 men engaged on our side – all brigadier-generals but me, and I was a second-lieutenant.  On the other side there was one man.  He was a stranger.  We killed him.  It was night, and we thought it was an army of observation; he looked like an army of observation – in fact, he looked bigger than an army of observation would in the day time; and some of us believed he was trying to surround us, and some thought he was going to turn our position, and so we shot him.

Poor fellow, he probably wasn’t an army of observation after all, but that wasn’t our fault; as I say, he had all the look of it in the dim light.  It was a sorrowful circumstance, but he took the chances of war, and he drew the wrong card; he over-estimated his fighting strength, and he suffered the likely result; but he fell as the brave should fall – with his face to the front and feet to the field – so we buried him with the honours of war, and took his things.

So began and ended the only battle in the history of the world where the opposing force was utterly exterminated, swept from the face of the earth – to the last man.  And yet you don’t know the name of that battle; you don’t even know the name of that man.

Now, then, for the argument.  Suppose I had continued in the war, and gone on as I began, and exterminated the opposing forces every time – every two weeks – where would your war have been?  Why, you see yourself, the conflict would have been too one-sided.  There was but one honourable course for me to pursue, and I pursued it.  I withdrew to private life, and gave the Union cause a chance.  There, now, you have the whole thing in a nutshell; it was not my presence in the Civil War that determined that tremendous contest – it was my retirement from it that brought the  crash.  It left the Confederate side too weak.”

Twain could see the good and bad in both sides, and after the War became a friend of General Grant.  The older he got the more cynical he got, and his final biting verdict on the enthusiasm for war that he saw as a young man at the start of the Civil War is his 1907 War Prayer:

Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

Twain had the good sense not to publish this during his life, and like most of what he wrote it is perhaps more glib than wise.

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Published in: on May 17, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Mark Twain’s Civil War  
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