When war was on the horizon, a young river pilot in Missouri was as conflicted as his state. His friends were siding with the South, but his brother was a staunch abolitionist who had campaigned for Lincoln. How could he fight against either? It was a decision millions of Americans faced. This American, however, would one day become one of the most famous Americans of all time.
Samuel Clemens decided to join his friends and spent a time on the side of the Confederacy. It wouldn’t last long, though, as he went west with his brother in July 1861. A friend of Clemens, Absalom Grimes, wrote of his experiences during the war. The first chapter of his book is entitled “Campaigning with Mark Twain.” As one would almost expect in something about Twain, while a serious event, the story has a good bit of humor. Below is part one of Grimes’ chapter.
Campaigning with Mark Twain
by Absalom Grimes
In the fall of 1850 I went on the steamer Uncle Toby with my father to learn the river as a pilot, and in the spring of 1852 obtained my first license. This was the first year government licenses were required of pilots and captains. I served as pilot between St. Louis and St. Paul from 1852 to 1861. At the latter date I was serving on the steamer Sunshine, of which Captain Willard was owner and master. A pilot’s license was issued for the term of one year and on applying for a renewal pilots were required to take an oath to abide by the regulations governing pilots, engineers, mates, and captains, but such a thing as compelling a man who had been born and reared in the United States to take the oath of allegiance to the government was unknown. In May, 1861, my license expired and I went to the office of the United States inspector for the purpose of having it renewed. A diminutive, beer-soaked German, who had gained his place through the exercise of political pull, was occupying the responsible position of inspector. To him I stated the purpose of my call. He drew from the drawer of his desk a document headed, “Oath of Allegiance,” and, handing it to me, told me to fill out the blanks. When I had filled out the blanks on the license side he directed me to hold up my hand and take the oath. I inquired the reason for this new departure and he replied in broken English that the “Secesh” were trying to disrupt the Union and everyone who wanted a license must take the oath. I indignantly told him that I had been born in this country, as were my father and grandfather before me. I had no objection to taking the oath but when I did it would not be from an alien. I then walked out, followed by Sam Bowen and Samuel L. Clemens, who had entered the office just after I had and had thus overheard my conversation with the inspector.
Clemens, Bowen, and I lived in and near Hannibal, Missouri. We decided to go home and visit our families a few weeks (none of us were married) and by that time the secession disturbance would be settled and we could obtain licenses without taking the oath. We went to Hannibal and while there we three pilots visited the levee every morning when the regular Keokuk packets came up from St. Louis and landed there. On the fourth morning we were sitting on a pile of skids about to hundred yards below the landing. The steamer Hannibal City came up the river and landed about nine o’clock. To our surprise a Federal lieutenant and four privates came off the boat. After a few words with Jerry Yancey (the boat agent) they turned and walked down the levee to where we were sitting. The lieutenant bade us good morning and pulling a document out of his pocket, asked if our names were Grimes, Bowen, and Clemens? We assented. He said, “I have an order from General John B. Grey, commander of the District of St. Louis, to escort you three gentlemen to his headquarters.” We demurred, but upon his statement that he had been ordered to take us to St. Louis and if we went peacefully would treat us like gentlemen, while if we resisted he would be obliged to put us in irons and take us by force, we decided to cause him (and ourselves) no trouble. He and the privates accompanied us to our homes in Hannibal to get our clothing and bid our families farewell. We took the next boat for St. Louis, the steamer Harry Johnson. We were permitted to sleep in staterooms with guards at our doors. The boat left Hannibal at six in the afternoon and arrived at St. Louis at seven o’clock the next morning. We remained aboard until ten o’clock, when we were escorted to General Grey’s headquarters in the Oak Hall Building on the northeast corner of Fourth Street and Washington Avenue, where the Norvell-Shapleigh Hardware Company’s building now stands.
The lieutenant introduced us by name, in turn, to General Grey and handed him the commission which he had read to us in Hannibal. The general dismissed him and his men. When they had gone he turned to us and said: “Gentlemen, I understand you three men are pilots and were in Hannibal on a vacation. It seems that the pilots are nearly all Secesh, as they are hard to get hold of. I want to send a lot of boats (carrying soldiers) up to Boonville, on the Missouri River, the latter part of this week.” We told him we were not Missouri River pilots and knew only the Mississippi River. He said: “You could follow another boat up the Missouri River if she had a Missouri pilot on her, could you not?” We had to admit that we could accomplish that. “That is all that is necessary,” he rejoined.
