Benedict von Bremen, Victims? Civilians in Ambrose Bierce's Civil War Short Stories


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Benedict von Bremen

Victims? Civilians in Amrose Bierce's Civil War Short Stories


NON-COMBATANT, n. A dead Quaker
PATRIOT, n. One to whom the interests of a part
seem superior to those of the whole.
The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.
WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace […] (Nota 1).



Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-?) is said to have been one of the most famous American journalists of his time (Nota 2). Besides working most prominently for William Randolph Hearst, he authored fiction, poetry, and autobiographic pieces (Nota 3). For topics, Bierce returned time and again to one of the most influential events of his life, the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) (Nota 4). Allegedly the second man from his Indiana home county to enlist, he rose through the Union Army's ranks from simple private to topographical engineer officer on different generals' staffs (Nota 5). Bierce saw action in the first battles of 1861 as well as numerous of the war's bloodiest encounters such as Shiloh (1862) or Chickamauga (1863). His Civil War texts, starting in 1881 with the autobiographical What I Saw of Shiloh (Nota 6), are still renowned and infamous for their gritty realistic depictions of the dead and dying (Nota 7) and are frequently included in U.S. literary anthologies (Nota 8). Moreover, Ambrose Bierce was and is known as “Bitter Bierce”, the acerbic commentator of American cultural and political life during the Gilded Age (Nota 9). In many magazine and newspaper columns as well as especially in his The Devil's Dictionary, he satirized everything from «Abasement» to «Zoology» (Nota 10).
Over the years, scholarship has moved from concentrating on Bierce the historical persona (Nota 11) to formally analyzing his short stories without really taking the historical context into consideration (Nota 12) to interpreting his work regarding different levels of reading. A major focus in the last twenty-five years has been putting Bierce's Civil War stories in their historical context (Nota 13and assessing his vast journalistic work (Nota 14). Especially his fictional texts, many of them published in magazines and newspapers, often served as vehicles for commenting more often than not on his own time and fellow Americans than on the Civil War only (Nota 15).
During his most active years as an author and journalist – the late 1880s and 1890s – American ambitions at imperialism gained momentum. The western frontier had been closed, and the new western frontiers was the Pacific where the United States eyed potential overseas possessions and East Asian markets (Nota 16). In 1898, the U.S. won the Spanish-American War against a former great colonial nation and became a global power itself (Nota 17). Jingoism, a very martial form of aggressive patriotism (Nota 18), became a word of the day; it was an attitude Ambrose Bierce abhorred (Nota 19). He disliked the way in which the USA tried to grab power, if need be via military means. While Bierce at times fondly remembered his time «a'soldiering» (Nota 20), he also knew how ideas of chivalric war à la Sir Walter Scott could lure hundreds of thousands of young men into believing that war was a short and relatively bloodless affair, only to get «what they enlisted for» (Nota 21) – death on the battlefield. In Bierce's eyes, civilians without a military background knew nothing of the horrors of war. He, the veteran of many bloody battles, felt he did. Therefore, Ambrose Bierce wanted to educate his contemporaries, sometimes very overtly in his journalistic pieces, sometimes, especially via his short stories, rather subtly (Nota 22).
In Gilded Age mainstream Civil War remembrance, civilians were usually left out. This is astounding because, while the “War Between the States” was not a “total war” like World War II, it was at times a “hard war” taking a heavy toll on civilians, such as during Union General William T. Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas in the closing stages of the Civil War when (Southern) civilians became victims of harsh treatment by (Northern) soldiers (Nota 23). Non-combatants living in the main battle areas in northern Virginia or the States of Kentucky and Tennessee had to endure dire hardships throughout the entire war. But the agents of memory in the post-war years were white soldiers, both Federal and Confederate. Their common sacrifice had remade the nation. This notion culminated, in 1895, in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. “Soldiers' Faith” (Nota 24). In this memory, the actual cause of the war – slavery – was mostly left untouched. The reunited and reconciled nation took precedence over the dividing issue of blacks' forced bondage and the question of African American political and legal inclusion (Nota 25). In addition, white women both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, who had helped the war effort working in factories, tending to the wounded as nurses, joining soldiers' aid societies, or taking care of farms and plantations, were also relegated to the backbench of history and commemoration (Nota 26). The prime exception was the “Southern Belle” serving as a symbol for the “Old” or “Lost South” (Nota 27) or as part of the “marriage metaphor” in popular novels of turn-of-the-century America where the Southern woman married the Northern officer, therefore symbolizing the reunited nation (Nota 28).
In contrast, by interpreting selected texts by Ambrose Bierce I will show how civilians could be affected by the Civil War. His characters – politicians, children, wives, African Americans, and former soldiers – are at times passive victims of war. More than once, though, civilians are active participants in the struggle, whether for their own good or bad. They are usually caught in between the warring factions, but sometimes also acting as agents from the home front. While in some instances civilians serve as examples characteristic of the American Civil War, such as families being divided between allegiance to either the Union or the Confederacy, civilians in Bierce's Civil war texts often also function as vehicles through which their author commented on issues of morality as well as contemporary issues of his time.


