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The following review appeared 10 February 2020 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In the early months of 1861, the lives of most Americans abruptly changed. The change imposed on Sam Clemens was as disruptive as any: The Civil War closed down traffic on the Mississippi River, ending his career as a steamboat pilot. He briefly joined a rag-tag company of the state guard in his home state of Missouri, whose mission it was to protect Missouri from an impending Union "invasion." But by July young Sam clicked "opt out" on the American Civil War and headed west with his brother Orion, the freshly appointed Secretary for the Nevada Territory. Mark Twain biographers have explained Sam Clemens's attitudes toward the war and his motivations for opting out in various ways, and virtually every biographer begins with an examination of Twain's own account in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." Of course, the problem with Twain's account is that it blends historical facts with dramatic fictions, and omits key events along the way. Most of the confusion about Twain's account has centered on the question of whether he actually joined the Confederate Army and whether he really killed a stranger. He did neither.
Mark Twain's Civil War years have been discussed in many books, among them Joe Fulton's The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature (2010), Jerome Loving's Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War (2013), and Steve Courtney and Peter Messent's The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell (2006). Ben Griffin's book is not even the first book with the title Mark Twain's Civil War; two books have been published with this same title. The first was a 2007 compilation of Twain's Civil War writings by David Rachel that curiously classified Twain's own account as "nonfiction." The second, published in 2012, was a sometimes racy modern novel by William R. Macnaughton, best-known for his Mark Twain's Last Years as a Writer (1979), that chronicled Sam Clemens's close brush with the Civil War before he headed west with his views on race in flux. All but the first of these books have been reviewed in the Mark Twain Forum.
Griffin's new book certainly does not classify Twain's account as nonfiction, and the only racy moment perhaps occurs when Sam Clemens beats a hasty retreat walking backwards from an angry woman wielding a hickory stick in order to protect a painful boil on his behind from getting thwacked. This incident, by the way, can be confidently classified in the nonfiction column; Twain left it out when he published "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" at the behest of editor Robert Underwood Johnson in The Century Magazine in December 1885 as part of a series of memoirs the magazine was then publishing, "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War."
That was only one of several significant omissions in Twain's account, which brings us to the valuable service Griffin has performed in editing Twain's narrative. He sorts out the facts and the fictions in Twain's account, a problem common to much of Twain's biography, especially his autobiographical writings. Griffin begins with a 76 page "Introduction" that provides the background on how Twain came to write his heavily fictionalized memoir, and documents its early reception. This is followed with a comparison of Twain's account with various sources, including a recently discovered lengthy letter Twain wrote from New Orleans on January 27, 1861, comments Twain made in a speech at Hartford in 1877, and a response to Twain's account from Twain's fellow steamboat pilot and state guardsman, Absalom Grimes (1834-1911), that appeared in a newspaper in 1886.
Griffin doesn't just edit and comment; his documentation is fastidious, and he conveniently provides complete texts of his key sources. Here we have Twain's text as it was first published in 1885 (79-110), explanatory notes ( 113-128), Twain's 1877 speech (129-133), Grimes's 1886 account (135-152), a textual apparatus (153-157), and references (159-175). The paginations are given here to emphasize the abundance of material presented, all of which deserves close reading.
As often happened during Twain's lifetime, his writings and celebrity attracted ridiculous testimonials and rumor-mongering from attention-seekers and those with an ax to grind. This tribe of false claimants is as large and varied as the aphorisms falsely attributed to Twain. Sure enough, soon after Twain's account appeared in 1885, two such men stepped forward with outlandish stories. The first was a western newspaperman, John I. Ginn, who published a narrative in which he garbled a few facts with a fanciful tale that was picked up by other papers (63-66). The second was from a fellow who had known Clemens in Nevada, Thomas Fitch, who in 1910 published what Griffin calls an "apocryphal tale" featuring a resignation letter that has been relied upon by several Twain biographers over the years, "not all of whom note its uncertain status," most recently, Gary Scharnhorst (67-68). Griffin carefully separates the facts and fictions in both of these responses to Twain's story.
Adding to the confusion created by the false accounts are Twain's own comments on the Civil War that may seem contradictory to modern readers. At times he praised those who fought for the south and engaged in "lost cause" rhetoric, but he also praised Abraham Lincoln. He edited and published Grant's memoirs, and his publishing company published the memoirs of several other Union generals. Griffin unravels the complexity of Twain's views, suggesting that "Clemens's attitude toward the war was less informed by his brief military experience than by the long era that followed" (72).
