- Historic Sites
Two Civil War Letters
Missives, one by Mark Twain, the other by Walt Whitman, reflect the impact of the Civil War on the nation.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
… 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.