Civilians, and the Civil War 

One group of civilians in Ambrose Bierce's Civil War stories ends up as victims caught in-between the warring factions. Chickamauga (1889) tells of a little boy who falls asleep while playing war in a forest. After wakeing up, he encounters the horrible aftermath of a battle: the dead and dying, the latter «[creeping] upon their hands and knees […] All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and gouted with red». The boy, though, does not recognize them as the victims of a bloody battle; to him, they are «grotesque» and «reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them. […] To him it was a merry spectacle». At one point he even tries to piggyback-ride one wounded soldier, just to be thrown off and looking into «a face that lacked a lower jaw – from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone». It is only when the boy arrives at his family's plantation that the reality of war literally hits home (Nota 29): the plantation building is aflame, his mother struck down by a cannon missile, her distorted figure resembling what he saw in the ghastly procession of wounded soldiers in the woods:

For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation. […] conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman – the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles – the work of a shell.

The end of the boy's story is enhanced by a “Biercean twist” (Nota 30): the boy is deaf-mute, unable to express himself in regular language (and, because of this disability, also unlikely to ever become a “real” soldier).
The moral of Bierce's Chickamauga is that playing war can easily turn into real war – and this reality is not like depictions in lithographs such as those of Currier & Ives (Nota 31), in historic paintings, or in chivalric novels à la Sir Walter Scott (Nota 32). Such idealized and debrutalized pictures (Nota 33) of heroically and bloodlessly dying soldiers had been instilled in the boy by his father. Therefore, the wounded and dying soldiers the boy encounters do not correspond to the heroic warriors the boy is used to.
As can be deduced, the boy's father, who «had been a soldier, had fought against naked savages and followed the flag of his country into the capital of a civilized race to the far South», was a veteran of the Mexican (1846-1848) and “Indian” wars. Due to the location of the battle of Chickamauga in the Confederate State of Georgia and the additional information «In the peaceful life of a planter the warrior-fire survived; once kindled, it is never extinguished», the boy's father most likely stands for the aggressive “warrior caste” (Nota 34) of the South that had provided many soldiers for American wars. The father «loved military books and pictures and the boy had understood enough to make himself a wooden sword» to replay these heroic stories. But as the boy ventures into the woods of Chickamauga, he «found himself confronted with a new and […] formidable enemy […] a rabbit!», just to run away frightened. The child is therefore not as brave as his heritage as the «son of an heroic race» seems to suggest.
According to Donald T. Blume, Bierce wrote and published Chickamauga at a time when Jingoist feelings were running high. In 1887, a crisis between the United States, the German and the British Empires over the Samoan Islands ensued, with fleets facing off and war only an accidental cannonshot away. Chickamauga's message was that saber-rattling might quickly turn into real war – and that this war would neither be easy nor clean. In addition, the little boy stands for all those young men cherishing idealized views of war who eagerly enlist just to be sobered by their first taste of death (Nota 35), as can be deduced from some of Bierce's autobiographic war pieces with graphic depictions similar to those of Chickamauga:

As we trudged on we passed something – some things – lying by the wayside. During another wait we examined them, curiously lifting the blankets from their yellow-clay faces. How repulsive they looked with their blood-smears, their blank, staring eyes, their teeth uncove red by contraction of the lips! The frost had begun already to whiten their deranged clothing. We were as patriotic as ever, but we did not wish to be that way (Nota 36).

Men? There were men enough; all dead, apparently, except one, […], variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. I had not previously known one could get on, even this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain (Nota 37).

