Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

Bierce LOABierce

“Killed at Recasa” (with Spoilers)

S. T. Joshi, in an interview regarding his Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirsclaims that all his work — essays, poems, journalism, and fiction — was written “under the satirical impulse”.

The target of this story is the cult of bravery under fire, specifically bravery to impress a woman.

The narrator of the tale tells the story of the “best soldier of our staff”, Lieutenant Herman Brayle. A commanding, handsome presence, he sits on his horse “like an equestrian statue, in a storm of bullets and grape”. Dismounted he

… stands like a rock in the open when officers and men alike had taken to cover; while men older in service and years, higher in rank and of unquestionable intrepidity, were loyally preserving behind the crest of a hill lives infinitely precious to their country … “

Sent to deliver an important order on the battlefield, he recklessly takes the shorter, more dangerous route to deliver the message. In the middle of the battlefield, between friend and foe, his horse is shot. “He could not go forward, he would not turn back; he stood awaiting death. It did not keep him long waiting.”

The narrator takes possession of Brayle’s effects to deliver them to beloved in California. Among them is a letter,

… an ordinary love letter, if a love letter can be ordinary. There was not much in it, but there was something. It was this:

“Mr. Winters, whom I shall always hate for it, has been telling that at some battle in Virginia, where he got his hurt, you were seen crouching behind a tree. I think he wants to injure you in my regard, which he knows the story would do if I believed it. I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.”

And she gets her wish. Seeing the blood stains on the letter, she asks the narrator how Brayle died all the while burning the letter since she can not “bear the sight of blood!”.

The story concludes with the bitter lines “I had never seen anything so beautiful as this detestable creature. ‘He was bitten by a snake,’ I replied.”

“A Tough Tussle” (with Spoilers)

This story straddles the line between psychological horror of the Poe variety — Bierce was a Poe admirer — and the possibly supernatural.

Second-Lieutenant Brainerd Byring is a “brave and efficient officer”, but he has one quirk. While he finds the battlefield exhilarating, the sight of the inevitable dead is intolerable to him. He resents and loathes the dead. “Death was a thing to be hated. It was not picturesque, it had no tender and solemn side — a dismal thing, hideous in all its manifestations and suggestions.”

However, one night on duty in a dark forest in Virginia, listening to the silence which is is not silence and quite different than the quiet of the day, he becomes contemplative: “The universe was one primeval mystery of darkness, without form and void, himself the sole, dumb questioner of its eternal secret.”

He also begins to think the corpse of a Confederate soldier is somehow moving.

Suddenly, retreating Federal troops come through Brying’s position. Shots ring out.

The next morning Brying is found dead, killed by his own sword. The Confederate’s body is examined by a surgeon: “The dead do not wish to be moved — it protested with a faint, sickening odor. Where it had lain were a few maggots, manifesting an imbecile activity.”

Did Brying trip and impale himself on his own sword? Did he see the body move slightly because of the maggots? Was, in some sense, the Confederate still alive?

“A Resumed Identity” (with Spoilers)

This story has a few points of interest.

Written in 1908, it essentially recapitulates 1886’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”, an important Bierce story I will talk about in a future posting. In this story, while not nearly as much time has passed between death and rebirth as in the latter story, the monument that reveals the true state of affairs has not fared well: ” … Time had laid his destroying hand upon it, and it would soon be ‘one with Nineveh and Tyre.'” The protagonist eventually comes to realize he’s dead which also makes it sort of a conceptual reversal of Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890.

But the scene of death is at the Battle of Stone River, a battle Bierce fought in. In fact, the dead man was even a member of Colonel William C. Hazen’s brigade. Bierce served on Hazen’s staff, and Hazen became sort of a patron to him in his military career.  Bierce left the army in early 1865 for medical reasons, but, in 1866, served as a map maker on an inspection tour of western forts undertaken by Hazen.

As he mostly starkly does in “The Damned Thing”, Bierce titles his story sections with bleak irony. One is “When You Have Lost your Life Consult a Physician”.

Soldier-Folk and Haunted Houses (with Spoilers)

Bierce did several shorter stories he grouped together under “Soldier-Folk” and “Haunted Houses”.

They are not, as a whole, terribly interesting except for their settings. Most have predictable endings and are workings of the familiar plot formulas in ghost stories. E. F. Bleiler’s summary, in his introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, strikes me as accurate:

The ghost stories of Ambrose Bierce are not the best in the English language, but they are among the most unusual. They embody a strange paradox: they are very stylized and written according to a very conscious theoretical pattern, and at the same time they are very personal …

Several take place during the Civil War.

“Three and One are One” is premised on the famous “brother against brother” characterization of the Civil War. Here, though, as in his “A Horseman in the Sky”, it’s more like father against brother. The son of a humble Tennessee family, who owns no slaves, joins the Union Army against the wishes of his father who has Confederate sympathies. Since both possess “inflexible character”, there is no cordial good-bye.

After two years of war, the son finds himself near his home and visits. He finds himself unacknowledged and seemingly unseen. Eventually we learn they are, of course, actually dead, killed by a Union shell. And, earlier in the story, we learn the son will go on to answer “‘Here’ to the sergeant whose name is Death”.

“A Baffled Ambuscade” has a soldier on picket duty disobeying orders and riding forward. He seemingly is seen fighting Confederates ahead of the line. But, at dawn, his corpse is found. He has been dead for several hours. Who foiled the Confederate ambush?

“Two Military Executions” looks at harsh army discipline:

“To one imbued from infancy with the fascinating fallacy that all men are born equal, unquestioning submission to authority is not easily mastered, and the American volunteer soldier in his ‘green and salad days’ is among the worst known.”

A private is executed for striking a superior officer. It turns out they are old schoolmates, but discipline must be maintained. Later the executed man answers roll call. However, a shot rings out and the executing officer falls dead from a single shot from the enemy.

“The Other Lodgers” is a haunted house tale mostly of interest for the haunted house having been used as a hospital in the Atlanta of September 1864.

“Four Days in Dixie”

This is an interesting autobiographical piece.

In October 1864, near Gaylesville, Alabama, Bierce and another member of Colonel McConnell’s staff, seek their fortunes during some down time. Riding near the Coosa River, they encounter three Union soldiers, fellow brigade members, on picket duty. All five cross the river and run into Confederate troops. Bierce then relates a engrossing tale of evasion, capture, and escape. He also mentions Confederate troops who treat him well but warn him that, if they meet a local guerilla who is “a greater terror to his friends than to his other foes”, he’ll probably be hung.

The tale ends on Bierce’s wry wit. The words he hears, after escaping and staggering back to home lines, are:

“What is it, Cobb?” said the chief, who had not taken the trouble to rise.

“I don’t know, Colonel, but thank God it is dead!”

It was not.”

“What Occurred at Franklin”

I know little about the Battle of Franklin except that it was on a large enough scale to be dubbed “The Gettysburg of the West”. Bierce was there, and this is his account.

In my next posting, I’ll be covering some of Bierce’s life after the Civil War and relevant autobiographical writings.

Earlier Installments in This Series

Reading Bitter Bierce

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.


17 thoughts on “Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

  1. pbeyer October 12, 2014 / 11:18 am

    I love this review. I hope you can get to, and explain “The Boarded Window”. That story was always so strange to me that I thought there had to be more going on.

  2. marzaat October 12, 2014 / 11:41 am

    Glad you liked it, and thanks for the suggestion.

    I missed “The Boarded WIndow”, but it’s in the Library of America edition, so I’ll take a look at it.

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