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My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue by Samuel Chamberlain

December 16, 2017

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Samuel Chamberlain is for the most part an obscure footnote in the history of the American West, but his story garnered some attention in the literary world when Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985. Like most people who read My Confession nowadays, I came to it as part of my Blood Meridian (and general Cormac McCarthy) obsession. My Confession was the main source material, and though McCarthy took many liberties with the story, I was surprised to see how much of Blood Meridian is lifted directly from it. I’ll address this more in my upcoming review of Blood Meridian, but here I want to focus on My Confession as a standalone work.

Samuel Chamberlain was born in 1829 and grew up in Boston. He was rabble-rouser who got into fights often. He left Boston as a teen and at age seventeen enlisted to fight in the Mexican-American War. Chamberlain gives a good portrait of what the war was like for an average foot soldier, both in the action and between. He writes about the landscape, the people they encounter, the daily activities of the soldiers, his escapades with women and, of course, his frequent fights.

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But after the war is when Chamberlain’s story becomes remarkable. He joins up with a gang of mercenaries known as the Glanton Gang, led by an ex-soldier and ex-Texas Ranger named John Glanton, a “gloomy monomaniac hating all mankind.” Glanton’s wife had been killed by Lipan Indians, after which Glanton had hunted the murderers and retrieved her scalp. During the War of Texas Independence, it was reported that Glanton often scalped Mexicans. “Any other man in Texas would have been lynched,” Chamberlain says, but Glanton’s service in war earned him a mere banishment by Sam Houston. So Glanton headed west.

Glanton’s penchant for scalps foreshadows the darkness that will come into Chamberlain’s adventure. As he begins to travel with the gang, he notices that Glanton frequently wanders out of camp at night and returns in the morning with scalps. Around this time, Glanton signed a deal with the governor of Sonora in Mexico (working for his old enemy) to help fight the Apaches. The gang was paid $50 per Apache scalp (right ear attached). But they soon realized that it all scalps looked basically the same, so any scalp could fetch the bounty. The incentive to genocide became incentive to indiscriminate murder.

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As if Glanton wasn’t villain enough, Glanton’s second in command—the semi-mythical Judge Holden—was even worse.

But before I get to him, I want to note Chamberlain’s style, because it makes for a bizarre juxtaposition. He writes with a colorful, melodramatic tone, maybe drawing on the tradition of historical romances of the frontier. But against the backdrop of such violence and atrocity, the juxtaposition is unsettling. It’s hard to say if Chamberlain is just naïve in his youth, or if violence was so commonplace as to warrant no special reverence.

Sometimes the flippant style works. When a fight breaks out over a poker game, Chamberlain says, “there was only one way in ’46 to settle misunderstandings of this nature. We went for one another and he very foolishly run onto the point of my Arkansas toothpick…” I don’t know if Chamberlain made it up, but you have to applaud “Arkansas toothpick” and the assertion that his victim has just run onto the point of it.

In another act of casual violence, Chamberlain shoots an “Indian” from across a canyon. As he laments that he won’t be able to retrieve the scalp, he is surprised by a hint of melancholy. “I felt as if I had committed a murder,” he notes. (Hate to tell you, buddy, but you kind of did.)

Even when he is describing the kidnapping and murder of his own love interest, he can’t seem to find the right tone, bluntly noting that by the time he finds her, she had been “outraged by Canales’ [a Mexican outlaw’s] whole gang of demons and then cut to pieces.”

Which brings us to Judge Holden. Holden steals the show both here and in Blood Meridian. This is Chamberlain’s introduction of him:

The second in command…was a man of gigantic size who rejoiced in the name of Holden, called “Judge Holden of Texas.” Who or what he was, no one knew, but a more cold blooded villain never went unhung. He stood six foot six in moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull-tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression…

His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name in the Cherokee nation and Texas. And before we left Fronteras a little girl of ten was found in the chaparral, foully violated and murdered, the mark of a huge hand on her little throat points out him as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime.

Holden is the villain of Blood Meridian, but I assumed the more horrific aspects of his character had been fabricated by McCarthy. I was shocked to see how much was a direct lift from Chamberlain’s Holden (and that a man this terrifying inhabited the American west).

Holden continues his depravity throughout Chamberlain’s account, but what makes him such a great character is that his sociopathic nature is balanced by a refined intellect. “He was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico. He conversed with all in their language, spoke in several Indian lingos…,” could play harp or guitar, was “plum centre” with a rifle or revolver, was a daring horseman, an expert botanist and educated in geology and mineralogy.

When Holden gave a lecture on the geology of the region, this miscreant gang “listened to the demon like literati with marked attention.” Holden claimed that the landscape was a result of “millions of years,” which Glanton called a “damned lie.” Later, while Chamberlain rode next to Holden through the cut of the Little Colorado, the judge talked of an ancient inland sea that used to cover the territory. He remarked that eventually the gang would hit a dead end and need to turn around, but that he was grateful to have seen “the greatest natural wonder of the world.”

Chamberlain notes that Holden avoided combat if the odds were equals and adds, “I hated him at first sight, and he knew it.” As the story continues, they do become protagonist and antagonist to such a degree that one wonders if there was fabrication of Holden’s character by Chamberlain. Nevertheless, the back half of the book, after Chamberlain joins the Glanton Gang, is a fascinating and terrifying account.

Chamberlain wrote his Confessions years after the actual events, so the proclivity to exaggerate and form the recollections into a salable (and unverifiable) narrative might have been great. The story definitely reads like a tall tale, though darker than any other I know of.

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I read the large-format edition published by the Texas State Historical Association, which includes images of the actual pages of Chamberlain’s handwritten manuscript and dozens of watercolors Chamberlain painted during his travels. Some of the scenes with people are a little amateurish, but the landscapes are actually quite beautiful and add a whole other strange element to this book. That edition of the book is beautiful, though it currently sells for nearly $400 (bless the public library).

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