Sam the pilot

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Boats piloted by Clemens after he received his official Pilot's License in April 1859 include:

Steamboat: ALFRED T. LACEY
Built: 1857
Clemens' Service: 4 - 21 May 1859
Barton Bowen
John P. Rodney
Fate: burned April 26, 1860 with loss of sixteen lives including Captain A. T. Lacy's daughter

Clemens' Service: 9 July - 30 July 1859
Captain: William B. Miller
Fate: Obtained by Confederacy in 1861 and sunk in shallow stretch of Yazoo River to block Union traffic.

Clemens' comments: I took lodgings at Mrs. Marmadale's, John, higher up in Locust street, towards the big church--I mean the one in the construction of which the least little bit in the world of Christian vanity sticks out--for, do you know, John, that that edifice reminds me of the steamers JOHN J. ROE and R. J. LACKLAND? Yes, she does. You admire the craft at a distance, but when you step aboard you are astonished to find that what you thought was all cabin, isn't and what you thought was all church, isn't, either, by considerably more than a good deal. No, John, it's all sham. There's a bulkhead amidships, and behind is a place devoted to bale-rope and buckets, in the one case, and prayer-meeting in the other.
- "Soleather Cultivates His Taste for Music," New Orleans Crescent, 21 July 1859 (signed by "Soleather"; identified by Edgar Branch as Samuel Clemens).

NOTE: Edgard Branch had originally dated Clemens' service on the RUFUS J. LACKLAND as 11 July - 3 August 1857. Further research by Michael Marleau, includes a new interpretation of Clemens' personal journals and indicates the 1859 dates are the most likely dates of service for the RUFUS J. LACKLAND.

Based on circumstantial evidence alone, Branch had previously theorized that during this time frame Clemens had piloted:

Steamboat: J. C. SWON
Built: 1856
Tonnage: 678
Clemens' Service: 25 June - 28 July 1859
Captain: Isaac Jones
Fate: dismantled in 1867

Boat ad for J. C. Swon
Ad for J. C. Swon, 1859

Steamboat: EDWARD J. GAY
Clemens' Service: 2 August - 1 October 1859
Captain: Barton Bowen
Fate: 1863 acquired by Confederacy and taken up Yalobusha River; later burned on 17 July 1863 to prevent capture.

SS Gay

For an anecdote regarding the EDWARD J. GAY, see Major Jack Downing's reminiscences.

For a day by day account of Clemens' time on the EDWARD J. GAY which ended in tragedy, see Michael Marleau's Tragedy on the Mississippi.

Steamboat: A. B. CHAMBERS
Clemens' Service: 26 October 1859 - 24 February 1860
Co Pilots:
James DeLancey and William Bowen
First mate:
Grant Marsh
George Bowman
Fate: snagged and sank near St. Louis, 24 September 1860

SS Chambers
From the lithograph "Bird's Eye View of St. Louis"
drawn and published by James T. Palmatary in 1857.
From the Raymond Ewing collection.

Clemens' comments: The place where we long ago grounded the A. B. Chambers has long ago ceased to be anything but sand with a little water on top of it.
- Notebook #21 (April - May 1882) reprinted in Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. II. Also see Grant Marsh.

Clemens' Service: 25 March - 1 or 2 July 1860
Wesley Jacobs
Joseph Edward Montgomery
Fate: boilers exploded May 31, 1866 with loss of eleven lives; towed to Saint Louis, MO and dismantled

SS City of Memphis

Clemens' comments: And I am also lucky in having a berth, while all the young pilots are idle. This is the luckiest circumstance that ever befell me. Not on account of the wages - for that is a secondary consideration - but from the fact that the CITY OF MEMPHIS is the largest boat in the trade and the hardest to pilot, and consequently I can get a reputation on her, which is a thing I never could accomplish on a transient boat. I can "bank" in the neighborhood of $100 a month on her, and that will satisfy me for the present (principally because the other youngsters are sucking their fingers.) Bless me! what a pleasure there is in revenge! and what vast respect Prosperity commands! Why, six months ago, I could enter the "Rooms," and receive only a customary fraternal greeting - but now they say, "Why, how are you, old fellow - when did you get in?"
- Letter to Orion Clemens, June 1860

