How Mark Twain’s “Campaign That Failed” Captured the Nature of War in Missouri

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Most Americans are familiar with the writings of the great Samuel Clemens, or most commonly known as, Mark Twain. From Huckleberry Finn to Tom Sawyer, many of Twain’s works were the quintessential pieces of American literature that successfully encapsulated the nation’s spirit of adventure and freedom in the West. It was through his own experiences that he was able to accurately portray the realism of life along the Mississippi River. As seen in his other realist works, Twain used his personal experiences in the American Civil War to address the war’s nature in his home state of Missouri. With Twain’s distinctive style of satirical realism, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed successfully conveyed the complex nature of loyalty, sectionalism, soldiering, and combat in Missouri.

Twain opens his short story with his typical humor. Comparing his with the works of other Civil War veterans, Twain asks the reader: “You have heard from a great many people who did something in the war, is it not fair and right that you listen a little moment to one who started out to do something in it but didn’t? Thousands entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again permanently.” In Missouri, his story was by no means unique. In the first months of 1861, while Missourians were largely reluctant to enter the conflict, they were forced to reckon with the highly controversial Camp Jackson Affair and subsequent descent into armed conflict. For many young Missouri men who were motivated by pro-secessionist governor Claiborne Jackson’s call for 50,000 state volunteers in the early summer, they quickly joined the Missouri State Guard. The 25-year-old riverboatman from Hannibal quickly joined its ranks.

Samuel Clemens was like many of his fellow Missourians in the northeastern region of the state. For one, the young Scots-Irish man had his roots in the upper South. His father, John Marshall Clemens, was born in Virginia, while his mother Jane was a native Kentuckian. By 1850, approximately three-quarters of all Missourians were of upper-southern origin.[1] A decade later, the Southern population of Missouri was still the majority of those born outside the state.[2]

In addition, the Clemens family were slaveholders. Twain explains his father’s views toward the institution in A Campaign That Failed, writing, “I had heard my father day, some years before he died, that slavery was a great wrong and he would free the solitary Negro he then owned if he could think it right to give away the property of the family when he was so straitened in means.” Ten percent of Missouri’s population was enslaved, with the average slaveholding family owning less than five.[3] Much of the state’s enslaved population was concentrated in northeastern Missouri, which included the Clemens’s home in Marion County. While fifteen percent of Missouri families were slaveholding, the majority of them were conditional Unionists and not ardent secessionists at the outbreak of the war. After the Camp Jackson Affair, though, many families of Southern origin in northeastern Missouri supported the Missouri State Guard and secession. To many Missourians, as Twain states, “our state was invaded by the Union forces.”

Mark Twain did not give his readers an exact date – it was likely in the early to mid-summer of 1861 – when he described the formation of a Missouri State Guard company. “I was visiting in the small town where my boyhood had been spent, Hannibal, Marion County,” he wrote, Several of us got together in a secret place by night and formed ourselves into a military company. One Tom Lyman, a young fellow of a good deal of spirit but of no military experience, was made captain; I was made second lieutenant. We had no first lieutenant, I do not know why, it was so long ago. There were fifteen of us. By the advice of an innocent connected with the organization we called ourselves the Marion Rangers. I do not remember that anyone found fault with the name. I did not, I thought it sounded quite well.” Twain’s experience described here was like that of many Missouri State Guard units: these were local men forming small-town units with limited standardization and organization.

Clemens’ new unit was forced to operate with “caution and secrecy.” After Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon’s Federal Army of the West captured Jefferson City and secured the Missouri River, many Missouri State Guard units north of the river had difficulty reaching the rest of their army. In northeastern Missouri, there were many Unionist Home Guard units forming, as well. “We waited for a dark night, for caution and secrecy were necessary,” he wrote, as they moved out on a ten-mile march.

One of the central themes of Twain’s satirical piece was the youthfulness and innocence of Civil War soldiers. A common experience for the soldier, their almost universal innocence was especially true for those who joined the Guard, believing it was just an army formed to repel Federal occupation. Their lack of formality and experience was displayed in their lack of firearms, a major issue for the new army. For a small ragtag company of Missouri State Guardsmen at the outbreak of the war, “life was idly delicious. It was perfect. There was no war to mar it. Then came some farmers with an alarm one day. They said it was rumoured that the enemy were advancing in our direction from over Hyde’s prairie. The result was a sharp stir among us and general consternation. It was a rude awakening from our pleasant trance.” So much was the excitement for battle amongst the young soldiers that they resorted to a retreat.

Their experience was marked by close calls and superstition as to where the enemy was. One night, Clemens recalled killing a man for the first time. “I seemed to see a hundred flashes and a hundred reports, then I saw the man fall down out of the saddle. My first feeling was of surprised gratification; my first impulse was an apprentice-sportsman’s impulse to run and pick up his game … When we got him, the moon revealed him distinctly. He was laying on his back with his arms abroad, his mouth was open and his chest was heaving with long gasps, and his white shirt front was 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.” He further reflected, “the man was not in uniform and was not armed. He was a stranger in the country, that was all we ever found out about him.” This scene depicted the tragedy of war in the border states, like Missouri. For Missourians, the distance between the home and the front was virtually non-existent, even this early in the conflict. By mid to late war, the war terrorized civilians and soldiers alike, making this just a precursor for what was to come.

Mark Twain may have written this depiction of the Civil War as a trademark of his satirical writing, as well as a depiction of young soldiers, but he gave us invaluable insight into the nature of the conflict in Missouri. From revealing how his unit was recruited to the unit’s first killing of a man, Twain successfully showed the tragedy of Missouri’s war – a war that spiraled out of control. Unlike the other theaters of war, there was no barrier between the home front and the battlefield. The Civil War in Missouri was waged in nearly every community in every county. Mark Twain’s A Private History of a Campaign That Failed is one of the most well-known depictions of Missouri’s Civil War.


[1] Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, 5.

[2] Fellman, Inside War, 6.

[3] Ibid., 7.

*Note: The name “Samuel L. Clemens” is used to describe the events of the Civil War, as that was the name used by Mark Twain at the time.


3 Responses to How Mark Twain’s “Campaign That Failed” Captured the Nature of War in Missouri

  1. A community can not be invaded by residents of that community. [Although, part of the magic of Mark Twain lies in “persuading his readers to believe the unbelievable.”]
    Samuel Clemens grew up surrounded by extended family (in Florida, Missouri) and had ready-made playmates of six brothers and sisters. In 1858, one of those brothers, Henry, was killed as result of a steamboat boiler explosion. Another brother died, aged 10 in 1842. The surviving brother, Orion, was ten years older than Samuel. According to Find-a-grave, “Orion studied law under Edward Bates (who in 1861 became Lincoln’s Attorney General.) Also in 1861, law-trained newspaperman Orion Clemens was appointed “Secretary” of the Nevada Territory by President Lincoln…”
    It would seem that “the Union invaders of Missouri” were not just in the community; they were inside the Clemens house.
    N.B. Orion Clemens in July 1861 arranged for his brother to join him in Nevada Territory. On 14 August the stage arrived at Carson City, and soon-to-be “Assistant Secretary” Samuel Clemens stepped into his new life.

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