Two Civil War Letters

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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.

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Esmeralda, Sept. 9, 1862

Dear Billy: