At a reunion of Union veterans in Baltimore in 1887, former Confederate Mark Twain gave a witty yet moving account of why he left the American Civil War after just 2 weeks’ service in 1861.
“When your secretary invited me to this reunion of the Union veterans of Maryland he requested me to come prepared to clear up a matter which he said had long been a subject of dispute and bad blood in war circles in this country – to wit, the true dimensions of my military services in the Civil War, and the effect they had upon the general result. I recognise the importance of this thing to history, and I have come prepared. Here are the details.
I was in the Civil War two weeks. In that brief time I rose from private to second lieutenant. The monumental feature of my campaign was the one battle which my command fought – it was in the summer of ’61. If I do say it, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought in human history; there is nothing approaching it for destruction of human life in the field, if you take into consideration the forces engaged and the proportion of death to survival. And yet you do not even know the name of that battle. Neither do I. It had a name, but I have forgotten it. It is no use to keep private information which you can’t show off. In our battle there were just 15 men engaged on our side – all brigadier-generals but me, and I was a second-lieutenant. On the other side there was one man. He was a stranger. We killed him. It was night, and we thought it was an army of observation; he looked like an army of observation – in fact, he looked bigger than an army of observation would in the day time; and some of us believed he was trying to surround us, and some thought he was going to turn our position, and so we shot him.
Poor fellow, he probably wasn’t an army of observation after all, but that wasn’t our fault; as I say, he had all the look of it in the dim light. It was a sorrowful circumstance, but he took the chances of war, and he drew the wrong card; he over-estimated his fighting strength, and he suffered the likely result; but he fell as the brave should fall – with his face to the front and feet to the field – so we buried him with the honours of war, and took his things.
So began and ended the only battle in the history of the world where the opposing force was utterly exterminated, swept from the face of the earth – to the last man. And yet you don’t know the name of that battle; you don’t even know the name of that man.
Now, then, for the argument. Suppose I had continued in the war, and gone on as I began, and exterminated the opposing forces every time – every two weeks – where would your war have been? Why, you see yourself, the conflict would have been too one-sided. There was but one honourable course for me to pursue, and I pursued it. I withdrew to private life, and gave the Union cause a chance. There, now, you have the whole thing in a nutshell; it was not my presence in the Civil War that determined that tremendous contest – it was my retirement from it that brought the crash. It left the Confederate side too weak.”
After his brief war, Mark Twain tried gold mining and journalism before finding his calling as a writer. He achieved worldwide fame and was a friend to presidents, artists, scientists, and European royalty. He was so famous that fan letters addressed to “Mark Twain, God knows where” and “Mark Twain. Somewhere (Try Satan)” found their way to him.
In 1909, he said:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
He died of a heart attack the following year as predicted, one day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.
President William Howard Taft said in tribute:
“Mark Twain gave pleasure – real intellectual enjoyment – to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come… His humour was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has made an enduring part of American literature.“