Mark Twain’s Compelling Reminiscence of His War Experience
December 30, 1861. At this, the 150th anniversary of the close of the year that saw the start of a war that people thought would be short, we turn to Mark Twain’s reminiscence of his apocryphal war experience. It deals with the early months of the war in the South, when some military units and action were informal and ad hoc. The narrative embodies a sobering and solemn power and poignancy as Twain reflects on the very nature of war and soldiering.
The piece was published thirty years after the war ended, in the December 1885 edition of Century Magazine as part of its “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” series.
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. These, by their very numbers, are respectable, and are therefore entitled to a sort of voice, — not a loud one, but a modest one; not a boastful one, but an apologetic one. . . . they ought at least to be allowed to state why they didn’t do anything, and also to explain the process by which they didn’t do anything. Surely this sort of light must have a sort of value.
I was visiting in the small town where my boyhood had been spent — Hannibal, Marion County. Several of us got together in a secret place by night and formed ourselves into a military company.
The first hour was all fun, all idle nonsense and laughter. But that could not be kept up. The steady trudging came to be like work; the play had somehow oozed out of it; the stillness of the woods and the somberness of the night began to throw a depressing influence over the spirits of the boys, and presently the talking died out and each person shut himself up in his own thoughts. During the last half of the second hour, nobody said a word.
Now we approached a log farm-house where, according to report, there was a guard of five Union soldiers. Lyman called a halt; and there, in the deep gloom of the overhanging branches, he began to whisper a plan of assault upon that house, which made the gloom more depressing than it was before. It was a crucial moment; we realized, with a cold suddenness, that here was no jest — we were standing face to face with actual war. We were equal to the occasion. In our response there was no hesitation, no indecision: we said that if Lyman wanted to meddle with those soldiers, he could go ahead and do it; but if he waited for us to follow him, he would wait a long time.
Lyman urged, pleaded, tried to shame us, but it had no effect. Our course was plain, our minds were made up: we would flank the farm-house — go out around, and that is what we did.
. . . Our scares were frequent. Every few days rumors would come that the enemy were approaching. . . . One night a negro was sent to our corncrib with the same old warning: the enemy was hovering in our neighborhood. We all said let him hover. . . . [but presently each man had crept to the front wall and had his eye at a crack between the logs.] [W]e were all there; all there with our hearts in our throats, and staring out toward the sugar-troughs where the forest-food path came through. It was late, and there was a deep woodsy stillness everywhere. There was a veiled moonlight, which was only just strong enough to enable us to mark the general shape of objects. Presently a muffled sound caught our ears, and we recognized it as the hoof-beats of a horse or horses. And right away a figure appeared in the forest path; it could have been made of smoke, its mass had so little sharpness of outline. It was a man on horseback; and it seemed to me that there were others behind him. I got hold of a gun in the dark, and pushed it through a crack between the logs, hardly knowing what I was doing, I was so dazed with fright. Somebody said “Fire!” I pulled the trigger. I seemed to see a hundred flashes and hear 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 apprenticed-swordsman’s impulse to run and pick up his game. Somebody said, hardly audibly, “Good — we’ve got him! — wait for the rest.” But the rest did not come. We waited — listened — still no more came. There was not a sound, not the whisper of a leaf; just perfect stillness; . . . Then, wondering, we crept stealthily out, and approached the man. When we got to him, the moon revealed him distinctly. He was lying on his back, with his arms abroad; 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. I was down by him in a moment, helplessly stroking his forehead; and I would have given anything then — my own life freely — to make him again what he had been five minutes before. And all the boys seemed to be feeling in the same way; they hung over him, full of pitying interest, and tried all they could to help him, . . . They had forgotten all about the enemy; they thought only of this one forlorn unit of the foe. Once my imagination persuaded me that the dying man gave me a reproachful look out of his shadowy eyes, and it seemed to me that I could rather he had stabbed me than done that. He muttered and mumbled like a dreamer in his sleep, about his wife and his child; and I thought with a new despair, “This thing that I have done does not end with him; it falls upon them too, and they never did me harm, any more than he.”
In a little while the man was dead. He was killed in war; killed in fair and legitimate war; killed in battle, as you may say; and yet he was as sincerely mourned by the opposing force as if he had been their brother. The boys stood there a half hour sorrowing over him, and recalling the details of the tragedy, and wondering who he might be, and if he were a spy, and saying that if it were to do over again they would not hurt him unless he attacked them first. It soon came out that mine was not the only shot fired; there were five others, — a division of the guilt which was a grateful relief to me, since it in some degree lightened and diminished the burden I was carrying. . . .
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. The thought of him got to preying upon me every night; I could not get rid of it. I could not drive it away, the taking of that unoffending life seemed such a wanton thing. And it seemed an epitome of war; that 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. My campaign was spoiled. It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business; that war was intended for men, and I for a child’s nurse. I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could save some remnant of my self-respect. These morbid thoughts clung to me against reason; for at bottom I did not believe I had touched that man. The law of probabilities decreed me guiltless of his blood; for in all my small experience with guns I had never hit anything I had tried to hit, and I knew I had done my best to hit him. Yet there was no solace in the thought. . . .
The rest of my war experience was a piece with what I had already told of it. We kept monotonously falling back upon one camp or another, and eating up the country. I marvel now at the patience of the farmers and their families. They ought to have shot at us; on the contrary, they were as hospitably kind and courteous to us as if we had deserved it. . .
. . . .
The thoughtful will not throw this war-paper of mine lightly aside as being valueless. It has this value: it is a not unfair picture of what went on in many and many a militia camp in the first months of the rebellion, when the green recruits were without discipline, without the steadying and heartening influence of trained leaders; when all their circumstances were new and strange, and charged with exaggerated terrors, and before the invaluable experience of actual collision in the field had turned them from rabbits into soldiers. If this side of the picture of that early day has not before been put into history, then history has been to that degree incomplete, . . . There was more Bull Run material scattered through the early camps of this country than exhibited itself at Bull Run. And yet it learned its trade presently, and helped to fight the great battles later. I could have become a soldier myself, if I had waited. I had got part of it learned; I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating.
Twain’s apocryphal reminiscence of his experience in the Civil War, published in 1885, is clearly unromantic. The naive and playful attitude with which the narrator and his comrades begin their war experience is not unlike the childlike, romantic attitude that Tom Sawyer and his friend Huck Finn have toward robbers and murderers in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Perhaps the most pointedly unromantic passage in those two novels deals with the Civil War and the early-nineteenth-century English author Sir Walter Scott.
Mark Twain hated Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe and other historical novels that romanticized war and bygone days. Twain thought that Scott had such a large hand in forming the character of Southerners in this country that Scott was in great measure responsible for the Civil War. Twain asserted that “the Sir Walter disease” encouraged the South to be in love with “dreams and phantoms . . . with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs . . . and . . . chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society” — in love with dueling, inflated speech, and social caste. That’s why, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain has Huck, who romanticizes robbers and murderers, go on to a wrecked steamboat on the Mississippi River in the middle of a torrential rainstorm; there he happens upon three real-life robbers and murderers, and he witnesses their stark cruelty and the utter lack of honor among thieves. The name of the wrecked steamboat? “The Walter Scott.”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council
America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on their 150th Anniversaries, Edward L. Ayers, editor. Co-published in 2011 by the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, pp. 99-106.