Being caught between the front lines is the theme of another Biercean story, The Affair at Coulter's Notch (1889). A Union general who dislikes the main protagonist, Captain Coulter, orders the latter to hold a position – a notch in a hillside – with his battery, despite fellow officers' objections to this as being unnecessary action since the enemy is already on the retreat. In the course of the following military engagement, Coulter's men are slaughtered one after the other. When the “affair” – after all “only” a rearguard action – is over, the general and his staff take residence in a nearby farmhouse. In its cellar they find a blackened figure clutching a «dead woman [who] clasped in her arms a dead babe. There was blood in the hair of the woman […]. A yard away […] lay an infant's foot» – they are Captain Coulter, besmudged by blackpowder and blood, and his wife and child killed by the shells of his own battery.
Different readings are possible for this story. For one, Coulter, an officer of the Union Army, followed through with the orders of his superior, despite the animosities between them and despite Coulter knowing that he would hit his own family's estate caught between the lines. The captain therefore placed military obedience higher than what would be “rational” – not shooting on one's own family (Nota 38). Moreover, this story is about how American families were torn between the two sides during the Civil War (Nota 39). In an aside conversation early in the story, an aide of the general remarks that Coulter's wife is a «red-hot secessionist», therefore a Southerner and Confederate (Nota 40), while Coulter chose to become an officer of the North and therefore places the Union, or nation, above his home state and therefore the Confederacy (Nota 41). It can be surmised that this “affair” takes place in a Border State, one of those U.S. States caught between North and South where allegiances where often divided and most of the Civil War took place. In this war, women and children could be caught in between the lines and even be killed by their own husbands and fathers to whom the honor code of the military is more important than love for one's relatives.
Similar incidents of divided loyalities can be found in other Biercean stories. In A Horseman in the Sky (1889), a young West Virginian, with a terminally ill mother at home, sides with the North and eventually kills his father, a Confederate officer chagrined over the choice of his son to fight for the North and not for his home state (Nota 42). Again, allegiance to the Union is more important than family ties. In The Mocking-Bird (1893), the Civil War divides not husband and wife or father and son but twin brothers, one fighting for the Union, the other for the Confederacy. The former first kills the latter and then allegedly commits suicide. In Three and One Are One (1908), a Union soldier returns to his Tennessee homestead at the end of the war. He had been shunned by his family because of his choice to fight for the North while they stayed staunch Confederates. It turns out that his home was hit by a shell, killing all inhabitants and thereby wiping out his family who had severed all ties with him, never to be refastened again. Here, in «a family of divided loyalties» (Nota 43), reconciliation is not possible – how could it be when one side is dead and has taken its animosities to the grave!
Bierce shows how the Civil War could endanger civilians and eventually kill them as they are caught in between the two sides, both spatially and ideologically. His stories therefore also function as allegories of the War of Secession. In this war that at times actually divided families, brother might fight against brother; it was a real “civil war”. Unlike a lot of contemporary popular “Southern plantation literature”, families in Bierce's stories do not function as agents of reunion and reconciliation where the “Southern Belle” marries the northern officer. To the contrary, Bierce's Civil War families do not have the opportunity to find back together; rather, they kill each other in fratricide and patricide or sacrifice wife and child. And with Mrs. Coulter, «a high-bred lady», and Chickamauga's deaf-mute boy's mother, a planter's wife, examples for the “Southern Belle” (Nota 44) are actually killed. War is not a quick and clean chivalrous affair, nor is it a playground; it is gruesome reality with far-reaching consequences.
In the short story An Affair of Outposts (1897), a politician is caught in between the lines because of his idealized and thereby wrong image of war. The unnamed governor of an equally unspecified Northern state visits his home State's troops on the front line. Their bearing is not what he expects to be military-like. These soldiers quietly await the things to come, leisurely stand guard, play cards, or dose off. The governor pays a personal visit to an officer he himself had appointed (Nota 45), Captain Armisted. While the politician is described as ill-fitting into such a military scene (Nota 46), «showily horsed, faultlessly betailored and bravely silk-hatted», Armisted embodies the seasoned veteran:

His hair, which but a few months before had been brown, was streaked with gray. His face, tanned by exposure, was seamed as with age. A long livid scar across the forehead marked the stroke of a sabre; one cheek was drawn and puckered by the work of a bullet. Only a woman of the loyal North would have thought the man handsome.

