Civil War Profiles: Mark Twain during the Civil War era at the Dickens

The actor entered the Dickens Parlour Theater from the side door and described his infatuation with Mark Twain — the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Missouri in 1835. He stepped onto the stage and sat at a period dressing table with swivel mirror and basin while donning an unruly wig of white hair and applying bushy eyebrows and mustache. Changing into a trademark white linen jacket, he launched into a later-life characterization of the venerable author who created the enduring adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Several years prior to becoming a popular writer, Clemens faced the same decision as everyone else in the country when hostilities between the states erupted in 1861 — whether to support the Union or the Confederacy.

Clemens was working as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi when the Civil War began. As with many others in his home state, he was confused about his loyalties but served in combat with Southern-oriented Missouri militia. Within a brief period of time, however, he and some of his fellow militiamen reversed their decision and deserted, and Clemens headed west, where he became a journalist.

Clemens later claimed ignorance of the politics behind the war. In his fictionalized account of his brief experiences, titled “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” he described the moment he decided to quit:

“The last camp which we fell back upon was in a hollow near the village of Florida, where I was born — in Monroe County. Here we were warned that a Union colonel was sweeping down on us with a whole regiment at his heels. This looked decidedly serious. Our boys went apart and consulted; then we went back and told the other companies present that the war was a disappointment for us and we were going to disband.”

Clemens learned the Union colonel in pursuit of his unit was Ulysses S. Grant, whose performance during the war was such that President Abraham Lincoln would elevate him to commander of the entire Union army. These two men were destined to meet again.

In 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Clemens transformed himself into Mark Twain, a name — appropriately for a boy raised along the Mississippi River — derived from a nautical term for measuring the depth of the water.

Although not involved directly in it for long, the great domestic conflagration had a profound influence on him and his later writings. In “Life on the Mississippi” he wrote, “In the South the war is what AD is elsewhere; they date from it.”

Later in life, finding himself in dire financial straits, Grant, who was dying from cancer, rushed to finish his memoirs — not for his own legacy, but to provide financial support for his wife and family. Twain stepped into the breach and arranged for an equitable publishing arrangement, so that Grant and his wife, Julia, would reap sufficient profits.

Twain the writer admired Grant as a great general who, at the same time, was “the simple soldier.” That echoed Walt Whitman who, as Joan Waugh points out in “U.S. Grant,” described the contrast in the man as “nothing heroic … and yet the greatest hero.”

The stage scenery set the tone for Twain’s performance at the Dickens. In the background were shelves displaying books, off to the side a tall Alexander Graham Bell telephone, and in the center a period curved-leg table with a decanter of Kentucky bourbon and a glass at the ready — ergo, the name of the play, “Southern Comfort.”

For the next hour, Twain sips whiskey and philosophizes on the war and its personalities, politics and its foibles, and family life, with its tragedies — while often refilling his glass.

Mark Twain’s life was meteoric. It is therefore fitting, although perhaps apocryphal, that Haley’s Comet was visible in the sky both on the night that Mark Twain was born and almost 75 years later the night he passed away, April 21, 1910.

Rich Bloch portrays Mark Twain with his unique outlook on life and wry humor in a one-act play. You can catch it on the first Sunday of every month at the Dickens in Millville. Call (302) 829-1071 to make a reservation for a combined brunch in the dining room, followed by a show in the theater.

(Sources for this week’s column include:

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from Contact him at