Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review - "Mark Twain's Civil War: 'The Private History of a Campaign That Failed'" by Benjamin Griffin, ed.

[Mark Twain's Civil War: "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" edited by Benjamin Griffin (Heyday Books, 2019). Hardcover, photos, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography. Pages:viii,185. ISBN:978-1-59714-478-0. $25]

The growth of humorist Mark Twain's fame during the latter half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by increased public interest in exactly what he did during the Civil War. To serve this wider curiosity as well as offer something different to their "Memoranda on the Civil War" series readership, the editors of The Century magazine solicited an article from Twain, which was published in 1885 under the title "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed." The mixed reception was clearly not what Century editors Clarence Buel and Robert Underwood Johnson (and likely Twain himself) expected and controversy ensued. Happily for today's audience, the full story behind Twain's fictionalized account of his brief Civil War service can now be found in Benjamin Griffin's fascinating new study Mark Twain's Civil War.

In June 1861, in response to the growing military crisis in Missouri, Mark Twain left his job as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot and joined the pro-southern Missouri State Guard. A fanciful portrait of his fortnight spent as a soldier, Twain's "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" told the story of the Ralls County Rangers in a humorous manner that mixed fact with fiction. While numbering only a handful of men, the Rangers dutifully elected officers (Twain was the outfit's second lieutenant) and generally bumbled around the countryside west of Hannibal with no real sense of purpose and even less discipline. By the end of two weeks, many of the Rangers had had enough of soldier life and half of them (including Twain) abandoned the cause. Like many other conflicted men who sought to sit out the rest of the war by going out West, Twain joined his brother in California and Nevada. The rest is history.

Mark Twain Project editor Benjamin Griffin's lengthy introductory essay does a very fine job of placing Twain's Missouri war service in its proper historical context. Twain's relationship with The Century magazine is also informatively explored, as is the public's reception of Twain's contribution to the magazine's celebrated series of diverse firsthand accounts later collected in the four-volume Battles & Leaders of the Civil War (1887-1888). Griffin's illuminating introduction, supported by his footnotes and additional explanatory endnotes, represents the scholarly literature's best effort at teasing verifiable truth from Twain's always-changing personal story of that elusive fortnight. Indeed, all such interpretive efforts are hampered by the fact that precious few accounts were written by Twain associates or the people he encountered in the field. Twain also intentionally muddied his own waters by altering the names of persons and places. Making the best of those limitations, Griffin's diligent research effectively uses what documents are available to sort through fact and fiction, exploring what can be known or inferred regarding Twain's motivations and also identifying or making educated guesses about the persons, places, and events of "The Private History."

One of the most interesting aspects of Griffin's investigation is his exploration of the public reaction to Twain's tale. Griffin astutely notes that the nature of Twain's account (which included bushwhacker-type irregular warfare) opened him up to public criticism from both ends of the sectional spectrum. In addition to his very public postwar repudiation of the Confederate cause, Twain's wartime desertion could not have endeared himself to all Confederate veterans (including some of his fellow rangers) and their supporters, many of whom suffered greatly during the war. On the other side, many pro-Union veterans and civilians were incensed to discover that Twain had been a "guerrilla" (southern irregular fighters of all kinds were commonly lumped into the same category as the most notorious bushwhackers). Twain's weak claim that his service merely represented a youthful indiscretion also held little weight with many Union veterans who were officers entrusted with real life and death responsibilities at ages less than Twain's 24. That Twain's tale included his own participation in the nighttime ambush and killing of an unarmed rider only further fueled the flames. Even the story's eloquently expressed regret and sorrow for the incident failed to move many critics.

The book's inclusion of the full text of "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" (along with its original maps and illustrations) is also accompanied by a pair of very insightful appendices. The first, a transcription of a Twain speech in front of a Hartford, CT military organization, well illustrates the differing versions of his Missouri service that Twain presented during his lifetime. Even more interesting is the second appendix. It is famed Confederate spy and mail runner Absalom Grimes's account of his Ranger service with Twain, first published in the St. Louis Missouri Republican's "Tales of the War" series [Sidenote: The Grimes article was intentionally left out of the 1861 volume of Camp Pope Publishing's edited collection of "Tales of the War" articles due to its having been published elsewhere. This was an unfortunate editorial decision, as having another annotated version of Grimes's account might have been useful for purposes of comparison]. In the "Tales" article, Grimes points out the many errors he believes Twain to have committed to print while also offering his own account of the period that additionally reveals the real names behind Twain's fictionalized ones. Interestingly, Grimes categorically disputes Twain's story of the nighttime killing of the unarmed man, asserting that the only living thing shot by the Rangers during the fortnight was a horse under similar circumstances. Griffin's own research uncovered no corroborating evidence of Twain's version of the shooting event, judiciously concluding that we will likely never now the truth. Largely because of this part of Twain's story, the Century editors considered "The Private History" so controversial that they didn't include it in the first edition of B&L.

For those interested in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" along with an investigation into its publication, historical context, and veracity that possesses the highest degree of scholarly merit, Mark Twain's Civil War is the new standard. Highly recommended.

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