Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

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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. Continue reading