Armisted is battle-hardened and -scarred, of military demeanor, and calm but cold-blooded in the skirmish that soon ensues. The governor, now suddenly caught in between the warring factions, realizes that war is not like a parade but a grimey and gritty affair. The politician «could not forbear to contrast [war] with the gorgeous parades and reviews held in honor of himself – with the brilliant uniforms, the music, the banners, and the marching. It was an ugly and sickening business: to all that was artistic in his nature, revolting, brutal, in bad taste». Armisted, who dies in saving the man who appointed him officer – and allegedly also cheated on him with the officer's wife – is presented as the total opposite to the politician/civilian who knows nothing of war (Nota 47).
As in The Affair at Coulter's Notch”, the officer protagonist in An Affair of Outposts sacrifices himself because of his military honor code which entails allegiance to his State and therefore his governor (Nota 48). Moreover, Armisted is another case for divided allegiances: while his «sympathies are with the South [he] never doubted that the North was in the right. [He is] a Southerner in fact and in feeling, but it is in [his] habit in matters of importance to act as [he thinks], not as [he feels]». And as in Chickamauga, the governor stands for all those civilians who know nothing of war – especially politicians who are quick to willingly send men to their deaths. But unlike most politicians who never see war personally, the governor receives a reality check on the actual frontline and experiences what war is really like (Nota 49).
Another civilian with false images of war is Peyton Farquhar in what is perhaps Bierce's most famous piece (Nota 50), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890). Farquhar is not a soldier but «a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family». Tricked into attempting sabotage by a Federal spy and his own false views of «the larger life of the soldier,» Farquhar, for whom «No service was too humble [...] to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier», is caught when trying to destroy Owl Creek Bridge. He is then hanged by Northern forces. Here, we have another Biercean twist (Nota 51): most of the story is concerned with Farquhar's successful escape from his own execution, which, just at the moment he arrives at his plantation, turns out to be a delusion on Farquhar's side which played out in his mind in the few seconds before his neck is broken by the hangman's noose. The realities of war cannot be escaped, and the reward for participating in war is not a heroic welcome at home but an unheroic death by execution (Nota 52).
Killed at Resaca (1887) features a different type of civilian nourishing “wrong” views of armed conflict while being an active, albeit distant agent in war. The main character, Lieutenant Herman Brayle, always recklessly exposes himself in battle, much to the surprise of his fellow comrades taking cover behind rocks or tree stumps (Nota 53). Eventually, Brayle is killed. The story's first person narrator and comrade takes care of Brayle's personal belongings. Among these is a letter by a young woman, Marian Mendenhall. In it she wrote that one of his fellow officers told her that Brayle is a coward hiding behind trees; she «could bear to hear of [her] soldier lover's death, but not of his cowardice». After the war, the narrator travels to California to deliver Brayle's personal belongings to the deceased's loved one. When she sees a spot of blood on the letters, she turns away disgustedly, exclaiming «Uh! I cannot bear the sight of blood!» When Miss Mendenhall asks the narrator how her former suitor died, he replies with a lie: «He was bitten by a snake».
Again, different levels of reading are possible for this story. The young lady – a «beautiful [and] detestable creature» – made Brayle lose his life because she threatened him with what in Victorian and Edwardian Great Britain would have been called “showing the white feather” (accusing him of cowardice), which in turn made him recklessly expose himself on the battlefield, leading to his death (Nota 54). But when confronted with the blood Brayle spilled for her (and not for the nation, as the “Soldier's Faith” would have it), Miss Mendenhall is disgusted – and in return the author is with her because, when provided with actual evidence of her beloved one's “heroism”, she does neither recognize nor appreciate it. The narrator therefore lies when it comes to the actual cause of death because she, as a civilian far removed from the battlefield, would not understand anyway.
The trope of patriotic young women instigating men to fight was already well-known during the Civil War itself (Nota 55). Buinicki and Owens have pointed out that inclusion of a similar character – a pistol-wielding woman spurring on Federal soldiers – in the revised 1898 version of What I Saw of Shiloh was Bierce's critique of patriotic women and therefore Jingoist patriotism at the time of the Spanish-American War (Nota 56). William Dean Howells' 1905 short story Editha (Nota 57) features a similar female character. Editha emotionally blackmails her reluctant-to-fight fiancé into enlisting into the Spanish-American War, and he eventually becomes one of the first U.S. casualties. She visits his widowed mother who grieves deeply about her only son's death, which Editha (who, despite Victorian customs, is not in mourning dress) cannot understand. The young lady is not sad; to the contrary, she is actually happy that her fiancé sacrificed his life on the altar of the nation. Editha therefore represents Jingoists who have no idea about the realities and actual effects of war, only to make young men die because of an idealized vision of war. And it was this idealized, highly martialized (and masculinized) view of war which was the prominent one in Gilded Age America, not least because of the “Soldier's Faith” (Nota 58).
This does not mean, though, that the “Soldier's Faith” conveyed a bloodless view of war. To the contrary, the mutual blood-spilling of Northern and Southern soldiers was actually what reconciled former enemies and the (re-)united nation they had baptized with their blood (Nota 59). This sort of martial patriotism, though, is not present in Bierce's writings. He actually criticized excessive expansionist patriotism embodied by Jingoism that recklessly sacrificed the lives of young men for military adventures with the goal of playing power politics and making money for capitalists. This becomes clearer when reading Bierce's war column written during the Spanish-American War. Here, he criticized the American military intervention and especially the at times dilettante pursuit of the war for the purpose of material gains for America (Nota 60). Bierce the veteran claimed to possess authority in military matters because he had seen war himself (Nota 61).
Compared with civilian white men, women, and children, African Americans only play a minor role in Bierce's stories. In What I Saw of Shiloh (Nota 62), «Little negroes of not very clearly defined status and function lolled on their stomachs, kicking their long, bare heels in the sunshine, or slumbered peacefully, unaware of the practical waggery prepared by white hands for their undoing». On the one hand, these «little negroes» represent a very familiar fact of Civil War Union soldiers' life: so-called “contrabands”, slaves who had escaped from Southern bondage and then affiliated themselves with Union forces (Nota 63). This was a common occurrence: most of the war was fought on Southern soil, and even before Abraham Lincoln's September 1862/January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, escaped or freed slaves flocked to the Union armies as camp followers. Their status was a mixed one: happy to have left slavery behind, former bonds(wo)men often helped Union soldiers to orientate themselves in unfamiliar territory or carried out menial camp duties such as cooking or cleaning. More often than not, though, contrabands were the source of racial ridicule and amusement for white Union soldiers, reenacting the at the time very popular minstrel shows (Nota 64). In Chickamauga, the little boy remembers how he piggyback-rode his father's slaves, while in An Affair at Coulter's Notch, the face of Coulter «was coal black […] The lips, too, were white, like those of a stage Negro», an overt reference to “blackface” (Nota 65).
On the other hand, Bierce alludes, in What I Saw of Shiloh, to the main cause for the Civil War in a subordinate clause: «unaware of the practical waggery prepared by white hands for their undoing». Calling war a «practical waggery» in the sense of a droll act (Nota 66) attests to Bierce's renowned cynicism: war is a funny event – until it gets bloody, as it did at Shiloh (Nota 67). «Undoing» can be read as freeing the slaves from their bondage, from their metaphorical and at times very real shackles. African Americans, though, are depicted in What I Saw of Shiloh as passive, even distanced agents in the struggle between North and South – they are «unaware» of the bloodshed around them happening because of them. This could be seen as the stereotypical belittling of blacks: talking about «little negroes» reminds of the infamous term “boy” used by white Americans for blacks far into the 20th century, conjuring the racist stereotype of African Americans as children who cannot think for themselves or act rationally.
A Resumed Identity (1903) combines different Civil War-related topics. An amnesiac veteran – therefore a soldier-turned-civilian – returns to a former battlefield where he received a head wound, causing him occasional loss of memory and mental confusion. In the eyes of the veteran, passing armies in a clouded landscape quickly change into a sunlit day in which «a negro who, prefixing a team of mules to the plow, was flatting and sharping contentedly at his task. The hero of [A Resumed Identity] stared stupidly at the pastoral picture as if he had never seen such a thing in all his life […]». Walking on, the veteran encounters a doctor and a conversation ensues in which the veteran talks about having been wounded, losing his unit, and wanting to go back into battle. The doctor recalls «much that is recorded in the books of his profession – something about lost identity and the effect of familiar scenes in restoring it» and then discloses to the veteran that the latter is not wearing a uniform, that no battle is going on, and that he is not 23 years of age anymore. Slowly but surely memory and reality come back to the veteran. He sees his «lean and withered» hand and feels a face that is «seamed and furrowed». He then encounters a monument, which reads the dedication «HAZEN'S BRIGADE (Nota 68) to The Memory of Its Soldiers who fell at Stone River, Dec. 31, 1862». Then,

