Twain’s version has little action – no brutal beatings of old settlers, nobody shot and killed except the stranger (and he lingers a while), no suicides, no struggles to assert pack dominance – and yet his version is so much better.
It’s about people, y’see, people just being people in the early days of the war when there was “a good deal of confusion in men’s minds…a good deal of unsettledness.”
Twain paints wonderfully brief but clear pictures of his friends as well as local personalities and what life in a number of different militia camps in Missouri was like before things got serious.
Reasons for Leaving the War
Twain’s account of the shooting is stirring, though, and he uses it to put forth a reason why he left the military:
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 the same way; they hung over him, full of pitying interest, and tried all they could to help him, and said all sorts of regretful things. 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 the shadow of his eyes, and it seemed to me that I could rather that he had stabbed me than he had 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 any 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 battles 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 was a spy, and saying if they had it to do over again, they would not hurt him unless he attacked them first. It soon turned out that mine was not the only shot fired; there were five others, a division of the guilt which was a great relief to me since it in some degree lightened and diminished the burden I was carrying. There were six shots fired at once but I was not in my right mind at the time, and my heated imagination had magnified my one shot into a volley.
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 on 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 just be the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity, strangers who 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 soldier-ship while I could retain some remnant of my self-respect.
It’s just too perfect, like one of Tom Sawyer’s tales to justify himself. Twain himself dismisses the whole thing in the next paragraph as “morbid thoughts.”
I think he hid the real reason – why he went West instead of joining up – right out in plain sight.
Here’s the opening paragraph of the story:
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 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 not be allowed much space among better people, people who did something. I grant that, but they ought at least 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 kind of light must have some sort of value.
Yes, it piques our curiosity a little, but it’s not nearly as attention grabbing as, say, “TOM!” No answer or You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” – and so it has an honest ring.
Only 20 years after Appomattox, I think this has a little of the circuitous and vague overtones of PTSD, though it’s written by a skilled professional writer.
After all, nobody who survived the Civil War remained the same, whether they served in the military or remained in civilian life. On top of all that, the decision to just walk away from the American Civil War had to have been traumatic to a young man.
Perhaps the “taste of war” that made Clemens step out permanently was an event in May 1861, per this source:
As the Nebraska churned upriver, he [Clemens] found that the Union had blockaded the river at Memphis. His boat was one of the last to slip through. At Cairo, Union soldiers boarded and searched the boat. The Nebraska probably docked briefly at Cape Girardeau on May 21, 1861. Later, when the boat neared St. Louis, a canon from Jefferson Barracks fired a warning shot. When it was ignored, a second shot was fired. A shell exploded directly in front of the pilot house, shattering its glass. Sam Clemens was in the pilothouse when the shell struck. The Nebraska dutifully stopped for another inspection.
One thing became vividly clear to the man who would become Mark Twain as he stood in the pilot house, within easy firing range of rifles on either side of the river: he did not want to spend the coming months or years as a sitting duck in a pilothouse.
When he reached St. Louis, Sam Clemens disappeared into the night.
A Mighty Topic
All that above is a lot of quotes to use in one post, but I’m trying show that I have learned something.
Samuel Clemens’ reactions to the Civil War affected his entire life and writing career. Trying to describe that in a single post is like standing on the banks of a little stream that flows into Lake Itasca in Minnesota and attempting to use that trickle to see the Mississippi River as it rolls past Cairo, Memphis, Natchez and New Orleans.
Can’t be done.
Luckily, others have done a more in-depth job, such as the University of Kentucky, as this Project MUSE review shows [link added]:
When the Civil War halted steamboat travel on the Mississippi River in 1861, an unemployed riverboat pilot named Samuel Clemens enlisted in the Missouri militia. After two weeks of service, Clemens abandoned his post and fled westward to begin a writing career—a turn of events that precipitated the rise to fame of the man who would become known as Mark Twain. The circumstances surrounding his departure are unclear; some view Twain as a deserter, while others call into question the nature of his commitment from the beginning. Twain defended himself in speeches and in print, offering varying accounts—with varying degrees of truth—of his confusion upon enrollment, his ignorance of the moral and political forces behind the war, and his claim to have killed a man while hiding in a corncrib. Regardless of the reason for his desertion, his personal experiences and the Civil War in general are recurring topics in Twain’s speeches, fiction, and nonfiction. In addition to broaching the issue in longer works, such as Life on the Mississippi and The Gilded Age, Twain directly addresses it in shorter pieces such as “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” and “A Curious Experience.” Editor David Rachels unites these selections in Mark Twain’s Civil War, offering Twain fans and Civil War scholars the unprecedented opportunity to read the entire array of Twain’s Civil War-influenced literature in one volume. In addition to Twain’s own pieces, Rachels includes an account of Twain’s war career by his official biographer as well as a story by Absalom C. Grimes, a Confederate mail runner who claims to have served with Twain early in the war. An introduction by Rachels completes the text, which analyzes Twain’s military stint and assesses the war’s profound influence on one of America’s most celebrated authors.
Think I’ll read that instead.