One time I mistook Capt. Ed Montgomery's coat hanging on the big bell for the Capt. himself and waiting for him to tell me to back I ran into a steamboat at New Orleans.
- Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. 2

Steamboat: ARAGO
Clemens' Service: 28 July - 31 August 1860
Co-Pilot: Isaiah W. "Bill" Hood
[identification of "Bill" Hood was made by researcher Michael Marleau, Nov. 2006]
George P. Sloan
Fate: Burned in Dog Tooth Bend, near Commerce, MO on Feb. 6, 1865.

SS Arago

Clemens' comments: Pilot's Memoranda: Steamer ARAGO left New Orleans on Wednesday, August 22, at 3 P.M. . . . The agents in New Orleans informed the pilots of this boat that "they considered the fact that freights were not so rotten property, as pretty well established." Amen!
- Missouri Republican, 30 August 1860; reprinted in Early Tales and Sketches, Vol. 1

Clemens' Service: 19 September 1860 - 18 November 1860
and 8 January 1861 - 8 May 1861
Co-Pilots: Horace Bixby, William Bowen, Sam Brown
David DeHaven and James O'Neal
Fate: 1861 acquired by Confederacy and taken up Yazoo River to prevent capture. Parts of the boat were salvaged for use on the Confederate ram TENNESSEE; later acquired by the U. S. Navy in September 1863 but not recommissioned.

Ad for Alonzo Child
Ad for the ALONZO CHILD from 1861

Clemens' comments: I grounded the "Child" on the bank, at nearly flood-tide, where we had to stay until the "great" tide ebbed and flowed again (24 hours,) before she floated off.
- Letter to Orion Clemens, 21 November 1860

Ma was delighted with her trip, but she was disgusted with the girls for allowing me to embrace and kiss them--and she was horrified at the Schottische as performed by Miss Castle and me. She was perfectly willing for me to dance until 12 o'clock at the imminent peril of my going to sleep on the after watch--but then she would top off with a very inconsistent sermon on dancing in general; ending with a terrific broadside aimed at the heresy of heresies, the Schottische.
- Letter to Orion Clemens, 18 March 1861

Why in the mischief don't O'Neil die? Is that d----d old Fenian going to live forever? . . . You ought to have seen him & me bring the (d--n the boat's name, I can't think of it now - Alonzo, or Child, or something like that,) up the river through the ice, drawing all the water. He was the whitest Captain I ever sailed with, & in this stiff "earthquake cobbler" I drink present joy & final salvation to him!
- Letter to William Bowen, (from San Francisco, "earthquake cobbler"), 25 August 1866

"... fired across her bows ..."
By Michael Marleau

The opening shots of the War between the States were fired in Charleston, South Carolina upon Fort Sumpter in April of 1861 or so the history books tell us. This event did provoke the war, but they were not the first shots fired.

Earlier in December of 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the union prompting other southern states to begin proceedings to do the same. The United States Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, formerly Governor of Virginia and a southern sympathizer, sent an order to the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh for a shipment of 124 cannons to be sent down the Ohio river to New Orleans for several U.S. forts being built on the gulf. The steamers SILVER WAVE and MARENGO were engaged to convey these cannon south. Upon hearing of these developments citizens of Pittsburgh formed committees to protest this action knowing these guns would be used to build up the arsenals of the southern states, sent telegrams to Washington. The commandant of the arsenal, John Symington, attempted to obey orders to ship the cannon. The guns and their military escorts, were halted on the streets by angry crowds on Christmas Eve and in one case delayed for several hours, though no violence occurred. Thirty-eight were on board the SILVER WAVE before the orders were countermanded.

"Fire-eaters" in the south were enraged by the actions of the citizens of Pittsburgh. In early January of 1861 Louisiana seceded followed by Mississippi. Louisiana in order to build up its arsenal used state troops to capture the Baton Rouge arsenal with its U. S. troops without bloodshed. Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi soon responded upon; "Being advised by the Governor of Louisiana that he had reason to believe that an expedition would be sent down the Mississippi river to reinforce the Garrisons of the Forts and Arsenals of that State, I sent Capt. Kerr with sixteen of the Jackson Artillery Company, and ordered Capt. H. H. Miller to call out the Volunteer Companies of Vicksburg, and take such position as would enable him to prevent any hostile expedition from the Northern States descending the river." (Message of the Governor John J. Pettus to the Senate and House of Representatives of Mississippi, Jan. 15, 1861, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi, Jackson, 1861, p. 6.)

At Vicksburg four guns were placed at the "foot of the bluff, a quarter of a mile above the wharf-boat." It was reported that "blank cartridges were fired to bring to and cause to land the GLADIATOR, the IMPERIAL and the A. O. TAYLOR, and that it was understood that if the summons was not attended to, the next gun fired would be shotted" (Memphis Appeal, Jan. 17, 1861).

Other reports differ as to blanks being fired. The IMPERIAL "passed there during the night, and was forced to land at the behest of a twelve-pound shot fired across her bows" (Memphis Avalanche, Jan. 17, 1861).

"The A. O. TAYLOR disobeyed the first injunction delivered by a six-pound shot, and a twenty-four pounder was loaded with chain shot, and aimed at the boat. Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, the gun misfired, and the boat got beyond the range of the battery. The TAYLOR landed at Butler’s wharf-boat, was boarded by a detachment of military, and made to go back to the encampment, where she was thoroughly overhauled and then permitted to go on her way" (Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

New Orleans papers reported that the "Mississippians are in ‘dead earnest’ making all ‘foreign’ boats stop and give an account of themselves. . . . All Cincinnati boats will be stopped by the soldiers of the new Republic." At Cincinnati and other northern river ports it was believed that the "object of planting cannon at Vicksburg was to capture the cannon expected down on the steamers MARENGO and SILVER WAVE, or any ammunition that might be forwarded South by the Government" and that it was a deliberate attempt to harass northern vessels. (Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 23, 1861, Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

Sam Clemens was also witness to these events. His fellow pilot Will Bowen wrote Clemens on Dec. 10, 1889 recalling, "with your own eyes you saw it all. Do you recall the first Gun of the war directed at you from the Vicksburg Fort, expecting to capture the Boat that had Floyd’s Pittsburg armament, going to Baton Rouge. You were on watch on the 'Alonzo Child.’"

Steamboat: SUNSHINE
Built: 1860
Tonnage: 354
Clemens' Service:
6 December 1860 - 8 January 1861
Pilot: Capt. George W. Willard in 1860; Absalom Grimes in 1861
Henry G. Carson
Fate: burned 13 July 1864 in St. Louis by Confederates

For a full account of Clemens' service on the SUNSHINE, see Michael H. Marleau's
"Cooling Our Bottom on the Sand Bars: A Chronicle of a Low Water Trip"

Steamboat: NEBRASKA
Built: 1854
Tonnage: 683
Clemens' Service: 14 May 1861 - 21 May 1861
Pilot: Zebulon Leavenworth
Captain: Ambrose Reeder
Fate: converted to troop transport during the War; took 91st Infantry Volunteers Illinois from St. Louis to Vicksburg in July 1863. Sunk in the ice at St. Louis 14 January 1866.

Nebraska ad 1856
Ad for NEBRASKA, 1856

Many years later Clemens related to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine his last trip north from New Orleans to Saint Louis. Hostilities were increasing between the Union and Confederate forces and river traffic was coming under inceasing scrutiny. Although Clemens incorrectly recalled the name of the NEBRASKA as the UNCLE SAM, evidence points to the boat being the NEBRASKA. In his biography, Paine wrote:

Zeb Leavenworth was one of the pilots, and Sam Clemens usually stood watch with him. They heard war-talk all the way and saw preparations, but they were not molested, though at Memphis they barely escaped the blockade. At Cairo, Illinois, they saw soldiers drilling -- troops later commanded by Grant. The UNCLE SAM came steaming up toward St. Louis, those on board congratulating themselves on having come through unscathed. They were not quite through, however. Abreast of Jefferson Barracks they suddenly heard the boom of a cannon and saw a great whorl of smoke drifting in their direction. They did not realize that it was a signal -- a thunderous halt -- and kept straight on. Less than a minute later there was another boom, and a shell exploded directly in front of the pilot-house, breaking a lot of glass and destroying a good deal of the upper decoration. Zeb Leavenworth fell back into a corner with a yell.

