Eleazer French’s Arm


At a 90th Birthday Party for my Aunt Lorraine last weekend, my cousin Bob loaned me a book that looks like something out of an old movie. Genealogical History of the French and Allied Families, written by Mary Queal Beyer in 1912, is the kind of book they just don’t make anymore. Even then, there were only 200 copies printed. It’s been read around the family fire for so long that it smells like smoke. It is a treasure trove for us French family descendants, going back to the Frenches who fought at the battle of Hastings in 1066. 

One of the stories included in the book takes place at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in 1775, where our ancestor Eleazer French lost his arm to a cannonball. Rather than leave a trophy on the field of battle, he carried his arm home with him. New Englanders are sturdy stock. Eleanor W.F. Bates wrote the following poem to commemorate that event:

When dewlling on the heroes of field, redoubt and trench,
Shall we not tell the story of young Eleazer French?
  With fowling piece and powder horn
  Under the clear June starlight borne,
  They labored till the early morn
     On Bunker’s honored height;

  Long hours the pick and shovel plied,

  And each who, weary, stepped aside,
  Found eagerly his place supplied
     Throughout the summer night.
  No stouter hearts of stronger frame
  Were there, with patriot fire aflame,
  Than those from Dunstable that came
     To battle for the right.

  And when th’ invading force was met,

  With powder grime and bloody sweat,
  The farmers’ flitlocks paid the debt
     They owed to Howe’s great guns.
  Muskets of old-time minute men!
  Ye told the story once again,
  How tyrants doubt and falter when
     Assemble Freedom’s sons.

  Full soon they heard the bugle call

  And saw the young Eleazer fall,
  Where sped the British cannon ball
     Upon its path of harm.
  “Fall back! keep safe from further ill!”
  They shouted; he, unconquered still,
  Quoth stoutly, and with steadfast will,
     “No! not without my arm!”

  The severed limb all bleeding lay,

  But he who fought that glorious day,
  Took it upon his anguished way
     And left no trophy there;
  Racked with fierce pains and bitter qualms,
  Fainting, and stunned with war’s alarms,
  Bravely he bore off both his arms
     To show what soldiers dare

Oh ye who sing our heroes of parapet and trench

Fail not to tell the story of brave Eleazer French!

Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc

 “By far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
Mark Twain on Joan of Arc

When Mark Twain wrote Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in 1896 he was 61 years old and madly in love with his teenage heroine. While reading this book more than a century later, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.

It was the last novel published in his lifetime and he considered it his best. The reasons are obvious: the maturity and detail born of more than a decade’s research show the expert hand of a master of his craft. But what makes this book his favorite is his love for its subject. It’s hard to imagine Twain loving any of his characters more than he loved Joan of Arc.

“She was sixteen now, shapely and graceful, and of a beauty so extraordinary that I might allow myself any extravagance of language in describing it and yet have no fear of going beyond the truth.There was in her face a sweetness and serenity and purity that justly reflected her spiritual nature.”

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Saint Joan, writes of Joan and Twain, “She makes her creator ridiculous, and yet, being the work of a man of genius, remains a credible human goodygoody in spite of her creator’s infatuation. Mark Twain writes his biography frankly in the form of a romance.”

The artist and his muse

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was originally serialized in Harper’s Magazine under the name of the Sieur Louis de Conte, the story’s narrator, because Twain was worried that his reputation as a humorist would prejudice the audience against the seriousness of the story. Genius is a hard thing to hide though and it was recognized as his work almost immediately. Although not as well regarded in his time or ours as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there is no lack of genius is this book. It is genius inspired by adoration. As a man who had publicly repudiated religion, he was able to find a nearly-religious devotion to The Maid.

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain formed a club for girls aged 10 to 16 with whom he corresponded and hosted at the manor he named Innocence At Home in honor of his “Angelfish.” He wrote that the club was his “life’s chief delight.” It might seem creepy for an old man to find comfort in the company of girls but that’s an attitude retroactively applied from an age that has sexualized childhood. I believe Twain’s delight came from something much simpler: memory.

“As, she was so beautiful, and oh, so sweet! I had loved her the first day I ever saw her, and from that day forth she was sacred to me. I have carried her image in my heart for sixty-three years – all lonely there, yes, solitary, for it never has had company – and I am grown so old, so old; but it, oh, it is as fresh and young and merry and mischievous and lovely and sweet and pure and witching and divine as it was when it crept in there, bringing benediction and peace to its habitation so long ago, so long ago – for it has not aged a day!”