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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mark Twain's Battle of Mason's Farm cartography

Mark Twain's contribution to Century magazine's popular Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series [December 1885 issue] was his tragi-comic piece of imaginative fiction "The Private History of A Campaign That Failed". While articles written by the generals sought to burnish laurels earned on famous battlefields and perhaps take another shot at old rivals, Twain wrote of a bumbling company of Missouri militia (the Marion Rangers). In one passage he describes a night engagement at the farm of the Mason family:

"...before we could open our mouths to give the countersign several dogs came bounding over the fence with a great riot and noise, and each of them took a soldier by the slack of his trousers and began to back away with him. We could not shoot the dogs without endangering the persons they were attached to so we had to look on helpless at what was perhaps the most mortifying spectacle of the Civil War. There was light enough and to spare, for the Mason's had now run out on the porch with candles in tier hands. The old man and his son came and undid the dogs without difficulty, all but Bowers's; but they couldn't undo his dog, they didn't know his combination, he was of the bull kind and seemed to be set with a Yale time-lock, but they got him loose at last with some scalding water, of which Boweres got his share and returned thanks. Peterson Dunlap afterwards made up a fine name for this engagement and also for the night march which preceded it but both have long ago faded out of my memory".

Twain also could not resist the temptation to take a lighthearted dig at the elaborate maps commissioned for the B&L articles. Readers are surely familiar with the oft reproduced 'seat of war' Civil War illustrations, sprawling images of vast theaters of war from an imagined aerial perspective. Twain's own "The Seat of War" (at left) is instead a crude drawing of his obscure four county Missouri area of operations.

Twain's "Engagement at Mason's Farm" map (below) pokes fun at the absurdity of his battle using the cartographic conventions of the day:

If Twain were still around today, at least George Skoch and Steven Stanley would have nothing to worry about.


  1. What a brilliant blog entry. Thanks for that.

  2. Drew,
    For another view of Twain's performance as a soldier see Absolom Grimes CONFEDERATE MAIL RUNNER, pp. 5-18.

  3. David,
    Thanks for the compliment. The inspiration came from my glancing through the Civil War chapter of Joe Fulton's "The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature." It was the first time I'd seen the two maps (the originals are at Baylor Univ.). It's been my experience that the textbooks or short story anthologies containing the piece do not include them.

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Clark. I've never actually looked at Grimes' book before.

  5. Thanks for posting these maps. I have the short story in a collection of Civil War shorts stories but have never seem these maps before to accompany the story.

  6. One long and tiring weekend many years ago, Dave Woodbury and I sat in a bedroom /library at my house in San Jose and read aloud from this Twain tale and laughed until we cried. I can't recall if we were drinking.



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