The man fell back from the wall, faint and sick. Almost within an arm’s length was a [...] pool of clear water. He [...] saw the reflection of his face, as in a mirror. He uttered a terrible cry. His arms gave way; he fell, face downward, into the pool and yielded up the life that had spanned another life.

As in Chickamauga with the boy's sudden realization of war, the veteran of A Resumed Identity is horrified. In this case, though, it is the realization that war is over. But this war was one «life» that had an impact on «another life». Similarly, at the end of What I Saw of Shiloh, Bierce writes, «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.» The experience of the Civil War embossed itself on veterans like Bierce and kept its grip on them for the rest of their lives. It was a different life, encapsulated in another quote from What I Saw of Shiloh:

O days when all the world was beautiful and strange; when unfamiliar constellations burned in the Southern midnights, and the mocking-bird poured out his heart in the moon-gilded magnolia; when there was something new under a new sun; will your fine, far memories ever cease to lay contrasting pictures athwart the harsher features of this later world, accentuating the ugliness of the longer and tamer life? 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! 

It is here that we encounter Bierce's paradoxical interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath. While Bierce could, contrary to the quote above, easily recall and repaint the images of war and death in his Civil War stories, he also seems to have longed for his time «a'soldiering» when everything seemed easier and clear-cut, unlike the Gilded Age with its stupefying industrial and technical advances, enormously growing economy, and accompanying political corruption. For many aging Civil War veterans, the years between 1861 and 1865 seemed like a time that was, despite the massive scale of death and violence, easier to grasp (Nota 69). It was this Gilded Age America that Bierce attacked in his magazine and newspaper columns and especially his The Devil's Dictionary while also criticizing, not least in his short stories, the civilians of a post-Civil War society who were quick to sacrifice young men for imperialist martial endeavors.
So what was the war really fought for? Bierce alludes to this through his description of «little negroes» in What I Saw of Shiloh as well as through the figure of the «negro» farmer in A Resumed Identity. The latter stands for peacetime – no musketry and cannon are heard anymore on once blood-soaked battlefields that are now, in the post-war years, farmed as they had been before the hostilities. All that is reminiscent of the war are the memories of a veteran and an overgrown, almost (or already?) forgotten memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers. What, though, did they actually die for? Was the bloodletting worth the price to pay for a post-war civilian America abhorred by Bierce?
Because Bierce wrote texts from different genres, his views and opinions are at times dispersed throughout his work. Therefore, a look at Ambrose Bierce's poetry and journalistic works in addition to his Civil War stories and autobiographic texts is helpful to put together the pieces of this Biercean puzzle. In his 1901 poem The Hesitating Veteran (Nota 70), the narrator acknowledges that he had once been a foolish idealist: «When I was young and full of faith / And other fads that youngsters cherish […]». Then, «A cry rose as of one that saith / With emphasis: “Help or I perish!” / 'Twas heard in all the land, and men». This sound «made my heart beat faster then / Than any heart can now be beating». It was the cry of the «black man». A «sentimental generation», compassionate and faithful, rose to the occasion.  It can therefore be assumed that the war was fought, for Bierce, over slavery. What followed «were hate and strife to spare, / And various hard knocks a-plenty», of which the lyrical I and the author had their fair share.
In a May 1897 Examiner article, A'Soldiering for Freedom, Bierce commented on why he fought in the war as follows, from which might as well as be surmised that Bierce fought to free the slaves:

At one time in my green and salad days I was sufficiently zealous for universal and unqualified Freedom to engage in a four year's battle for its promotion. There were other issues involved, but they did not count for much with me. I am now glad thatthey were involved, for their presence as threads to the Fate-woven fabric of events spares me the disquieting consciousness of misguided zeal (Nota 71).

