Review of Ambrose
Bierce’s Civil War Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/06
Today, if known at all, Ambrose Bierce is recalled as that guy who wrote that funny book The Devil’s Dictionary. He was seen, and still is seen, as a sort of poor man’s Mark Twain. This is quite unfair, as he was a marvelous writer in his own right, although not with the depth nor wit that Twain possessed. Part of the problem is that his personal life, strong opinions, and bitter biases (he loathed Oscar Wilde, for example), have led to his marginalization. Yet, Bierce was a master of the short story form- every bit the equal or superior of more lauded contemporaries like Guy de Maupassant, or O. Henry. Mostly, it is in the horror or thriller vein that his tales fall, but his best work, in my opinion, can be found in his marvelous tales of the Civil War, sixteen of which are collected in a Dover Thrift Edition called Civil War Stories.
These are simply riveting tales, far more modern than his contemporaries work, and most of this is due to Bierce’s journalistic background (he worked for William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner). About the only thing that keeps the tales from a full claim on modernity is Bierce’s penchant for twist endings, rather than the more naturalistic zero endings that Anton Chekhov pioneered, and others ran with. Still, the description that Bierce paints- of lives, deaths, moments, and battles, are rich, horrific, and vivid. His characters are usually merely servants to the overall narrative- another ‘throwback’ trait of pre-modern fiction, but ask yourself- is there a character in all of Donald Barthelme’s or Rick Moody’s writing that is not cardboard? Bierce was simply not attempting great character portraits, in general, so to hold him up to that standard is not tenable. By every other measure, though, his tales could have been penned by a modern writer covering Vietnam or the two Iraq wars.
Bierce is a fundamentally philosophic writer, even though he doesn’t grandstand to display his intellect. It all comes out in the narrative. Yes, most are deterministic and filled with a malignant cosmic trickster, but….is that really so farfetched? His most famous short story, Civil War or otherwise is An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, which follows the story of a condemned man who seemingly escapes a hanging, only to return home and find everything is as it was before the war. As he rushes to embrace his beautiful wife he feels a pain in his neck, and his body hangs limply from the noose. The whole tale was just his last second desideratum, and ends famously:
His neck was in pain, and, lifting his hand to it, he found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cool air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue! He could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he fell asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the verandah to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her, he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Yet, other less famous tales are its equal. What I Saw Of Shiloh is a devastatingly poetic look at the ravages of war. There are no soaring paeans to glory nor honor, no in depth analysis of military tactics, only war, itself: confusion, murder, chaos, cold wetness, fear, deafening destruction, and a glaze-eyed glare:
Then the storm burst. A great gray cloud seemed to spring out of the forest into the faces of the waiting battalions. It was received with a crash that made the very trees turn up their leaves. For one instant the assailants paused above their dead, then struggled forward, their bayonets glittering in the eyes that shone behind the smoke. One moment, and those unmoved men in blue would be impaled. What were they about? Why did they not fix bayonets? Were they stunned by their own volley? Their inaction was maddening! Another tremendous crash!—the rear rank had fired! Humanity, thank Heaven! is not made for this, and the shattered gray mass drew back a score of paces, opening a feeble fire. Lead had scored its old-time victory over steel; the heroic had broken its great heart against the commonplace. There are those who say that it is sometimes otherwise.
All this had taken but a minute of time, and now the second Confederate line swept down and poured in its fire. The line of blue staggered and gave way; in those two terrific volleys it seemed to have quite poured out its spirit. To this deadly work our reserve regiment now came up with a run. It was surprising to see it spitting fire with never a sound, for such was the infernal din that the ear could take in no more. This fearful scene was enacted within fifty paces of our toes, but we were rooted to the ground as if we had grown there. But now our commanding officer rode from behind us to the front, waved his hand with the courteous gesture that says apres vous, and with a barely audible cheer we sprang into the fight. Again the smoking front of gray receded, and again, as the enemy’s third line emerged from its leafy covert, it pushed forward across the piles of dead and wounded to threaten with protruded steel. Never was seen so striking a proof of the paramount importance of numbers. Within an area of three hundred yards by fifty there struggled for front places no fewer than six regiments; and the accession of each, after the first collision, had it not been immediately counterpoised, would have turned the scale.
Yet, Bierce also suffuses it, and the other tales, with humor and irony. Four Days In Dixie is also replete with excellent description:
When night had fallen I cautiously left my place of concealment, dodged across the road into the woods and made for the river through the mile of corn. Such corn! It towered above me like a forest, shutting out all the starlight except what came from directly overhead. Many of the ears were a yard out of reach. One who has never seen an Alabama river-bottom cornfield has not exhausted nature’s surprises; nor will he know what solitude is until he explores one in a moonless night.