Just then two stylishly dressed ladies appeared at the office door and greeted General Grey, remarking that they would like to consult him upon some special business as soon as he was at leisure. He requested them to go into a room across the hall and he would join them in a moment. He then asked us to excuse him until he found out what the ladies wanted. We were pleased to do so! He left the room and we immediately picked up our baggage and went out the side door and downstairs to the street, leaving General Grey to enjoy his tête-a-tête with the ladies. After a short consultation we decided to go back to Hannibal, where we thought the authorities would not bother us any more. I went to my mother’s home in Ralls County, twelve miles west of Hannibal.
A short time afterwards the war excitement reached old Ralls and one fine morning I learned that a whole brigade of recruits had formed a camp at Nuck Matson’s home, two miles west of New London. I had become quite enthusiastic in the Southern cause so I went over to review the troops assembled at Matson’s in behalf of the South. I found that the “brigade” consisted of ten young men, most of whom were my friends. Among them were Charley Mills, Jack Coulter, Tom Lyon, Ed Stephens, Sam Bowen, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain), Asa Fuqua, and a few others. The recruits were undetermined what destructive move they would make first. On the suggestion of someone nearly all of them had their hair cut off as short as possible so as to allow the enemy no advantage in close quarters. Tom Lyon acted as barber, using a pair of sheep-shears. Any hair that escaped cutting was pulled out by the shears. I joined the brigade, and, mounting an empty vinegar keg, which was placed under a shade tree, had my hair sheared.
Neighboring farmers who were in sympathy with the South provided horses for those who had none. After much deliberation and discussion of plans we decided to move our camp westward, as we heard that some of the Union army would be in Hannibal shortly and we were liable to be captured at any moment by them. We wanted time to organize and drill before their arrival. No two soldiers wore the same equipment. It would be useless for me to try to describe the appearance of that brigade when mounted. Nothing was uniform except that we all rode astride. I will mention especially but one “war horse,” the one that had been presented to Mark Twain. He was a little yellow mule, as frisky as a jack-rabbit. He had long, erect ears, was about four feet high, and carried his tail sticking straight out on a dead level with his back. He looked as if he had been mounted on the vinegar keg, and Lyon, the company barber, had used the sheep-shears on the wrong end, for his tail was shaved as with a razor to within six inches of the end—which resembled a painter’s only tool. He was promptly christened “Paint Brush” by his master. On this little mule were located Mark Twain, one home-made quilt, one frying pan, one old-fashioned Kentucky squirrel rifle, twenty yards of sea-grass rope, and one umbrella. The donor of the mule was Harvey Glascock.
We proceeded west until we reached the home of Colonel Bill Splawn, where we had supper and remained over night. Next day the brigade went over to Colonel John Ralls’ home. He gave us a lecture on the importance of our mission, etc., and after his statement that he was duly authorized by Governor [Claiborne] Jackson to enroll recruits for the Southern army, we were all sworn in. Then for the first time we realized that someone was going to get into trouble. That afternoon we rode northwest about five miles to Goodwin’s mill, which was, I think, located on a branch of Salt River. There we found another squad of men who had organized a company and called themselves the Salt River Tigers. Their appearance would have filled the enemy with terror and caused a stampede equal to that of Bull Run. A blacksmith had completed their equipment by providing each man with a huge saber, or knife, made from scythes, sickle bars, long files, and goodness knows what else. Among the Tigers were some musicians, the Martin brothers and two others, and they were the orchestra.
When we visited their camp and watched the Tigers drawn up in line, answer to roll call, etc., it occurred to us that we should have someone to take command, give orders, plan a campaign, and instruct us in military drills, so we decided to elect officers. The nominations for captain were William Ely and Asa Glascock, the former being elected. Then Glascock was unanimously elected first lieutenant. Sam Bowen nominated Mark Twain for second lieutenant and he as promptly elected. Sam Bowen was made sergeant and Tom Lyon orderly sergeant. After all the officers had been elected we had three or four men to serve as privates. We called upon Mark Twain for a speech. After some hesitation because of such a large audience (the Tigers were present) he mounted a log, blushing, and said: “You would scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the—this log. Well, boys, I thank you for electing me your lieutenant. I will try to do my duty and the square thing by you, but I can not make a speech.” Captain Ely then commanded us to meet next morning in a certain prairie for drill, as there were no fields in the neighbor hood large enough—although some contained sixty or more acres. We dispersed, going in different directions to farmhouses for supper and lodging. I went with some others to Mr. Washington Clayton’s home. Next morning before going to the prairie for drill we assembled at the home of Colonel John Ralls.
