Under Fire: Mark Twain’s Experiences in the Confederate Militia

Prior to becoming a beloved writer, Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens briefly served in a militia during the Civil War.

As I explored in a previous blog, Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens lived a complex life. One of the lesser-known facets of his life is his limited service during the American Civil War. Though it may not be a purely non-fiction retelling of his service, Twain recorded his first “combat” experience in the militia in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” I found this short story a very compelling and interesting, if not also unusual, tale of the Civil War. It isn’t written as a traditional story of the war, but instead occupies a unique niche. Rather than a tale of tactics or great generals such as Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels or an individual’s tale such as Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, “The Campaign that Failed” instead feels a great deal as if one is reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The story reads more as a exploration of childhood adventure than a tale of war. War is often portrayed as adventure in Victorian Era writings; but this story is different. Rather than an adventure involving maturing into manhood that many of Twain’s tales described, the story is portrayed as simply a childish adventure. Continue reading

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Question of the Week: 10/25-10/31/21

If you had to pick a Civil War officer to lead you (and a regiment) for a first experience under fire, who would it be?

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Week In Review: October 18-24, 2021

The series “First Experiences Under Fire” continued this week and other highlights included posts for the historic anniversaries of Cedar Creek and Ball’s Bluff.

Monday, October 18:

Question of the Week asked about your autumn reading list.

Under Fire: Sarah Kay Bierle posted an account from A.F. Shaw’s reminiscence in the 4th Georgia Cavalry. Continue reading

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Weekly Whitman: “Years of the Modern”

Whenever I read this poem, I think perhaps Walt Whitman could predict the future. I see—from my perspective as a white American cis-gendered female—our country’s history unfolding, from our personal struggles against a monarchy to our current ones against recast villains planetwide. No matter what side you are on, I think we all agree that humanity is important and that we must protect our history, maybe even in different guises. Walt even discusses the removal of statues and the urgency of the 24-hour news cycle. I think Uncle Walt would be completely unfazed by the 21st century. He told us it was coming. He even told us how it would be. He warned us of the challenges, but he cheers us on as we march to meet them head-on, just as he cheered the boys of ’61.

Will there ever be another Walt Whitman? I think not. We have been so blessed only this once. Continue reading

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Under Fire: “Seemed to Forget that He Was an Officer, and Gave No Commands Whatever”

When the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves formed in the spring of 1861, its men and officers elected William W. Ricketts as its colonel. The 24-year-old was a solid choice; he had attended West Point and though he hadn’t graduated, opting for medical college instead, Ricketts “possessed a most decided military genius,” a contemporary described. “He had a quick perception, and a facility in handling and commanding troops remarkable in one so young.” As the 6th Reserves deployed to Washington, D.C., it seemed they were in good shape and ready for combat.[1]

Except, on the day that was to be their baptism of fire, Ricketts was confined to his tent, sick with some form of disease that proved all too common during the Civil War. In his place, the 6th would be led by its second-in-command, Lt. Col. William Penrose. A well-respected lawyer, Penrose lacked even the most rudimentary military training that his colonel possessed. The question then presented itself: how would Penrose and the 6th fare when the bullets started flying?

Continue reading

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Saving History Saturday: Phase Two at Gaines Mill & Cold Harbor with American Battlefield Trust

Article adapted from news on American Battlefield Trust’s website

A year ago, the American Battlefield Trust announced a fundraising campaign to protect 108 acres of property where two significant Civil War battles were fought, and where men on both sides, Federal and Confederate, stood their ground, engaged in fierce firefights, and lost their lives. They called this project “Pickett’s Charge Five Times as Large.”  Thanks to generous support ABT is moving to the next phase of this landmark effort. Continue reading

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ECW Weekender: Upcoming Events at the Congressional Cemetery

As the end of October approaches, are you looking for a historic cemetery to explore? Or have you ever heard of a 5K race through an old graveyard?

Located in Washington D.C., the Congressional Cemetery has been a marked burial ground since 1798 and an official cemetery since 1807. Through the early 19th Century nearly every congressman who died in office was buried at this location. After the Civil War, Arlington National Cemetery took over in prominence, but the local preservation efforts followed by national assistance maintains the Congressional Cemetery today.

Congressional Cemetery (photo from website)

If you’re looking for an adventure in a old cemetery (with Civil War ties!), check out their calendar of events. You could “race for your life” in their 5K which begins with the tolling of a funeral bell or take a more leisurely and informative weekend tour with their guides to learn more about the history of the cemetery. Continue reading

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Under Fire: Battlefield Guide Map for the Charge of the First Maine Heavy Artillery

The First Maine Heavy Artillery famously participated in the last desperate attempt in June 1864 to simply seize Petersburg by direct assault. Many incorrectly assume the battle was the first for these callups from the Washington defenses, though a Sesquicentennial post by Chris Mackowski showed that the regiment had already seen hard combat at Spotsylvania. Nevertheless, the newly converted infantrymen had a harrowing experience unlike any of the seasoned veterans of the Union II Corps.

Modern visitors to Petersburg National Battlefield have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the charge up to the point where it broke apart–at a spot afterward marked by a monument to the 632 casualties suffered by the regiment in just ten minutes. The map below offers a guide to touring this hallowed ground. Please note that the Union earthworks around and including Fort Stedman did not exist during the June attack.

Continue reading

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Under Fire at Ball’s Bluff: “You Have Established Your Reputation”

“We crossed the river…under command of Colonel Lee, in all one hundred men, in a whale boat that would carry sixteen, and two small boats holding five and four respectively. I went over first, and found a steep bank one hundred and fifty feet high, with thick wood on it. There was not room enough to form ten men, and the banks were so slippery that you could not stand,” wrote Captain William Francis Bartlett describing his arrival at Ball’s Bluff. Commanding Company I of the 20th Massachusetts, Bartlett and his men had not been under fire before, but as the scouting probe of other regiments ahead of them turned into a real battle, they would be tested to their limits. Continue reading

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“We Made A Charge”: The 17th Mississippi Infantry at Ball’s Bluff

Cannon at Ball’s Bluff (Bierle)

It was a battle that wasn’t really supposed to happen, and one combat that is often overlooked, though it had notable effects in 1861. A Union reconnaissance mission gone wrong launched the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, and throughout the day, the Confederates hurried more regiments to scene of action, determined to protect Leesburg, Virginia, and taking advantage of the situation of push the Union troops literally back into the Potomac River. Although Union reinforcements, including the California Brigade commanded by Colonel Edward Baker, attempted to hold the position, series of mistakes and the terrain itself worked against them.

Robert A. Moore, a soldier in the 17th Mississippi Infantry Regiment kept a pocket diary of his war experiences and left insightful commentary on the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.

In June 1861, the 17th Mississippi Infantry had mustered at Corinth, and they transferred to Virginia in time for the First Battle of Manassas. From Seven Pines during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign to Cold Harbor in 1864, the regiment would fight in the Army of Northern Virginia, except from the brief period in 1863 when they went with Longstreet’s Corps into Tennessee and fought at Chickamauga and Knoxville. They finally battlefield actions would be in the Shenandoah Valley during 1864 and in the Appomattox Campaign in 1865. The regiment’s second major engagement took place at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, outside of Leesburg, Virginia. Continue reading

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