Returning to The Hesitating Veteran, in the postwar years hate and strife are over; «the reign/ Of love and trade stills all dissensions» in «a land of peace and pensions». But what about the «black chap»? He got what «he had cried for». But the lyrical I adds: «Though many white chaps in the grave/ 'Twould puzzle to say what they died for». Had the sacrifice of so many Northern soldiers been worth the outcome? At least the narrator hopes so: «I trust/ That his society and his master's/ Are worth the price we paid.» This price was going to war and fallen soldiers, resulting in a society where there are still «masters». Then, the Hesitating Veteran speaks up: «But sometimes doubts press thronging round/ […] / If war for Union was a sound/ And profitable undertaking». Blacks are still intentionally kept ignorant, just like in slavery's time when schooling for African Americans slaves was not allowed, to disenfranchise them: «'Tis said they mean to take away/ The Negro's vote for he's unlettered./ 'Tis true he sits in darkness day/ And night, as formerly, when fettered […]». In a final doubt, the narrator states: «I know what uniform I wore –/ O, that I knew which side I fought for!» The uniform's color was blue, as the author fought for the Union – but ultimately, what did he and his comrades achieve? What did those many dead achieve? Has anything really changed? Blacks are still in bondage; corrupt politicians are still in power; Jingoism and patriotism still send young men to their deaths with the appeal of honor, duty, glory, and patriotism. The Hesitating Veteran is Ambrose Bierce's agent for uttering his disappointment in the war's outcome as well as an example for “Bitter Bierce's” social commentatory on the state of American society in the Gilded Age.



The Hesitating Veteran again shows how Ambrose Bierce's texts can be read on different levels. Bierce was, in the words of What I Saw of Shiloh, the «phantom of a blood-staind period strayed from [his] era into yours», with one foot in the past (the Civil War) and one foot in the then-present (Gilded Age America) (Nota 72). His Civil War texts show that the disconnection which could be derived from the title of his 1891 short story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (including most of the aforementioned prose pieces) into war stories set in the years 1861 to 1865 on the one hand and horror stories on the other hand is misleading. To the contrary, civilians often play an important role in his fictional, though heavily autobiographically tinted, war tales. These stories reflect upon the “War of Secession” as a “hard war” where civilians could be caught between the opposing sides and end up as what today would be called “collateral damage”. Moreover, the geographical setting of the Civil War, with most of the fighting taking place in Border States, shows in the at times divided political allegiances of characters, both military and civilian, in Bierce's short prose. They represent the very nature of an actual civil war of brotherly strife that not only divided a country but at times also whole families. As victims of war, civilians are furthermore examples of the gruesome graphical depictions of warfare typical for Ambrose Bierce. But civilians could also be active agents of war, whether as saboteurs, politicians, or fiery patriotic young women. What most of these characters have in common is a “false”, an idealized picture of war that starkly contrasts with the bloody reality of the battlefield. Playing war can easily turn into actual war, and this was another message Bierce, with the authority of the veteran, sent, one that was specifically aimed at those harboring Jingoist sentiments in turn-of-the-century Gilded Age America. And while African Americans, at least on the surface, seem to play only a minor role in Bierce's Civil War stories, the issue of slavery – and therefore the main cause for the “War Between the States” and 600,000 dead Americans – is also present in Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce's Civil War texts. The reader just has to dig a little deeper to look beyond what seems obvious at first in the texts written by this «Hesitating Veteran», just as a final “Biercean twist” quickly turns around what seems “obvious” at first in a story from this seminal American author's pen.



Nota 1 A. Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary,Neale, New York 1911, in: Craig A. Warren (ed.), The Ambrose Bierce Project <>, last access January 31, 2015. The Ambrose Bierce Project represents a collection of texts written by, as well as scholarly literature on, Bierce. Unless otherwise noted, Bierce's Civil War pieces referred to in this paper are all quoted from The Ambrose Bierce Project <>, last access January 31, 2015. This will enable the reader to have quick electronic access to the texts mentioned. Torna al testo

Nota 2 Cf. R. Morris Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Oxford University Press, New York 1999, p. 261. This is the most recent Bierce biography in monograph form. The first and still basic biography of Bierce is C. McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, Archon Books, Hamden 1967 (I ed. Albert and Boni, New York 1929), although later works have illuminated aspects McWilliams did not touch upon or have revised some of his findings. Torna al testo

Nota 3 Bierce's 1909-1912 twelve-volume Collected Works do not list everything he ever wrote, cf. R. Morris, Ambrose Bierce, cit., p. 243. A recent short story collection is L. I. Berkove, S. T. Joshi, D. E. Schultz (eds.), The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition vols. I-III, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville 2006. Torna al testo

Nota 4 A collection of Bierce's Civil War texts is R. Duncan, D. J. Kloster (eds.), Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst-Boston 2002. It misses, though, some related texts from his journalistic output and letter-writing. One selection of letters is S. T. Joshi, D. E. Schultz (eds.), A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, Ohio State University Press, Columbus 2003. Torna al testo

Nota 5 Cf. N. Wilt, Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in «American Literature», 1/3 (1929), pp. 260-285 and especially D. M Owen, The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story, The University of Tenessee Press, Knoxville 2006, which meticulously traces Bierce's military career. Torna al testo

