14 July 1861, Florida, Missouri
“Florida contained but one hundred people when I was born here twenty-six years ago and I increased the town’s population by one percent. This is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town.”
The speaker held an old smoothbore musket in sweaty hands, and he licked his upper lip nervously, a bushy black mustache adorning the space between mouth and nose.
“Now ya get the chance to defend your town from the Yankees, Sam,” the man next to him said.
Both men were dressed in civilian clothes, dirty from weeks spent foraging and traveling to and fro across Missouri following the orders of confused and amateur officers. How they’d ended up here was pure chance, the vagaries of war. It was early morning, and the dew had yet to be burned away by the mid-July heat. It was the most comfortable time of the day and would soon be gone.
“I did leave when I was four, though, so I have no particular fondness for the place,” Samuel Clemens noted.
“Aint much to it,” his friend agreed as they took in the muddy lane that ran through the small cluster of cabins. The two guards held a position just south of the hamlet where the road peaked a knoll, so they could see in both directions. “Why the devil does this Union Colonel want this place?”
“Probably same reason we’re standing here,” Clemens said. “Someone told him to.”
Behind the two pickets, in a trampled cornfield, a cluster of makeshift shelters and men rolled in blankets constituted the small unit sent to defend Florida, Missouri from the Union incursion. It consisted of Clemens’ own group, the self-named Marions Rangers, and other bands of men that could not quite be called a company of light infantry, although they would agree on the light: light on weapons, light on food and light on discipline.
Hush.” Clemens turned his head, listening. “Riders coming.” He tapped his partner on the shoulder. “Best get the Colonel.”
As a side note: The Union force approaching Floriday, Missouri, was the 21st Illinois commanded by Colonel U.S. Grant. It was Grant’s first time leading troops into combat. Years after the war, destitute from a ponzi scheme and dying, Grant finally acceded to Twain’s request to publish his memoirs. It became the #1 bestselling nonfiction book of the 19th Century and insured Grant’s family future.