one of the British generals who fought in the Crimean War can be considered as models for Scoresby. Either they were insufficiently famous to be regarded as demigods, or they were manifestly incompetent. Twain may have taken and modified some events from this war for the purposes of his story, but he did not take any of the commanding officers.
There is, however, one figure who was present in the Crimea, and whom we have quoted from extensively, who later went on to achieve a remarkable military reputation: Garnet Wolseley. And in fact Wolseley has been rumored to be the model for Scoresby. The source of this rumor goes back to Mark Twain himself. In one of the strange coincidences of life and art, Twain's story "Luck" begins with a banquet; its denouement in Twain's biography ends with one.
There are two versions of the story identifying Lord Wolseley as Scoresby, one told by Twain in his autobiography, another told by his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and based on Twain's own notes and conversations with Paine. The versions differ in details, and are worth quoting in full. The autobiographical account was dictated by Twain on 31 July 1906:
In 1890 I had published in Harper's Monthly a sketch called "Luck," the particulars of which had been furnished to Twichell by a visiting English army chaplain. The next year, in Rome, an English gentleman introduced himself to me on the street and said, "Do you know who the chief figure in the 'Luck' sketch is?" "No," I said, "I don't."
"Well," he said, "it is Lord Wolseley — and don't you go to England if you value your scalp." In Venice another English gentleman said the same to me. These gentlemen said, "Of course Wolseley is not to blame for the stupendous luck that has chased him up ever since he came shining out of Sandhurst in that most unexpected and victorious way, but he will recognize himself in that sketch, and so will everybody else, and if you venture into England he will destroy you."
In 1900, in London, I went to the Fourth of July banquet, arriving after eleven o'clock at night at a time when the place was emptying itself. [U.S. Ambassador Joseph Hodges] Choate was presiding. An English admiral was speaking and some two or three hundred men were still present. I was to speak and I moved along down behind the chairs, which had been occupied by guests, toward Choate. These chairs were now empty. When I had reached within three chairs of Choate, a handsome man put out his hand and said, "Stop. Sit down here. I want to get acquainted with you. I am Lord Wolseley." I was falling but he caught me and I explained that I was often taken that way. We sat and chatted together and had a very good time — and he asked me for a copy of 1601 and I was very glad to get off so easy. I said he should have it as soon as I reached home.
— (Twain, Autobiography, ed. Neider, 270)
Paine's biography presents a lengthier and more vivid account:
. . . in Rome, an English gentleman — a new acquaintance — said to him:
"Mr. Clemens, shall you go to England?"
"Shall you take your tomahawk with you?"
"Why — yes, if it shall seem best."
"Well, it will. Be advised. Take it with you."
"Because of that sketch of yours entitled 'Luck.' That sketch is current in England, and you will surely need your tomahawk."
"What makes you think so?"
"I think so because the hero of the sketch will naturally want your scalp. And will probably apply for it. Be advised. Take your tomahawk along."
"Why, even with it I sha'n't stand any chance, and he will have my scalp before I know what his errand is."
"Come, do you mean to say that you don't know who the hero of that sketch is?"
"Indeed I haven't any idea who the hero of the sketch is. Who is it?"
His informant hesitated a moment, then named a name of world-wide military significance.
As Mark Twain finished his Fourth of July speech [in 1900] at the Cecil [a London hotel] and started to sit down a splendidly uniformed and decorated personage at his side said:
"Mr. Clemens, I have been wanting to know you a long time," and he was looking down into the face of the hero of "Luck."
"I was caught unprepared," he said in his notes of it. "I didn't sit down — I fell down. I didn't have my tomahawk, and I didn't know what would happen. But he was composed, and pretty soon I got composed and we had a good, friendly time. If he had ever heard of that sketch of mine he did not manifest it in any way, and at twelve, midnight, I took my scalp home intact." [Paine, 1106-07]
These anecdotes could lead to an over-hasty identification of Scoresby with Wolseley. I would argue that any such identification is off the mark [R. Kent Rasmussen very carefully notes that Twain "claimed to have been told by two Englishmen that Scoresby was really Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley" (296)]. But for the moment let us see what the anecdotes do demonstrate. For one, it should come as no surprise that after Twain's story appeared there should have been some speculation in England about the putative identity of the "universal military genius." Though many of the details of the Crimean War reviewed here may seem obscure to non-specialist readers today, more than just the broad outlines would have been vividly present in the minds of British readers of the later Victorian era. If we assume these anecdotes have not been invented by Twain, then we are dealing with two such interested gentlemen, who — let it be noted — approached him quite independently. One can well imagine that there would have been some speculation and gossip among members of the British establishment about Scoresby's real identity, though Twain's accounts are the only evidence that has come to light so far.