When I left New London, Colonel Hanceford Brown gave me an old sword and belt that he had worn in the Mexican War and his father had used in the War of 1812. While at Colonel Ralls’ I concluded our second lieutenant should have a sword. He was a pilot on the lower Mississippi River and I was an upper Mississippi pilot. We had been friends long before we went into the Southern army. I requested Colonel Ralls to make the presentation speech, which he did, and Mark Twain responded. We then rode to the prairie, drew up in line, and waited for Captain Ely to report—which he never did from that day to this. Lieutenant Glascock finally assumed command of the Ralls County Rangers, as we had named our company. We made camp in a secluded spot on Salt River, somewhere in the edge of Monroe County, close to an old farmhouse. After we had camped there about two days we were joined by Burr McPherson of Hannibal, who acted as commander and drill master.
We had no tents, so we cut sticks and stuck them in to the ground and spread some of our blankets and quilts over them. As for food, the most important part of the expedition, we had very little of any kind. The boys went foraging and brought in corn meal, fat side-meat and some sorghum. This constituted our bill of fare during the entire two weeks we remained there. It rained all the time we were there. Salt River was bank-full ready to overflow. Near our camp was located a log barn belonging to the farmhouse. We used the barn as headquarters. There was a room across each end and a gangway between the rooms which was about fifteen feet wide and covered with a clapboard roof. In this gangway we did our cooking, as it was too wet outside to have a fire. Along each side of the gangway was a large trough in which we fed our horses and at night Clemens and I slept in it.
Someone brought us the news that the Yankee army was coming out of Hannibal in full force—that it would leave the railroad at Monroe City and march straight to our camp. This report created much excitement and we decided to put out a picket guard. Sam Bowen, Ed Stephens, and myself were selected as the most reliable men for pickets, as we had been pilots and could keep awake better than the others. Mark Twain was placed in charge of the picket guards and we started after dark for our post two miles north of camp, at the mouth of a lane leading to Monroe City. Opposite the mouth of the lane were some trees and bushes, to which we tied our horses. We shook some dimes in a hat to see who would stand first, second, and third watch, as we deemed it unnecessary for all of us to remain awake all night.
Bowen stood at the mouth of the lane from eight to eleven o’clock, when I took his place to remain until three. At one o’clock I heard the enemy coming and I roused the other two soldiers. Lieutenant Clemens mounted “Paint Brush” and held our horses’ bridles, while we went to the mouth of the lane to observe the movements of the enemy. I stood in front and thus commanded the best view. Presently I saw them rise over the top of the hill and swerve from left to right. I raised my double-barrel shotgun and fired both barrels into their ranks. Without remaining to see how many were killed we turned and ran for our horses. To our horror we saw our lieutenant more than a hundred yards off and still going. We called to him to halt, and finally Bowen leveled his shotgun and yelled, “Damn you, Sam, if you don’t stop I’ll let her go!” Clemens halted, and when we caught up with him (Bowen still swearing) he said, “Paint Brush got so excited I could not hold him.” We mounted and rode away at full speed for our camp, leaving our lieutenant and “Paint Brush” far in the rear. The last we heard of him he was saying, “Damn you, you want the Yanks to capture me!”
When we reached the camp the boys were all up in line in all sorts of rigs—coat and a pair of shoes, hat and a pair of pants, shirt and one boot, shirt and coat, shirt and a pair of socks, etc. We told them the cause of the firing and we all waited breathlessly for the enemy to approach. Presently a clatter of hoofs was heard coming down the ravine and the order was given to “make ready!” when we recollected that our lieutenant and “Paint Brush” were still out. We called to Commander McPherson to hold fire, as it must be Clemens. And so it was! We drew a sigh of relief as he came into the gangway full tilt. He made no effort to stop “Paint Brush” until he had reached the rear end of the line and then you may bet his picket guards heard from him. Among other abuse he gave us was a special clause for the loss of his hat. We stood in line, momentarily expecting the enemy, until daylight, when we retired in good order.
After a meager breakfast I requested Sergeant Bowen to go with me to the mouth of the lane to see if the enemy had removed their dead. Upon arrival there I cautiously approached the fence corner and viewed the field of battle. I said, “Sam, I want to tell you something, but you must swear that you will never reveal a word of it to any living soul as long as you and I both live.” He said he would swear and crossed his heart. “Do you see those tall mullein stalks on the side of that hill? Well, last night the wind probably caused them to wave and I would have sworn they were Federals on horseback.” “Well, you damned fool, you played hell, didn’t you?” was his only remark, but en route to camp we were jovial and joked about the lieutenant and “Paint Brush.” The very first think Bowen did when we reached camp was to tell the whole story and I was frequently reminded of those mullein stalks for many days.
Part 2 of the article will be posted on Thursday, December 27.