Civil War Memory and the Twain Effect

The following is a guest blog post by Stephen Cushman, author of The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today. In this insightful book, Stephen Cushman considers Civil War generals’ memoirs as both historical and literary works, revealing how they remain vital to understanding the interaction of memory, imagination, and the writing of American history. 

Happy Book Birthday to The Generals’ Civil War, officially on sale today!

Since Calvin Coolidge left office in 1929, most U.S. presidents have published autobiographical books.  So have many Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, and ambassadors.  Some of these books have earned large amounts as they climbed bestseller lists.  The step from prominent leadership to lucrative memoir-writing now appears so natural that we the people take it for granted.

  It has not always been this way.  “The English language is singularly barren of autobiographies or memoirs by leading actors in the public events of their times,” General Winfield Scott announced in the introduction to his 1864 memoir.  “Statesmen, diplomatists, and warriors on land or water, who have made or moulded the fortunes of England or the United States, have nearly all, in this respect, failed in their duty to posterity and themselves.”  

Arguing that the situation “was otherwise with very eminent men of antiquity,” among them Xenophon and Caesar, Scott dated his introduction July 5, 1863, two days after the Picket-Pettigrew charge at Gettysburg and the day after Vicksburg surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.  When Scott’s book appeared in 1864, he sent a copy to Grant, then with the army besieging Petersburg.  Scott’s inscription read, “From the Oldest to the Greatest General.”

Twenty-five years after Winfield Scott dated his introduction at West Point, New York, Mark Twain’s Webster and Company published Philip H. Sheridan’s two-volume Personal Memoirs.  During the quarter-century beginning in 1863, the year Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Winfield Scott at West Point and pronounced him a “huge old lion, at seventy-seven,” the barrenness of memoirs by leading actors in the public events of their times, especially warriors on land and water, yielded to superabundant fruitfulness in the United States.  

No one person can take sole credit for this sudden surge in the productivity of high-ranking officers fulfilling what Winfield Scott saw as their duty, or for the corresponding surge in the receptivity of their American audiences.  Both this productivity and this receptivity arose from numerous converging factors and circumstances, social, political, economic, and literary.  

But if it is true that no one person can take sole credit, it is also true that no one person singlehandedly did more to boost productivity and receptivity than Mark Twain.  Without Mark Twain in his public persona, or Samuel Clemens in his behind-the-scenes business one, the Civil War memory market, expanded dramatically with books written by generals during the 1870s and 1880s, would not have developed as it did.  

Mark Twain proved an especially canny and effective force in the Civil War memory market, as he observed how his fellow citizens were at work making sense of their recent disruption by turning to personal accounts of it.  No one devoted more of himself than Twain to braiding the business of publishing with memory, imagination, history, and literature or to braiding it with the expectations of reading audiences.

The story of generals’ narratives and the Civil War memory market is incomplete without what we might call the Twain Effect.  The Twain Effect was particularly obvious in the cases of memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant, George B. McClellan, and Philip H. Sheridan, all of which Twain published.  But it made itself felt beyond the immediate productions of his publishing firm, Charles Webster and Company.  

Twain did not operate in an entrepreneurial vacuum.  He pushed himself into the midst of intense competition with other nineteenth-century publishing powers, among them D. Appleton, Scribner’s, Harper and Brothers, Century, and J. B. Lippincott.  These northern firms competed for authors; U. S. Grant agreed to publish with Century before Twain convinced him to accept a better deal from Webster.  They competed with products, as a Civil War series undertaken by one house prompted publication of a Civil War series by another.  And they competed for often-not-so-reconciled readers by offering titles from both sides of the sectional divide. 

In debates about Civil War memory we should not underestimate the workings of the Civil War book-publishing market.  Where conflicts arise over politically, socially, and emotionally charged issues, we may prefer not to admit the influence of publishers’ coldly calculated profits and losses on the warmth of our convictions, whether in the nineteenth century, the twentieth, or the twenty-first.  Our preferences do not change that influence, however.  We can choose not to see it.  We can see it and pretend it does not matter.  What we cannot do is delete all traces of the memoir market and its motives from the history of Civil War memory.

Stephen Cushman is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia.