Thursday, April 2, 2015

A punchline worthy of Mark Twain

Eng and Chang Bunker gave the land for White Plains Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC
MOUNT AIRY, N.C.
     Four years after the Civil War, Mark Twain wrote an essay called Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins. He imagined Eng and Chang Bunker as the definitive example of the war that pitted brother against brother:
     During the War they were strong partisans, and both fought gallantly all through the great struggle—Eng on the Union side and Chang on the Confederate. They took each other prisoners at Seven Oaks, but the proofs of capture were so evenly balanced in favor of each that a general army court had to be assembled to determine which one was properly the captor and which the captive. The jury was unable to agree for a long time; but the vexed question was finally decided by agreeing to consider them both prisoners, and then exchanging them.
     At one time Chang was convicted of disobedience of orders, and sentenced to ten days in the guard house; but Eng, in spite of all arguments, felt obliged to share his imprisonment, notwithstanding he himself was entirely innocent; and so, to save the blameless brother from suffering, they had to discharge both from custody—the just reward of faithfulness.
     Wonder if Twain got the idea from Stoneman's Raid? 
     It is almost certain that some of Stoneman's troops visited the Bunkers' farm 150 years ago, when they camped April 2, 1865, in Mount Airy, N.C., the night before they marched across the Blue Ridge into Virginia. Whether Gen. Stoneman personally met the Siamese Twins is debatable.
     The Bunkers were staunch Confederates and successful farmers who lived in Mount Airy a century before Andy Griffith made it famous as Mayberry. Together they owned 700 acres and about 30 slaves. They married sisters and fathered 21 children. Each had a son who was wounded in service with the Confederate cavalry. The Bunkers' large homes and farms were the kind of targets that attracted raiders as they foraged for food and horses. 
     But were the twins home when the Yankees raiders came through? Or did they hide out, like many Confederate men did? I haven't found documentation that Stoneman's troops actually met the twins themselves. The 1903 regimental history of the Thirteenth Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry describes the Bunkers in general but says nothing about meeting them. The 1906 book on the Fifteenth Pennsylvania describes Mount Airy and neighboring Dobson as "very ordinary villages" without any mention of the extraordinary twins.
     As the Tennessee history shows, the troops would have been aware of the twins even if they never met them. They raided the Mount Airy post office searching for enemy intelligence, and they read everybody's letters as they rode toward Virginia on April 3. Bored soldiers would have speculated wildly about the twins' private lives, just like Twain did. Inevitably, a story this good would have reached Stoneman.
     On the other hand, there may be a kernel of truth in a story published in a Philadelphia newspaper that was widely circulated and probably embellished.
     As the story goes, Stoneman's cavalry had captured some Confederate wagons at Mount Airy and needed drivers. Some mischievous troops decided to hold a draft and set up a lottery wheel with the names of local men. You can guess what happened: Eng was drafted, and Chang was not. You can almost hear Twain wryly joking about how Eng couldn't go because Chang was a conscientious objector.
     If the "draft" happened at all, it was all a sham. The newspaper account says Stoneman was quite amused. In all I've read on the general, this is the only time I've ever seen a hint of a sense of humor. 
Famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady
portrayed Eng and Chang in 1865 with their wives

and two of their 21 children. The twins' names
mean Right and Left in their mother's Chinese
dialect.
     Whatever happened, we can be sure the Bunkers were were not amused. For all they knew, their lives and liberty were at risk. Back in Boone, some of Stonemen's men had gained a reputation for killing the kin of rebel soldiers. Other Confederate sympathizers had been marched off toward a miserable stockade in Ohio that the Bunkers knew all too wellChang's son Christopher was a prisoner there. One of the Yankees may have tried to take advantage of one of the Bunker girls. A family story tells how she defended herself by punching him.