The second point to be made about these anecdotes is that in one key aspect, I believe Twain was telling the truth: He did not know who the chief figure in "Luck" was, and was surprised to be so confidently informed it was Wolseley. Who was Lord Wolseley? Though today relatively few people could answer this question, when "Luck" appeared his fame was such that it was only natural that speculation should center on him, "the embodiment of the mid-Victorian Army" (Preston, xiii). Aside from his own memoirs, one of the most valuable portraits of Wolseley can be found in the very journal that one year later was to publish the only known English discussion of "Luck," the Review of Reviews. Its editor was a Mr. Stead, who paid Lord Wolseley a visit in August 1890 to gather material for his profile of the general. Writing later to his wife, Wolseley commented on Stead and his political views: "He is a sort of man who in days of active revolution might be a serious danger. I looked at him, thinking if it should ever be my lot to hang or shoot him" (Wolseley 1922, 264). Perhaps the suggestion that Twain should take his tomahawk with him if he planned to visit London was not so amiss after all.
Wolseley had at least one thing in common with Scoresby: They both studied at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, the training ground for engineers and artillerists. Its honor roll of Victorian-era graduates includes Wolseley, George Gordon and Lord Kitchener. Aside from military subjects, cadets studied French, drawing, classics, geography, and history. Civilian instructors taught the non-military subjects. "Half-yearly examinations were held to fix the rank taken by cadets in their passage from one academy to another" (Smyth, 63). The exams were rather rigorous — in the period 1825-1849 fully one quarter of the cadets failed to obtain commissions. Even George Gordon, who was "not a bad student," years later was afflicted with a nightmare that he was "back at the Academy and had to pass an examination" (Waller, 23-24).
Wolseley's military education, however, came about just as much through his own reading as through formal instruction. "Almost as soon as he began to read he devoured books of history and military works. When a boy he saved up his pocket money to buy military books" (Stead, 281). He read Plutarch's Lives with particular avidity, but also Voltaire's biography of Charles XII, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Hume's History of England and Napier's History of the Peninsular War. He loved mathematics, but hated Greek language and mythology. About his studies at Woolwich he wrote, "I read Caesar for my Army examination; his Commentaries and Xenophon's Anabasis were the only classics I ever thoroughly enjoyed . . . I devoured every work on the theory and practice of war that I could beg, borrow, or afford to buy" (Wolseley 1903, 7-8).
A professor who knew him well observed, "He was an insatiate reader, and his reading covered a surprising range. For a man to whom life offered excitement and animation in almost every direction, it was notable how much time he found to spare for intellectual amusement. He attributed his love of reading to the influence of his Irish mother. He said once to me, 'I would sooner live upon porridge in a book-room than upon venison and truffles where books were not.' " He added that Wolseley was "a voracious reader of miscellaneous literature. Here [in his farmhouse] he liked to be informed of what was going on in the world of letters, and to see as frequently as he could a few friends who wrote. Among these, I think there was none whom he valued more than Henry James, a very old friend . . . " (Gosse, 274, 284).
Indeed, Lord Wolseley was widely regarded as an intellectual, "the brain of the service" (Stead, 275) not only because of his extensive reading but also for his efforts to modernize, professionalize, and reform the British army. If Wolseley was a fool, it would seem he was one of the learned variety.
"When there was a difficult mission, it became the national habit to 'send for Wolseley'. Ubiquitous, all-knowing, unfailing, he was regarded as indispensable to the security of the Empire" (Lehmann, 282). Disraeli called him "our only General." In 1884, when he was entrusted with the mission to rescue Gordon from Khartoum, he was "convinced, as were many of his closest admirers, that he was the greatest commander his country had produced since Wellington" (Preston, xiii). In 1891, when he was posted to semi-retirement in Ireland, it was interpreted as a sign that the British Empire faced no serious threat of war.
Incidentally, Gilbert and Sullivan had Wolseley in mind when they created "the very model of a modern Major-General" in the Pirates of Penzance. The singer who created the role went so far as to mimic the Field Marshal on stage. Wolseley knew this very well, but reportedly "took no offence at the friendly satire" — in fact, he often sang the part himself to entertain his family (Lehmann, 282). So perhaps the tomahawk would not have been needed after all.
Wolseley was widely regarded as a lucky commander. He "made the most of his opportunities. At twenty-seven, he was a major and prospective brevet-colonel, conscious that his career so far 'has been such a wonderful collection of fortunate circumstances' that he need never despair for future employment and advancement" (Preston, xvi). "As a commander he has been singularly fortunate . . . Wherever he went fortune smiled on his flag . . . It is careers like his which lead men to believe in a lucky star . . . . He always fell on his feet in securing fields of service" (Stead, 276, 278). When something fortunate occurred in his life, his biographer explains that "the 'Wolseley luck' once more asserted itself" (Lehmann, 383). In 1859, for example, when he was nominated to a position in charge of the quartermaster-general's department, he "was reminded of his Irish nanny who always called him 'lucky boy'. Wolseley reasoned she must have been clairvoyant" (Lehmann, 77). In the event, however, her clairvoyance left something to be desired, as the position was given to someone else instead. The only other exception to the Wolseley luck was rather more notable: he arrived two days too late to save Gordon in Khartoum.
