I have a feeling this may not be acceptable to say in April of 2011, but (shhh, don’t tell anyone) I've never really been that into the Civil War. Yes, I’ve read a bit about it, and yes, I’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary. I’ve been known to become slightly belligerent when encountering Confederate memorials while traveling in the South, and vow to go visit some Union monuments when I return to even things out. But given that the hostilities of 1861-1865 are such a huge, consuming passion to so many Americans (and bizarrely, Germans) I would have to rate myself fairly Civil War-challenged. I don't remember what happened at which battle, and I probably could not spell Antietam properly without looking it up. But now that it's the sesquicentennial, and the Civil War is everywhere, I'm trying, rather haphazardly, to catch up.
This has led me down some highly entertaining but probably less than useful avenues. I became sidetracked by the neuroses of General McClellan. I pondered what on earth would compel 19th century men to grow that ridiculous facial hair, and whether it has any relation to today’s ubiquitous hipster beards. I read way too much about Joshua Fry Speed. But somewhere in all the course of all of that, I came across a Mark Twain short story that takes place in - of all places - New London! Specifically, at , used at the time as an organizational center for Connecticut troops before they were sent off to war.
The current Fort Trumbull, and the one in the story, was built between 1839 and 1852 as part of the Third System of Defense, the effort to secure the coastlines of the United States against outside attackers. Their efficacy was soon tested not by invaders from across the sea, but by the navies of the North and South. There had been two earlier fortifications on the site, though no remains of them survive. During the Civil War, Fort Trumbull was used as the headquarters for the 14th Infantry Regiment, as well as for recruitment and training. This is the setting in which Twain’s “A Curious Experience” unfolds.
In the story, narrated by the commander of the fort, a boy turns up asking to be enlisted, and impresses everyone with his behavior, both unusually charming and alarmingly odd. He leads the narrator into a mystery involving potential threats, Confederate spies and suspicions of secret plots. The drama plays out in several New London locations: the train station; an “old deserted stable in the town;” and the fictitious Eagle Hotel, a “wretched tavern down by the water,” hangout of “less reputable folk.” One of Fort Trumbull’s guns provides a crucial plot twist, and - possibly - a receptacle for encrypted correspondence. It’s a quick and entertaining read, but it also paints a convincing picture of the city and the country at a time when distinguishing friends from enemies was nearly impossible.
Twain also wrote about his own wartime experience. Reading his words, I started to feel better about not being as enthralled as all those other people. Because as it happens, at the time of the actual conflict, Samuel Clemens wasn't that into the Civil War either. His service in the Missouri militia was decidedly lackluster. He and some friends formed a company when the breakout of war made his job as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi obsolete. But they quickly realized that “the war was a disappointment” and disbanded, half of them leaving “this avocation of sham soldier-ship” altogether. Their military career had lasted two weeks.
Luckily Twain revisited the war years later, writing a number of other stories and non-fiction pieces concerning them. I suspect that this anniversary and corresponding outburst of interest has made me a bit more enthused about the whole thing, too.