Twain, the War and Life on the Mississippi

Grant-MemoirWritingFor Civil War News I recently wrote a piece on how Ulysses S. Grant managed to finish his Personal Memoirs just before his death in 1885. My article proved so long that CWN Publisher Jack Melton split it for two issues (December 2018 and January 2019).

My good friend Chris Mackowski asked how, with my “Southern sensibilities,” I chose to write about the general who had arguably brought about Union victory.

I answered that it stemmed from my interest in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” Century Magazine’s great series of articles published in 1884-87. I still remember reading the papers of Robert Underwood Johnson, one of the series editors, in the New York Public Library decades ago. When Grant agreed in June 1884 to write four articles for Century, Richard Watson Gilder, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, wrote Johnson, “The series ‘smiles’ now as it has never before.” I used this quote in an essay I wrote on B & L, published in Civil War History, December 1981.

Twain, Mark-WhiteI also told Chris that my CWN articles stemmed from my interest in Mark Twain, who significantly helped Grant write his Memoirs, and who persuaded him to publish them with his own printing house. Twain, by the way, wrote a piece for “Battles and Leaders.” Johnson wanted a reminiscence on the early war in Missouri, where Twain was living in 1861. What he got instead was a funny story about some boys going off to war. Rather than reject the piece, Johnson encouraged the novelist to revise it, accentuating its burlesque qualities. Twain’s “Private History of a Campaign That Failed” was published in Century in December 1885, but was not included in the final four-volume set published in 1888.

Which brings us to Life on the Mississippi.

When Twain in the early 1880s conceived the idea of a book based upon his youthful riverboat piloting experiences, he revisited the Mississippi after twenty-one years of absence. In April-May 1882 Twain travelled downstream from St. Louis to New Orleans and back upriver to St. Paul, Minnesota. The three weeks thus spent restocked the writer’s imagination, but it also confirmed his long-held belief that the South was a region of frowziness and sham. Further, this was the only time that Twain visited Civil War battlefields and talked extensively with Southerners about their war experiences.

Samuel L. Clemens, however, had very little such experiences to share. At the start of the Civil War he had loudly proclaimed both his support for secession and his contempt for Yankees. He signed up with a company of Confederates, but after two weeks sneaked away to Nevada. In mid-1862 Clemens then became a vocal supporter for the Union, reviling Rebels in his Virginia City newspaper columns.

As he toured the South in 1882, Twain the Confederate deserter and converted Unionist probably felt uneasy among Southerners in whose conversations the war still figured so prominently. Twain’s task was in effect to distinguish between his actual war experiences and what he chose for others to know about them.

One sees in Life on the Mississippi, which appeared in 1883, Twain reflecting on what he had seen and heard in the South, essentially as an outsider looking in. He remarked, for instance, on Southerners’ fondness for “waw” talk. “In the South,” he wrote, “the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it. All day long you hear things ‘placed’ as having happened since the waw; or du’in the waw; or befo’ the waw; or right aftah the waw; or ‘bout two yeahs or five yeahs or ten yeahs befo’ the waw or aftah the war.”

At a dinner with some gentlemen, Twain heard a story about how a young New Yorker had remarked to an elderly black woman, “What a wonderful moon you have down here!” To which she replied, “Ah, bless yo’ heart, honey, you ought to seen dat moon befo’ de waw!”

One may well assume that Twain felt uneasy about his desertion when he was among ex-Confederates. When confronted with storied Southern generals, of whom there were quite a few in New Orleans, Twain’s sense of inferiority led him to reduce their stature through one of his favorite devices, comic deflation.

At the Washington Artillery Armory in New Orleans, Twain had the opportunity to view E.B.D. Fabrino Julio’s famous equestrian portrait, The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson. When referring to the event in Life on the Mississippi, he sought to deflate the overblown aura of sanctity surrounding the two Confederate heroes by giving Julio’s painting alternative titles: “Jackson Asking Lee for a Match,” or “Jackson Declining Lee’s Invitation to Dinner—with Thanks.”

My relating these yarns to Chris brought forth chuckles–which reminded me that even when addressing America’s Civil War, Mark Twain could still be a funny guy.

2 Responses to Twain, the War and Life on the Mississippi

  1. Go to for “Why Sam Clemens was never a Confederate… and a few other things you should know about Hannibal in 1860 and 1861” by Terrell Dempsey and find out what Sam Clemens’ military career was really like! Dempsey followed up this article with an excellent book on Hannibal, Sam Clemons and slavery, _Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemons’ World_ (University of Missouri Press, 2003). Among other tidbits, Dempsey wrote that Clemons paid, as reparations for the slavery of his youth, for the education at Yale of a bright young law student, Warner McGuinn. McGuinn would become a prominent African-American lawyer in Baltimore and mentor of Thurgood Marshall. Twain’s friend, William Dean Howell wrote that Clemons “held himself responsible for the wrong which the white race had done the black race in slavery.”

    1. Bob Huddleston
      Thanks So Much for sharing that link to “Why Sam Clemens was never a Confederate,” expanding on Stephen Davis’ well-written article.
      From a lifelong fan of Mark Twain.

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