Like Scoresby, Wolseley was present in the Crimea, though not at Inkerman or Balaclava. Instead, he served as an engineer in the trenches before Sevastopol. Near the end of the siege, he and his men nearly met with disaster when their position came under Russian assault one night. They fired their pistols, cheered loudly, and had a bugler sound the notes, giving the false impression of a large resistance force. The Russians broke off the attack. "It may therefore be said that our people owed this, their definitive victory, to one of the chances of war . . . though Fortune took part in this the last of the conflicts repeated during the night, she at least (as is often her wont) ranged herself on the side of bold men . . . ." (Kinglake, VIII, 123).
"It may be said without exaggeration that he bore a charmed life, for at the termination of the siege [of Sebastopol], of three messes of four members each he was the only remaining officer in the Crimea, all the others having been killed or forced to leave through wounds" (Stead, 277). Though not yet a commanding officer, Wolseley served with distinction and bravery in the Crimea (losing sight in one eye as a result of injuries).
In Twain's story, Canrobert presents Scoresby with a medal upon the field of battle. As for Wolseley, Napoleon III himself nominated him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (Lehmann, 43). Based on his bravery, zeal and merit, Wolseley was also recommended for promotion in the British Army. This was rejected, however, on a technicality: According to the regulations, he had not served long enough to be eligible. Wolseley was bitterly disappointed that his own government did not grant him the reward he felt was his due. Only in 1858 did he receive the rank of Major for his service in the Crimea. From then on his rise was rapid. His long and distinguished career ended shortly after his 4th of July meeting with Twain in London. "As the century came to a close, the greatest soldier England produced since Wellington was retired [in November 1900]" (Lehmann, 388). His honors included the O.M., K.P., G.C.B., G.C.M.G. and D.C.L.
For our purposes, what is important is that, apart from receiving a high honor (and being lucky enough to survive), Wolseley's activities in the Crimea do not match up well with Scoresby's. Wolseley was a siege engineer working in the trenches, not the commander of an infantry regiment. Most of Wolseley's famous exploits occurred after the Crimean War, and need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that none of them bear any resemblance to Scoresby's exploit.
So why was Wolseley considered by some to be the model for Scoresby, if Twain is to be believed? One could point to these circumstances: He had attended Woolwich, had fought in the Crimea, had achieved great fame, and was commonly considered lucky. For those who were convinced that Twain's story was about a specific individual, Wolseley seemed to fit the bill.
At the same time, one would have to close one's eyes to a good deal that is known about Wolseley to find more than a very superficial resemblance between him and Scoresby. Given his wide-ranging reading, it is clear that Wolseley would have had no need to cram for Caesar's history. Given his love of mathematics, he would not have needed coaching to pass an exam in this subject either. Wolseley had his detractors, but none denied his brilliance; "even the most out-and-out Peace man cannot refrain altogether from admiring the capacity, the resource, the energy, and the intelligence of the man who has for so many years been the brain of the British army" (Stead, 288).
Wolseley sincerely thought that "war is ennobling" (Lehmann, 36), an attitude Twain regarded with a high degree of skepticism, to put it mildly. Wolseley was a man who truly enjoyed battle, though he was personally familiar with its hardships and its horrors, and he was not one to romanticize war. His sympathies lay with the rank and file, not the "commissioned creatures," as he called the pampered officers. He was highly critical, for example, of the officers of the Light Brigade — not for following the order that led to the famous charge, but for their unwillingness to share the hardships and discomforts of their men (Wolseley 1903, 90-91).
As we have seen, Wolseley subjected all the British generals who led the Crimean campaign to biting criticism. So it is highly unlikely that Wolseley, who recognized himself in the Pirates of Penzance, would have thought to recognize himself in Scoresby. Even if Wolseley had read "Luck," Twain really had nothing to fear the night he met the Field Marshal in London.
Twain said he was surprised to hear that Wolseley was Scoresby. So if it is not Wolseley, what candidates remain? There was only one British military leader of the nineteenth century that Wolseley could be compared to. And as it turns out, he is in many ways a much more likely candidate.
Other Sections of “Mark Twain on the Crimean War”
- The Crimean War
- Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley
- Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington
- Ulysses S. Grant
Created 16 August 2005
Last modified 10 April 2017