Writers' Military Experience Colors Later Work; Numbers Few, but Influence Is Strong

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A list of famous American novelists and poets who served as soldiers in the Civil War is curiously short of household names: Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, John William De Forest, Sidney Lanier and Lew Wallace are among the few who come to mind.

Considering that almost 4 million men - roughly 11 percent of the entire population - served in both armies (a rate exceeded in history only by World War II, when 12 percent of the country served, including women), it's a little surprising that more recognized writers do not come up in a survey of literary soldiers.

The soldiers who did take up their pens with literary intentions, however, were a remarkable group of men, with stories as diverse and compelling as the war itself.

Samuel Clemens

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is a fascinating case in point. Working before the war as Mississippi riverboat pilots, Clemens and his friends found in 1861 that they could not renew their pilot licenses without taking an oath of allegiance to the federal government.

Offended, they returned home to Hannibal, Mo., where they formed their own company of Southern volunteers, the Marion Rangers, or the Ralls County Rangers. Clemens was elected second lieutenant, and while he was pondering why there was no first lieutenant, was called upon to make a speech. Clemens reportedly said, "I will try to do my duty and the square thing by you, but I cannot make a speech."

The early days for the Rangers were not easy. They had little food (and no one would cook, anyway, as they all thought it was beneath them), no shelter and little help or direction from higher authorities. When rumors of approaching Yankees reached them, the company set up pickets, and Clemens was placed in charge of them. In the middle of the night, Clemens and the other picket were roused by the active watchman and informed that the enemy was coming. One man fired at the approaching shapes, and then a melee unfolded as all three men precipitously retreated. Clemens was almost left behind: "Damn you, you want the Yanks to capture me," he swore.

The attacking Yankees turned out to be tall stalks of mullein waving in the wind.

Clemens (and his friends, also) injected a great deal of wry humor into their accounts of these activities. Nonetheless, the consistent element throughout all of them was danger and the threat of untimely death. If the stories are to be believed, Clemens' time in the army was an ongoing series of comic and dangerous events.

While everyone else's horse swam the river the company was crossing, the mule Clemens rode waded the whole way, even where the water was 10 feet deep. Clemens gradually disappeared as the water grew deeper, and his hat floated away. To the surprise of all, he reappeared - still mounted - near the other bank a minute or two later.

When Clemens approached a local farmer's wife to buy some food, he couldn't understand why the woman took after him with a hickory stick. (Her husband, it turned out, was a Union officer.) When a reluctant private balked over picket duty, 2nd Lt. Clemens even agreed to exchange rank with him as an incentive. (It is not reported whether the soldier later gave back the rank.)

Clemens did not last long in the army, giving up soldiering less than a month after he started. Perhaps because it was so early in the war, he was not prosecuted as a deserter. The experience cemented his bitter view of the human condition, and his later fiction and biographical essays are flavored with a mixture of comedy and subtle tragedy that can be traced to his brief stint with the army.

Later, he would explain almost defensively that people like him "ought at least to be allowed to state why they didn't do anything [in the war]." The conflict remained a deep source of sadness, and he wrote at one point with a sense of fatalism about how friends who stayed in the army were killed eventually. …