     Beyond the immediate danger was the inevitable economic devastation. Stoneman spared their houses, but without slaves or horses, there would be no way the Bunkers could manage their farm. 
     It would be interesting to know how the Bunkers rationalized slavery, since they had personally been sold into bondage and trafficked overseas. They didn't see eye-to-eye on the issue, either. In the years before the war, they divided their assets, with Chang getting most of the land and Eng most of the slaves.
     When Chang and Eng were 18, a Boston sea captain discovered them in Siam (modern Thailand) and paid their mother $500 to take them on a 30-month tour of America and Europe. Once the twins turned 21 and gained control of their own affairs, they became famous and prosperous.
     Seeking privacy and normalcy, the Bunkers retired from show business at age 28 and moved to the Traphill community of Wilkes County, North Carolina. At 31, they married the Yates sisters, and they soon moved to Mount Airy and built two homes where their children could go to school. (Their story was detailed recently in Our State magazine, which dismissed the draft episode on a technicality.) They turned 50 the day before Fort Sumter was attacked, so they were exempt from serving in the Confederate army. 
     The war in general and the raid in particular left the Bunkers destitute. At age 55, they had to swallow their pride and go back on tour. It was a hard life. Chang drank too much, had a stroke in 1870, and died in his sleep on January 11, 1874. When Eng realized what had happened, he said, "Then I am going," and within three hours he was gone.

Mark Twain gets dead-serious about warfare

     Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was 24 when the Civil War started, and he served two weeks in the Confederate Army in Missouri. One night he was involved in shooting an unarmed man, and he wrote hauntingly about it in an essay called The Private History of a Campaign that Failed. Here's an excerpt:
     When we got to him, the moon revealed him distinctly. He was laying on his back with his arms abroad, his mouth was open and his chest was heaving with long gasps, and his white shirt front was splashed with blood. The thought shot through me that I was a murderer, that I had killed a man, a man who had never done me any harm. That was the coldest sensation that ever went through my marrow.
     I was down by him in a moment, helplessly stroking his forehead, and I would have given anything then, my own life freely, to make him again what he had been five minutes before. And all the boys seemed to be feeling the same way; they hung over him, full of pitying interest, and tried all they could to help him, and said all sorts of regretful things. They had forgotten all about the enemy, they thought only of this one forlorn unit of the foe. Once my imagination persuaded me that the dying man gave me a reproachful look out of the shadow of his eyes, and it seemed to me that I could rather that he had stabbed me than he had done that. He muttered and mumbled like a dreamer in his sleep about his wife and his child, and, I thought with a new despair, "This thing that I have done does not end with him; it falls upon them too, and they never did me any harm, any more than he."
     In a little while the man was dead. He was killed in war, killed in fair and legitimate war, killed in battles as you may say, and yet he was as sincerely mourned by the opposing force as if he had been their brother. The boys stood there a half-hour sorrowing over him and recalling the details of the tragedy, and wondering who he might be and if he was a spy, and saying if they had it to do over again, they would not hurt him unless he attacked them first. It soon turned out that mine was not the only shot fired; there were five others, a division of the guilt which was a great relief to me since it in some degree lightened and diminished the burden I was carrying. There were six shots fired at once but I was not in my right mind at the time, and my heated imagination had magnified my one shot into a volley.
     The man was not in uniform and was not armed. He was a stranger in the country, that was all we ever found out about him. The thought of him got to preying on me every night, I could not get rid of it. I could not drive it away, the taking of that unoffending life seemed such a wanton thing. And it seemed an epitome of war, that all war must just be the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity, strangers who in other circumstances you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it.
      My campaign was spoiled. It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business, that war was intended for men and I for a child's nurse. I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could retain some remanent of my self-respect. These morbid thoughts clung to me against reason, for at the bottom I did not believe I had touched this man. The law of probabilities decreed me guiltless of his blood for in all my small experiences with guns, I had not hit anything I had tried to hit, and I knew I had done my best to hit him. Yet there was no solace in the thought. Against a diseased imagination, demonstration goes for nothing.
     Shortly afterwards, Clemens' 15-man company heard a rumor that a Union colonel was sweeping down on them with a whole regiment. "Our boys went apart and consulted; then we went back and told the other companies present that the war was a disappointment to us and we were going to disband," he wrote. 
     Clemens picked a good time to walk away from a fight, for the menacing Union colonel was none other than Ulysses S. Grant.
     They became friends after the war, and when Grant died in 1885, Mark Twain was responsible for publishing and marketing the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.

NEXT: Bloody welcome to Virginia


Sgt. Angelo Wiser's map shows the march April 2 from Jonesville to Mount Airy.

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