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  • Mark Twain, Traitor
  • Neil Schmitz (bio)

"Life is sweet but I would alwas prefer a honorable death to a disgraceful and shameful life. I much reather be numbered amongst the slain than those that stay at home for it will be a brand upon their name as long as a southren lives."

Sergeant Hugh. L. Honnell, 24th Mississippi, letter to his sister, 17 December 1861.

"I would prefer to go into it [even] if I knew I was to die or be killed in the course of it, than to live through and after it without taking part."

Major Rutherford B. Hayes, 23d Ohio, diary entry, 5 May 1861. James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War, 1997.

"If the reader thinks he is done, now, and that this book has no moral to it, he is in error. The moral of it is this: If you are of any account, stay home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are 'no account,' go away from home, and then you will have to work, whether you want to or not. Thus you will become a blessing to your friends by ceasing to be a nuisance to them—if the people you go among suffer by the operation."

Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)

What is Mark Twain's personal Civil War story? Desertion, without ethical or ideological motivation, and he must tell the story. A postbellum celebrity in the triumphal Unionist North, Southern in his literature and theatrical performance, Mark Twain was often a privileged guest at star studded military banquets, there to toast and amuse the principal conqueror generals. His Southern drawl, his [End Page 25] Southern manner, immediately spoke his radical difference. He was of their fighting generation, these grim grizzled warriors at whose banquet table he stood, glass lifted. What was his unit? Which Army? What battles? He had, in some way, to report his Civil War experience, to answer their implicit question. He had to get an exemption for young Second Lieutenant Samuel Langhorne Clemens from the shame of his military disgrace, to plead humor's winning case in honor's severest court of opinion. These warriors had flogged and branded deserters, had signed execution orders for deserters, had witnessed executions. They did not want desertion as a topic at their love feast. There he was, bright-eyed, prosperous, funny, seemingly without war scars, a Southerner, some kind of Confederate, and this was his Civil War story, desertion.

However Mark Twain tells the story, it is ignoble. It must come finally to the moment Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel so famously describes in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, the fight perhaps to the death, that moment where the mode of our consciousness, the stance of our being, master or slave, is decided. In June, 1861, sworn to defend Missouri and its pro-Confederate people, Lt. Clemens must decide, as a Southern gentleman, as a master pilot, quick to all points of personal challenge, whether to fight to the death in the Missouri State Guard against an invading Federal army or accept some kind of personal subjection, some kind of slavery. Guard units are falling back, regrouping, joining the main Confederate force at Carthage, Jasper County. At Carthage, July 5, Confederate Missouri has a victory. Ex-governor, now a general, Claiborne Jackson plants the Missouri state flag at the center of his line, Confederate flags on either side. Lt. Clemens must be there, his reorganized and retrained Ranger unit in the Confederate line on the ridge outside Carthage. Or become, so Hegelian logic would have it, his foolish elder brother's personal secretary in the federal administration of the Nevada Territory, lead a dissolute life for the duration of the war, become, finally, postbellum, a genius humorist, and the conqueror's fool, dressed up, on one occasion, in General William Tecumseh Sherman's starry blue coat, wearing Sherman's visored hat, impersonating Sherman, Sherman and his guests greatly amused. Mark Twain did not have Tom Sawyer's Civil War story, a bullet around his neck on a watch-guard. He was not shot in the leg at the Battle of Carthage...


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