The tale follows a Union soldier attempts to return to his company after being separated in Alabama. He succeeds, only to return, and not be taken for a human being. Its enigmatic end is both poetic and symbolic, in the best senses of the words. A Horseman In The Sky follows the relationship of a Confederate father and his Union son, with another twist end that moves and stirs. Chickamauga follows a deaf mute boy who wanders away from home, only to return and find that his home has been set afire. A Son Of The Gods, subtitled A Study In The Present Tense, is a tale which is written in that tense to heighten tension, and given its tale on war, is very successful. One Of The Missing is sort of a sibling answer to A Horseman In The Sky, as a Union sharpshooter is pinned underneath a collapsed building with his loaded and cocked rifle pointed at his head, while Killed At Resaca is the study of what foolish ends a man will go to to acquire a woman’s love. Its end is emotionally devastating, as it all turns out to be for naught- but not for the expected reason. The Coup de Grâce is a study of the old phrase timing is everything, while Parker Addison, Philosopher is, likewise, a tale that explores irony and destiny as a Union spy is interrogated by a dimwitted Confederate officer. The spy, Addison, treats the threat of his execution at dawn, in a cavalier manner, until he feels his honor is at stake. Here is an exchange from early on:
“Have you any arrangements of your own that you wish to make? Do you wish to see a chaplain, for example?”
“I could hardly secure a longer rest for myself by depriving him of some of his.”
“Good God, man! do you mean to go to your death with nothing but jokes upon your lips? Do you know that this is a serious matter?”
“How can I know that? I have never been dead in all my life. I have heard that death is a serious matter, but never from any of those who have experienced it.”
The general was silent for a moment; the man interested, perhaps amused him—a type not previously encountered.
“Death,” he said, “is at least a loss—a loss of such happiness as we have, and of opportunities for more.”
“A loss of which we shall never be conscious can be borne with composure and therefore expected without apprehension. You must have observed, General, that of all the dead men with whom it is your soldierly pleasure to strew your path none shows signs of regret.”
“If the being dead is not a regrettable condition, yet the becoming so—the act of dying—appears to be distinctly disagreeable to one who has not lost the power to feel.”
“Pain is disagreeable, no doubt. I never suffer it without more or less discomfort. But he who lives longest is most exposed to it. What you call dying is simply the last pain—there is really no such thing as dying. Suppose, for illustration, that I attempt to escape. You lift the revolver that you are courteously concealing in your lap, and—”
The general blushed like a girl, then laughed softly, disclosing his brilliant teeth, made a slight inclination of his handsome head and said nothing. The spy continued: “You fire, and I have in my stomach what I did not swallow. I fall, but am not dead. After a half-hour of agony I am dead. But at any given instant of that half-hour I was either alive or dead. There is no transition period.
“When I am hanged to-morrow morning it will be quite the same; while conscious I shall be living; when dead, unconscious. Nature appears to have ordered the matter quite in my interest—the way that I should
Then, once he finds out he will be executed summarily, his tone changes, either out of honor, or perhaps hoping a rescue was to be mounted:
He was interrupted—if, indeed, he had intended to speak further—by the entrance of an officer of his staff, Captain Hasterlick, the provost-marshal. This recalled him to himself; the absent look passed away from his face.
“Captain,” he said, acknowledging the officer’s salute, “this man is a Yankee spy captured inside our lines with incriminating papers on him. He has confessed. How is the weather?”
“The storm is over, sir, and the moon shining.”
“Good; take a file of men, conduct him at once to the parade ground, and shoot him.”
A sharp cry broke from the spy’s lips. He threw himself forward, thrust out his neck, expanded his eyes, clenched his hands.
“Good God!” he cried hoarsely, almost inarticulately; “you do not mean that! You forget—I am not to die until morning.”
“I have said nothing of morning,” replied the general, coldly; “that was an assumption of your own. You die now.”
“But, General, I beg—I implore you to remember; I am to hang! It will take some time to erect the gallows—two hours—an hour. Spies are hanged; I have rights under military law. For Heaven’s sake, General, consider how short—”
“Captain, observe my directions.”
The officer drew his sword and fixing his eyes upon the prisoner pointed silently to the opening of the tent. The prisoner hesitated; the officer grasped him by the collar and pushed him gently forward. As he approached the tent pole the frantic man sprang to it and with cat-like agility seized the handle of the bowie-knife, plucked the weapon from the scabbard and thrusting the captain aside leaped upon the general with the fury of a madman, hurling him to the ground and falling headlong upon him as he lay.
This sense of honor, perhaps, more than his life, leads to the tale’s riveting denouement, and shows that Bierce was able to construct characters that were individuated. He was simply not interested in the smaller details, most of the time. The rest of the tales have strengths and weaknesses, but are well worth reading, as they dispel many of the other wrongheaded ideas about Bierce, such as he was simply obsessed with the macabre or horrific.
In this passage, from What I Saw Of Shiloh, we get a description of a wounded Union soldier, and this seemingly odd portrayal of compassion:
A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.
Now, reread that, and see how utterly realistic the reactions are, including the kind impulse, and the knowing that outsiders would not understand the gesture, just as few get what purpose The Coup de Grâce tale’s basis served. Bierce’s tales tell the reader things they’ll never get from the disingenuous faux Civil War history of a Shelby Foote, nor biographies of the larger than life figures like Lee and Grant, nor social treatises nor books on the battles, themselves. Bierce leaves you in the muck, and over a hundred and forty years later it still stinks of the battles. The stories are first rate, and mustr reading fore anyone enamored of short stories, or those just interested in American history, or the Civil War. As for the man himself? In 1913, after a series of personal setbacks- deaths of sons and a divorce, he set out for Mexico to cover Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. His last written words were: ‘Goodbye, if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico- ah, that is euthanasia!’ It is fitting that such an enigmatic man and writer would leave such an epitaph, but that is not his legacy. These great stories are- read, learn, but most of all enjoy.
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