The real fun begins when Griffin compares what Twain wrote about his experiences with Absalom Grimes's 1886 response. Grimes's 1886 account served as a first draft of the chapter about Twain that appeared in Grimes's posthumously published autobiography, Absalom Grimes, Confederate Mail Runner (1926). The 1926 version was edited by Grimes and his daughter during the last year of Grimes's life, and was later edited further by M. M. Quaife for the book publication. Grimes prided himself on telling the unvarnished truth and using the real names of the people he describes. More importantly, his memoirs are based on a shorthand diary he kept during his Civil War years, which accounts for the specificity of names, dates, and other details in his account. Griffin judges the 1886 version more reliable because it was written when Grimes's memories were fresher, and it is a text that has not been "refined" by later editors.
In his response to Twain's story, Grimes supplies the actual names of some of the young guardsmen whose names were disguised by Twain, and he reveals events Twain left out of his narrative. He quotes a "speech" Clemens made before his fellow guardsmen, perhaps the shortest of his speeches on record (139). He describes Clemens's suffering with a boil before his encounter with the angry woman with the hickory stick (144), as well as his further suffering from a sprained ankle (149-150). Grimes could tell a humorous story, and he describes how Clemens, riding on a mule named "Paint-Brush," fell behind during one of several "retreats" and was very nearly mistaken for the enemy when he finally caught up with his fellow guardsmen (142). Grimes also tells a hilarious story of some hay catching fire during the night, resulting in Clemens scampering down a hillside on all fours with a flaming pile of hay on his back (149). All of these stories appear in Grimes's 1926 book, but not always as vividly told.
At times, the accounts of Twain and Grimes align. Grimes (138) confirms Twain's description of the company of fellow guardsmen they encountered who were armed to the teeth with enormous Bowie knives (107-108), and Grimes's description of the sword presented to Clemens (140) accords with Twain's own recollection (86). But their accounts also differ: Grimes's description of a retreat (141-143) makes for an interesting comparison with Twain's (92-98). Of course, the best-known difference is Twain's dramatic confession that he killed an innocent stranger (104-105) and Grimes's correction of Twain's tale with the pathetic story of another drunken guardsman mistaking the sounds of his own horse for the approaching enemy, and shooting it dead (143-144).
Griffin corrects other fictions that have flourished in connection with "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." Twain tells the amusing story of a pretentious guardsman who changes the spelling of his name from Dunlap to D'Un Lap. In truth, John L. Robard, that friend of Clemens who changed the spelling of his name to RoBard, was never a member of the state guard (117-118). Griffin notes that some have claimed that Clemens and other former guardsmen were "liable to be shot on sight" injecting a dark element of danger into Twain's tale, and cites Scharnhorst as the most recent example; Griffin presents convincing evidence that this is simply wrong (36-37). Other fictions are fact-checked: Twain's oft-repeated claim that he and General Grant missed crossing paths by a few hours is disproven; they missed crossing paths by at least ten days (37-38). Twain calls his state guard company the Marion Rangers, when they were likely called the Ralls County Rangers (24, 117). Twain falsely claims seeing Grant at Cairo, Illinois (127), and he combines the characteristics of two steamboat pilots into one character (113).
By the end of this book, Twain's creative weaving of facts with
fictions has been carefully unwoven, showing how Mark Twain the literary artist
could elevate an episode in the life of a young and disillusioned Sam Clemens
into an engaging tale, skillfully combining humor and pathos to construct
a convincing commentary on the futility of war, and perhaps explaining his
actions not only to others, but to himself. To be sure, Sam Clemens was a
rebel who joined and then deserted a militia that was later absorbed into
the Confederate Army, and although he did not kill a stranger, he came close
to getting killed himself by friendly fire (like a certain horse). A war descended
on him that brought an end to his realization of his childhood dream of living
out his days as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot. He witnessed just enough
of that war to know that he wanted no part in it, and this led to a career
path that has been celebrated ever since. Griffin's book is not intended to
settle all of the questions surrounding Sam Clemens's Civil War years, but
it lays a solid fact-based foundation with which future studies of those years