Nota 6 What I Saw of Shiloh has to be read not only with a grain of salt but a whole saltshaker. While it purports to be «a simple story of a battle; such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier» and was one of Bierce's first texts drawing on his Civil War experience, it is written by an author who knows how to employ the tools of his trade. It includes many of the stylistic devices Bierce would use in later stories. Cf. C. McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce, cit., p. 225: «When he used an actual incident in a story […] he invariably warped the facts to fit his theory of the elements of a short story». Torna al testo

Nota 7 Unlike what some scholars (e.g. D. W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Belknap, Cambridge 2001, p. 185) have claimed, Bierce was not the first to “realistically” depict war in American letters. Many fellow Civil War veterans penned similarly gruesome depictions, cf. for example S. L. Gravett, Introduction, in J. W. De Forest, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 1998, pp. V-XV, here VI. Torna al testo

Nota 8 Cf. C. A. Warren, From the Editor, «The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal», 1/1 (2005), <>, last access April 23, 2014. Torna al testo

Nota 9 Cf. M. Buinicki, D. Owens, De-Anthologizing Ambrose Bierce: A New Look at “What I Saw of Shiloh”, in «War, Literature, and the Arts», 23/1 (2011), <>, last access April 27, 2014. Torna al testo

Nota 10 A. Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 11 For example biographies such as C. McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce, cit., and P. Fatout, The Devil's Lexicographer, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1951. Torna al testo

Nota 12 For example M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce, Twayne, New York 1971; C. N. Davidson (ed.), Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, G. K. Hall, Boston 1982 (this essay collection is a good overview of Bierce scholarship at the time); C. N. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln-London 1984. Torna al testo

Nota 13 Cf. especially D. M. Owen, The Devil's Topographer, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 14 Especially Berkove's work, for example L. I. Berkove (ed.), Ambrose Bierce, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1986. Torna al testo

Nota 15 Cf. especially D. T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce's Soldiers and Civilians in Context: A Critical Study, Kent State University Press, Kent 2004; S. K. Johnson, Uncanny Burials: Post-Civil War Memories in Chopin and Bierce, in «The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal», 2/1 (2006). Torna al testo

Nota 16 For a concise history of U. S. foreign policy, cf. G. C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Policy since 1776, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, pp. 300-336. Torna al testo

Nota 17 Cf. L. I. Berkove (ed.), Ambrose Bierce, Skepticism and Dissent, cit. on Bierce and his journalistic treatment of America's imperialist adventures. Torna al testo

Nota 18 Jingoism, in S. R. Kleinedler (ed.), The American Heritage College Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin, Boston-New York 2002, p. 745. Torna al testo

Nota 19 Cf. R. Morris, Ambrose Bierce, cit., pp. 231-234. Torna al testo

Nota 20 A. Bierce, A'Soldiering for Freedom, in «San Francisco Examiner», 9 May 1897, in R. Duncan, D. J. Klooster (eds.), Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, cit., p. 316. Torna al testo

Nota 21 A. Bierce, What I Saw of Shiloh, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 22 Cf. D. T Blume, Ambrose Bierce's Soldiers and Civilians in Context, cit., pp. 65-66. Torna al testo

Nota 23 Cf. C. Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, Vintage Books, New York 1991; J. T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge 1995 (1st ed. New York University Press, New York 1985). Torna al testo

Nota 24 O. W. Holmes Jr., The Soldiers Faith, in J. J. Marke (ed.), The Holmes Reader: The Life, Writings, Speeches, Constitutional Decisions, etc. of the late Oliver Wendell Holmes, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as an Evaluation of His Work and Achievements by Eminent Authorities, Oceana, New York 1955, pp. 148-158. Torna al testo

Nota 25 Cf. D. W. Blight, Race and Reunion, cit., for a history of Civil War remembrance. Torna al testo

Nota 26 A. Fahs, The Feminized Civil War: Gender, Northern Popular Literature, and the Memory of the War, 1861-1900, in «The Journal of American History», 85/4 (1999), pp. 1461-1491. Torna al testo

Nota 27 The most famous example is perhaps Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the WindTorna al testo

Nota 28 Cf. D. W. Blight, Race and Reunion, cit., pp. 224f. Torna al testo

Nota 29 Cf. D. T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce's Soldiers and Civilians in Context, cit., p. 144. Torna al testo

Nota 30 Cf. e.g. M. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce, cit. p. 93; B. Clark, The Introduction, in B. Clark (ed.), The Letters of Ambrose Bierce with a Memoir by George Stirling, The Book Club of California 1922, p. XX: «With bitter but beautiful truth he brings each tale to its tragic close, always with one last turn of the screw, one unexpected horror more». Torna al testo

Nota 31 Examples can be found in the U. S. Library of Congress <>, last access April 24, 2014. Torna al testo

Nota 32 Cf. C. N. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, cit., p. 43. Torna al testo

Nota 33 Cf. D. G. Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2008, p. XVI. Torna al testo

Nota 34 For a study of combat motivation, cf. J. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1997. Torna al testo

Nota 35 D. T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce's Soldiers and Civilians in Context, cit., pp. 125-140 puts Chickamauga in the context of Bierce's newspaper writings (including the short story itself) during the Samoan Crisis. Cf. also L. I. Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce, The Ohio State University Press, Columbus 2002, p. 52. Torna al testo