"Good Lord Almighty! Sam," he said, "what do they mean by that?"

Clemens stepped to the wheel and brought the boat around. "I guess they want us to wait a minute, Zeb," he said.

They were examined and passed. It was the last steamboat to make the trip from New Orleans to St. Louis. Mark Twain's pilot-days were over.

He would have grieved had he known this fact.

"I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since," he long afterward declared, "and I took a measureless pride in it."

The dreamy, easy, romantic existence suited him exactly. A sovereign and an autocrat, the pilot's word was law; he wore his responsibilities as a crown. As long as he lived Samuel Clemens would return to those old days with fondness and affection, and with regret that they were no more.
- Mark Twain: A Biography, Albert Bigelow Paine


On March 20, 1880, Clemens replied to a letter asking if he would ever like to "Be a boy again" and live a part of his life over. He responded:

Would I live it over again under certain conditions? Certainly I would! The main condition would be that I should emerge from boyhood as a "cub pilot" on a Mississippi boat, & that I should by & by become a pilot, & remain one. The minor conditions would be these: Summer always; the magnolias at Rifle Point always in bloom, so that the dreamy twilight should have the added charm of their perfume; the oleanders on the "coast" always in bloom, likewise; the sugar cane always green -- never any “bagasse” burnings; the river always bank-full, so we could run all the chutes -- how heavenly that would be! -- then in the foot of 63, & in a thousand other places, we should see the thick banks of young willows dipping their leaves into the currentless water, & we could thrash right along against them without any danger of hurting anything; & I would require a new "cut-off" to experiment on, every season -- we tried one about a dozen times, one rainy night, & then had to go around, after all -- but it was a noble circus while we had it; I should require that there be a dog-watch in the evening, but none in the morning -- for a dog-watch in the morning is pure foolishness; I would rule out the middle watch in the night, except on moonlight nights, because it makes one feel so dreary & low-spirited & forlorn to rouse out of a pleasant sleep at dead midnight & go & perch away up there in the pilot house in the midst of the wide darkness, with apparently nobody alive in the deserted world but him; but the middle watch in so summer moonlit nights is a gracious time, especially if the boat steers like a duck, & friends have staid up to keep one company, & sing, & smoke, & spin yarns, and blow the whistle when other boats are met (though I remember that the unpracticed friend from the mainland never blew it right, & consequently always made a little trouble;) & I would have the trips long, & the stays in port short; & my boat should be a big dignified freight boat, with a stately contempt for passenger-hails & a tranquil willingness to 'lay up" for fog -- being never in a hurry; & her crew should never change, nor ever die; -- one such crew I have in mind, & can call their names & see their faces, now: but two decades have done their work upon them, & half are dead, the rest scattered, & the boat’s bones are rotting five fathom deep in Madrid Bend. That is the way I would have it all. And in addition, I should require to be notorious among speakers of the English tongue -- because I should want to be invited around, a little, you know, & have nice little kindly attentions in cars & ships & other places where such things help out, you see, & keep a body from feeling homesick. And when strangers were introduced I should have them repeat “Mr. Clemens?” doubtfully, & with the rising inflection -- & when they were informed that I was the celebrated “Master Pilot of the Mississippi,” & immediately took me by the hand & wrung it with effusion, & exclaimed, “O, I know that name very well!” I should feel a pleasurable emotion trickling down my spine & know I had not lived in vain.
- letter to David Watt Bowser, 20 March 1880


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