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Two Civil War Letters

July 2024
9min read

Missives, one by Mark Twain, the other by Walt Whitman, reflect the impact of the Civil War on the nation.

Hardly a person in America was untouched by the Civil War, and Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were no exceptions. Because they were perhaps the most distinctly “American” writers of their time, their reactions to the conflict are particularly interesting. Printed here are two of their wartime letters, both written within six months of each other, at a time when the North seemed on the verge of defeat. While Whitman’s letter to his New York friends, Nat and Fred Gray, has appeared before, the Twain letter is a completely new find. Both are owned by the noted book collector, Clifton Waller Barrett, and AMERICAN HERITAGE publishes them through his courtesy.

The Civil War was a crisis which Twain and Whitman observed as civilians—but then, the number of important American writers who saw active service is surprisingly small. Men like Emerson, Hawthorne, Lowell, Melville, and Whitman—the established talentswere all too old to fight. Many of the younger group who grew up during the war managed to avoid it, whether intentionally or otherwise.

Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens, to use his real name) chose not to fight and went West instead; for non-participation was his answer to the dilemma of divided allegiance. It is true that he did join a hastily organized Confederate militia company in Missouri late in the spring of 1861—an adventure in war which began “full of horse-play and school-boy hilarity,” and ended as an inglorious retreat in the rain from an enemy who was reported everywhere and was nowhere seen. If Twain’s fine story, “A Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” can be believed, a senseless tragedy in which he participated spoiled his stomach for military life once and for all. One night Twain and some panicky companions shot and killed a lone rider whom they mistook for a Union soldier, only to discover that the man was an innocent traveler.

When his older brother, Orion Clemens, offered him a chance to go west that summer, Twain readily accepted. Orion, a staunch Union supporter and an abolitionist, had been lately appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory; under his influence Twain came to accept the Northern viewpoint, although remaining aloof to the war itself. In all that he wrote during his five years in the West as a miner and newspaper reporter, he rarely even mentioned it. One of the few exceptions is his letter to an erstwhile mining companion, Billy Clagett, written in September, 1862, soon alter the Union disaster at the second battle of Bull Run. At that moment it seemed to Twain—as it did to so many—that the very existence of the United States was threatened.

Six months later and a thousand miles closer to the war, Walt Whitman in Washington could view the situation with greater confidence, even though the fortunes of the North remained at a low ebb after another costly defeat at Fredericksburg in December. But something he saw in the military hospitals of the capitalsomething Twain could not see from his western remove—convinced Whitman that the Union would stand the test. He had come to regard the war as the indeed irrepressible and even necessary fire-tempering ordeal of democracy; thus the measure of survival was the nation’s ability to pass beyond the horizon of durable anguish—as he expressed it in his letter to the Gray brothers, “how certain man, our American man … holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations.”

Whitman was one of the few writers of his generation who had any direct contact with the war. When his younger brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, he had gone to Washington to search for him; there he remained to work as a kind of unofficial nurse and comforter in the military hospitals.

Patriarchal in appearance with his prematurely gray beard, this large, slow-moving man became a familiar sight to the wounded and dying in the vast, crowded wards. Each day he would visit them, carrying a knapsack filled with oranges, candy, tobacco, writing paper, and stamps. “I believe,” he wrote, “that even the moving around among the men, or through the ward, of a hearty, healthy, clean, strong, generous-souled person … does immense good.” As Van Wyck Brooks points out, it was an opportunity to measure as never before the American people en masse, and the view that resulted was as confident as Twain’s was pessimistic.

* * *

Esmeralda, Sept. 9, 1862

Dear Billy:

… It appears to me that the very existence of the United States is threatened just now. I am afraid we have been playing the game of brag about as recklessly as I have ever seen it played, even on an Arkansas steamboat—“going blind” and “doubling the pot” and “straddling” and “calling” on hands without a “pair,” or even an “ace at the head.” D——n it! only to think of this sickening boasting—these miserable self-complacent remarks about “twenty-four hours more will seal the fate of the bastard Confederacy—twenty-four hours more will behold the United States dictating terms to submissive and groveling rebeldom!” Great God! and at that very moment the national army were inaugurating a series of retreats more disastrous than bloody defeats on the battlefield! Think of it, my boy—last week the nation were blowing like school-boys of what they were going to do—this week they are trembling in their boots and whining and sniveling like threatened puppies—absolutely frantic with fear. God! what we were going to do! and last night’s dispatches come to hand—we all rush to see what the mountain in labor hath brought forth, and lo! the armies have fled back to Washington; its very suburbs were menaced by the foe; Baton Rouge is evacuated; the rebel hosts march through Kentucky and occupy city after city without firing a gun. …

Let us change the disgusting subject.—Let us close our eyes and endeavor to discover in these things profound, mysterious wonders of “strategy!” Ah me—I have often thought of it—what a crown of glory it would be to us to slip quietly out of Washington some night and when the rebels entered it in the morning, overwhelm them with the bitter humiliation that the whole transaction was a masterpiece of “strategy!” Strategy be d——d-all these astonishing feats of strategy which we have been treated to lately, and which we stared at with a stunned look, and dimly felt that it was a big thing—a wonderful thing—and said so in deadened tones bereft of inflection, although, to save our souls from being eternally damned we couldn’t distinctly “see it”—all these “strategic” feats are beautiful—beautiful as early dawn—yet, like unto the mild and lovely juvenile show, “six pins admittance.” they don’t amount to a damn when the “shore-nuff” circus comes to town.

Strategy will bust this nation yet, if they just keep it up long enough, my boy. …

Your old friend,

Sam L. C.

* * *

Washington, March 19, 1863.

