Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

Bierce LOABierce

Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce was most appreciated in his lifetime by the United States Army.

The American Civil War gave Bierce the chance to escape what his family represented: “religion, morality, thrift, and responsibility” as E. F. Bleiler put it. He signed up a week after the beginning of the war. His courage, intelligence, and decisiveness stood him in good stead. Entering a private, he left in 1865 as a captain. The paperwork, though, mistakenly said “Major Bierce” and that was the title he insisted others use the rest of his life.

He saw a lot of action at the Battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain. It was at the last, in 1864, he was shot, his head, as he put it, “broken like a walnut”. It was that wound which his older brother, Albert (all 13 of the Bierce children had names beginning with “A”), blamed for changing Ambrose’s personality. Albert may have been the sibling closest to Ambrose but that didn’t stop him from sending Albert, shortly before he left on his fateful Mexican trip, a letter said to have hastened Albert’s death due to its sheer fury.

Bierce returned to combat three months later, was briefly captured but escaped, and went on to participate in the Battle of Franklin.

For his Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, S. T. Joshi has included several fiction and autobiographical sketches that came out of that war experience.

This isn’t a review of that volume since I didn’t read it cover to cover, so I’ll not cover every story.

Bierce divided his wartime stories into two camps: soldiers and civilians. In an interview about the collection, Joshi says Bierce insisted on that distinction because civilians could never really understand the experience of the soldier.

Of the soldier tales, many regard “What I Saw of Shiloh” as the best, indeed the best thing Bierce ever wrote. In his 1963 introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, E. F. Bleiler states that Bierce’s Civil War stories appealed to the readers of the 1950s and 1960s better than the readers of the 1890s.

Perhaps so, but I will note that Ken Burns’ documentary series The Civil War, probably the most popular history of the war, does not, to my recollection, quote Bierce once in all the memoirs and speeches and letters and newspaper articles it uses. Nor is Bierce listed in Geoffrey C. Ward’s The Civil War, the companion volume to the series.

I think I know the reason. Bierce’s war memoirs are not full of talk of heroic sacrifice or meditations on the war’s meaning and have no trace, at least in the ones I’ve read, of survivor’s guilt. They are unsentimental, often grim, and sometimes mock the dead. They are examples of Bierce’s fierce admonition to always tell the truth as he saw it. Joshi also comments that Bierce allowed himself more emotion in his memoirs than in his fiction.

“What I Saw of Shiloh”

“What I Saw of Shiloh” exhibits these traits.

On April 6, 1862, on the banks of the Tennessee River, Union troops huddled on a beach on the Confederate side of the river. Bierce notes that cowardice, the desire to avoid death, and physical courage, not shirking from death, can be complicated things in battle:

These men were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions. They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by a provost-marshal’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank. An army’s bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.

Commenting on a phenomena of several Civil War battlefields, wounded men being burned to death while laying on dry vegetation ignited by gunfire, Bierce says:

Their clothing was half burnt away — their hair and beard entirely; the rain had come too late to save their nails. Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins. According to degree of exposure, their faces were bloated and black or yellow and shrunken. The contraction of muscles which had given them claws for hands had cursed each countenance with a hideous grin. Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.

Yet, at the end of the essay, Bierce contemplates the youthful vigor he had on the battlefield:

Is it not strange that the phantoms of a blood-stained period have so airy a grace and look with so tender eyes? — that I recall with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque? Ah, Youth, there is no such wizard as thou! Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.

There is also a stylistic element present here. Many Bierce stories feature optical illusions or plot points hinging on knowledge that is contingent with a specific line of sight or vantage position. Of course, angles of attack and lines of sight and commanding heights are all elements important in combat, so Bierce could be expected to mention them in a war memoir. But I speculate that serving as a topographical surveyor heightened his awareness of such things.

Here he describes the fortuitous position held by Union gunboats:

The bayou made an opening in the high bank of the river. The bank was a parapet, behind which the gunboats crouched, firing up at the bayou as through an embrasure. The enemy was at his disadvantage: he could not get at the gunboats, and he could advance only by exposing his flank to their ponderous missiles, one of which would have broken a half-mile of his bones and made nothing of it. Very annoying this must have been — these twenty gunners beating back an army because a sluggish creek had been pleased to fall into a river at one point rather than another. Such is the part that accident may play in the game of war.

The essay was written in 1881. But Bierce must have always thought of those war years. Just before he left for Mexico in 1913, he toured several Civil War battlefields. He told a reporter, “I’m on my way to Mexico, because I like the game. I like the fighting; I want to see it.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (spoilers)

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” actually depends, in its retrospective power, on the skill one appreciates after re-reading story and knowing the surprise ending, on that careful attention to geometry.

In this tale of the hopeful hallucinations that go through a convicted Confederate spy’s brain from the moment a tilting board pulls him down to the moment his neck breaks, what Fahrquhar, the condemned man, sees in the last seconds of life are all explained. The “circular horizontal streaks of color” is the sun seen by his revolving head. The railroad ties above him become a forest. The congestion of blood in his eyes shows as “strange roseate light”.

The story has no supernatural elements and shows Bierce’s concern with psychological horror. And the end is sort of a morbid joke that is another common element in Bierce’s work.

The story, though somewhat longer than a lot of Bierce stories, is structured in his characteristic way with an opening hook, here Fahrquhar’s pending execution, followed by a backfill of the story, here why he became a spy.

“A Horseman in the Sky” (spoilers)

This story didn’t do much for me. It is essentially how the son of a Southern planter comes to join the Union forces and kill his father quite deliberately. But it does have one of those moments quite dependent on the geometry of sight, the alignment of forces: an officer sees the titular horseman in the sky.

I’ll cover more of Bierce’s Civil War stories and essays in my next posting.

Previous Installments in This Series:

Reading Bitter Bierce


More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.

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