Mark Twain, a Biography

Author: Albert Bigelow Paine

XXIX the End of Piloting

It is curious, however, that Madame Caprell, with clairvoyant vision, should not have seen an important event then scarcely more than two months distant: the breaking-out of the Civil War, with the closing of the river and the end of Mark Twain’s career as a pilot. Perhaps these things were so near as to be "this side" the range of second sight.

There had been plenty of war-talk, but few of the pilots believed that war was really coming. Traveling that great commercial highway, the river, with intercourse both of North and South, they did not believe that any political differences would be allowed to interfere with the nation’s trade, or would be settled otherwise than on the street corners, in the halls of legislation, and at the polls. True, several States, including Louisiana, had declared the Union a failure and seceded; but the majority of opinions were not clear as to how far a State had rights in such a matter, or as to what the real meaning of secession might be. Comparatively few believed it meant war. Samuel Clemens had no such belief. His Madame Caprell letter bears date of February 6, 1861, yet contains no mention of war or of any special excitement in New Orleans— no forebodings as to national conditions.

Such things came soon enough: President Lincoln was inaugurated on the 4th of March, and six weeks later Fort Sumter was fired upon. Men began to speak out then and to take sides.

It was a momentous time in the Association Rooms. There were pilots who would go with the Union; there were others who would go with the Confederacy. Horace Bixby was one of the former, and in due time became chief of the Union River Service. Another pilot named Montgomery (Samuel Clemens had once steered for him) declared for the South, and later commanded the Confederate Mississippi fleet. They were all good friends, and their discussions, though warm, were not always acrimonious; but they took sides.

A good many were not very clear as to their opinions. Living both North and South as they did, they saw various phases of the question and divided their sympathies. Some were of one conviction one day and of another the next. Samuel Clemens was of the less radical element. He knew there was a good deal to be said for either cause; furthermore, he was not then bloodthirsty. A pilot-house with its elevated position and transparency seemed a poor place to be in when fighting was going on.

"I’ll think about it," he said. "I’m not very anxious to get up into a glass perch and be shot at by either side. I’ll go home and reflect on the matter."

He did not realize it, but he had made his last trip as a pilot. It is rather curious that his final brief note-book entry should begin with his future nom de plume—a memorandum of soundings—"mark twain," and should end with the words "no lead."

He went up the river as a passenger on a steamer named the Uncle Sam. 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 basely 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.


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Chicago: Albert Bigelow Paine, "XXIX the End of Piloting," Mark Twain, a Biography, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in Mark Twain, a Biography (New York: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1894), Original Sources, accessed December 8, 2023,

MLA: Paine, Albert Bigelow. "XXIX the End of Piloting." Mark Twain, a Biography, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in Mark Twain, a Biography, Vol. 22, New York, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1894, Original Sources. 8 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Paine, AB, 'XXIX the End of Piloting' in Mark Twain, a Biography, ed. . cited in 1894, Mark Twain, a Biography, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 8 December 2023, from