Dear Nat, and Fred Gray:

Since I left New York, I was down in the Army of the Potomac in front with my brother a good part of the winter, commencing time of the battle of Fredericksburgh—have seen war-life, the real article—folded myself in a blanket, lying down in the mud with composure—relished salt pork & hard tack—have been on the battle field among the wounded the faint and the bleeding, to give them nourishment—have gone over with a flag of truce the next day to help direct the burial of the dead—have struck up a tremendous friendship with a young Mississippi Captain, (about 19) that we took prisoner badly wounded at Fredericksburgh—(he has followed me here, is in Emory hospital here, minus a leg—he wears his Confederate uniform, proud as the devil—I met him first at Falmouth, in the Lacy house, middle of December last, his leg just cut off, and cheered him up—poor boy. he has suffered a great deal, and still suffers—has eyes bright as a hawk, but face pale—sometimes when I lean over to say I am going, he puts his arm round my neck, draws my lace down, etc. quite a scene for the New Bowery.) I spent Christmas holidays on the Rappahannock.

During January came up hither, took a lodging room here, did the 37th Congress, especially the night sessions the last three weeks, explored the Capitol then, meandering the gorgeous painted interminable senate corridors, getting lost in them, (a new sensation, rich & strong, that endless painted interior at night) got very much interested in some particular cases in Hospitals here, go now steadily to more or less of said Hospitals by day or night. …

These Hospitals, so different from all others, these thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, &c. open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity, (I sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife) tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, the living soul’s, the body’s tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and tearfulest? Not old Greek mighty ones, where man contends with fate, (and always yields) not Virgil showing Dante on and on among the agonized & damned, approach what here I see and take a part in. For here I see, not at intervals, but quite always, how certain man, our American man, how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations. It is immense, the best thing of all. nourishes me of all men. This then, what frightened us all so long! Why it is put to flight with ignominy, a mere stuffed scarecrow of the fields.

O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? etc. In the Patent Office, as I stood (here one night, just off the cot-side of a dying soldier, in a large ward that had received the worst cases of 2d Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburgh, the surgeon, Dr. Stone, (Horatio Stone, the sculptor.) told me, of all who had died in that crowded ward the past six months, he had still to find the first man or boy who had met the approach of death with a single tremor, or unmanly fear.

But let me change the subject. … Washington and its points I find bear a second and a third perusal, and doubtless indeed many. My first impressions, architectural, &c. were not favorable; but upon the whole, the city, the spates, buildings, &c. make no unfit emblem of our country, so far, so broadly planned, every thing in plenty, money & materials staggering with plenty, but the fruit of the plans, the knit, the combination yet wanting. Determined to express ourselves greatly in a Capital but no fit Capital yet here, (time, associations wanting. I suppose) many a hiatus yet, many a thing to be taken down and done over again yet, perhaps an entire change of base, may-be a succession of changes. Congress does not seize very hard upon me, I studied it and its members with curiosity … much gab, great fear of public opinion, plenty of low business talent, but no masterful man in Congress, (probably best so).

I think well of the President. He has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion. My notion is too, that underneath his outside smutched mannerism, and stories from third-class county bar-rooms, (it is his humor.) Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on the supposed failures of his government; he has shown, I sometimes think an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in sight of the world, menacing and high as ever. I say never yet captain, never ruler, had such a perplexing dangerous task as his, the past two years. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius, careless of court dress or court decorums.

I am living here without much definite aim (except going to the hospitals,) yet I have quite a good time. I make some money by scribbling for the papers, and as copyist. I have had, (and have.) thoughts of trying to get a clerkship or something, but I only try in a listless sort of way, and of course do not succeed. I have strong letters of introduction from Mr. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson to Mr. Seward and Mr. Chase, but I have not presented them. I have seen Mr. Sumner several times anent of my office-hunting, he promised fair once, but he does not seem to be finally fascinated. I hire a bright little 3d story front room, with service, &c. for $7 a month, dine in the same house. (394 L St. a private house,) and remain yet much of the old vagabond that so gracefully becomes me. … My health, strength, personal beauty, etc. are I am happy to inform you, without diminution, but on the contrary quite the reverse. I weigh full 220 pounds avoirdupois, yet still retain my usual perfect shape, a regular model. My beard, neck. &c. are woolier, fleecier, whiteyer than ever. …

Friday Morning. 20th. I finish my letter in the office of Major Hapgood, a paymaster and a friend of mine. This is a large building, filled with paymaster’s offices some thirty or forty or more. This room is up on the fifth floor (a most noble and broad view from my window.) Curious scenes around here, a continual stream of soldiers, officers, cripples, etc. etc. some climbing wearily up the stairs. They seek their pay, and every hour, almost every minute, has its incident, its hitch, its romance, farce or tragedy. There are two paymasters in this room. A sentry at the street door, another half way up the stairs, another at the chief clerk’s door, all with muskets & bayonets, sometimes a great swarm, hundreds, around the sidewalk in front waiting. (Everybody is waiting for something here.) I take a pause, look up, a couple of minutes from my pen and paper, see spread, off there, the Potomac, very fine, nothing petty about it, the Washington monument, not half finished, the public grounds around it filled with ten thousand beeves on the hoof, to the left the Smithsonian with its brown turrets, to the right, far across, Arlington heights, the forts, eight or ten of them, then the long bridge, and down a ways, but quite plain, the shipping of Alexandria, opposite me, and in stone throw, is the Treasury building, and below the bustle and life of Pennsylvania Avenue. I shall hasten with my letter, and then go forth and take a stroll down “the avenue’ as they call it here.

Now you boys, don’t you think I have done the handsome thing by writing this astounding, magnificent letter, certainly the longest I ever wrote in my life? …


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