Nota 36 A. Bierce, On a Mountain (1909). Torna al testo

Nota 37 A. Bierce, What I saw of Shiloh, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 38 Cf. M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce , cit., p. 119; R. Duncan, D. J. Kloster (eds.), Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, cit., p. 20; W. Newhouse, Reeking Black Skin: Race, War, and Ideology in Ambrose Bierce's The Affair at Coulter's Notch, in «The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal», 1/1 (2005). Torna al testo

Nota 39 Cf. C. D. Campbell, Conversation Across a Century: The War Stories of Ambrose Bierce and Tim O'Brien, in «War, Literature, and the Arts»,10/2 (1998), pp. 267-288, here 272; D. M. Owens, The Devil's Topographer, cit., p. 79. Torna al testo

Nota 40 Most of Bierce's stories feature Union “heroes”. Most civilian protagonists actually caught in the maelstrom of war are Southerners. In his autobiographic Four Days in Dixie (1888) of capture by and escaping from Confederates, Bierce recalls meeting Southern civilians: «At my captor's house that evening there was a reception, attended by the élite of the whole vicinity […]. They were a trifle disappointed by the absence of horns, hoof and tail, but bore their chagrin with good-natured fortitude». The last sentence refers to Southern images of the Northern enemy as brutes or even devils invading the South. Torna al testo

Nota 41 Cf. M. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce, cit., p. 117; D. M. Owens, The Devil's Topographer, cit., p. 87. Torna al testo

Nota 42 C. D. Campbell, Conversation Across a Century, cit., p. 269. Torna al testo

Nota 43 L. I. Berkove, S. T. Joshi, D. E. Schultz (eds.), The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, vol. III, p. 1043, footnote 1. Torna al testo

Nota 44 In Four Days in Dixie, Bierce recalls «a charming young woman from [a] plantation». Torna al testo

Nota 45 In the first years of the war, many “political” soldiers existed on both sides – officers who were appointed rather because of their affiliation to a certain party or politician and less because of their military knowledge. Cf. W. W. Hsieh, West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2009, p. 161. Torna al testo

Nota 46 Cf. G. Mariani, Ambrose Bierce's Civil War Stories and the Critique of the Martial Spirit, in «Studies in American Fiction»,19/2 (1991), pp. 221-228, here p. 223. Torna al testo

Nota 47 Cf. ibidem, p. 222. Torna al testo

Nota 48 E. Solomon, The Bitterness of Battle: Ambrose Bierce's War Fiction (1963), in C. N. Davidson (ed.), Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, G. K. Hall, Boston 1982, pp. 150-168, here p. 186. Torna al testo

Nota 49 Cf. G. Mariani, Ambrose Bierce's Civil War Stories, cit., p. 222. Torna al testo

Nota 50 Cf. R. Morris, Ambrose Bierce, cit., p. 216. Torna al testo

Nota 51 Cf. K. M. Reynolds, “The Red Badge of Courage”: Private Henry's Mind as Sole Point of View, in «South Atlantic Review», 52/1 (1987), pp. 59-69, here p. 61f. Torna al testo

Nota 52 Cf. L. P. Q. Baybrook, Dancing Driftwood in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, in «The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal», 1/1 (2005); L. I. Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity, cit., pp. 113-135, especially p. 134, quotes a phrase from the final sentence deleted from the usually known version of the story: «[Farquhar] suspended by as stoute a rope as ever rewarded the zeal of a civilian patriot in war-time [...]». Torna al testo

Nota 53 Many battles early in the Civil War were fought in the style of Frederick the Great's or Napoleon's times: soldiers in lines of battle blasted away at each other with muskets. They soon found out, though, that the new rifled muskets and their increased accuracy necessitated taking cover, which eventually led to extensive open-order skirmishing as well as trench warfare foreshadowing World War I. Cf. B. Nosworthy, The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience in the Civil War, Constable, London 2005. Torna al testo

Nota 54 Cf. D. T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce's Soldiers and Civilians in Context, cit., p. 77;  L. I. Berkove, The Heart Has Its Reasons: Ambrose Bierce’s Successful Failure at Philosophy, in: C. N. Davidson (ed.), Critical Essays, pp. 136-149, here p.146. Torna al testo

Nota 55 Cf. A. Fahs, The Feminized Civil War, cit., pp. 1468-1470. Torna al testo

Nota 56 Cf. M. Buinicki, D. Owens, De-Anthologizing Ambrose Bierce, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 57 W. D. Howells, Editha (1905), in Paul Lauter (ed.), The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume C, Late Nineteenth Century: 1865-1910, Houghton Mifflin, Boston-New York 2006, pp. 269-279. Torna al testo

Nota 58 Cf. J. Pettegrew, “The Soldier's Faith”: Turn-of-the-Century Memory of the Civil War and the Emergence of Modern American Nationalism, in «Journal of Contemporary History»,31/1 (1996), pp. 49-73. Torna al testo

Nota 59 Cf. D. W. Blight, Race and Reunion, cit., pp. 198f. Torna al testo

Nota 60 Cf. L. I. Berkove, Ambrose Bierce, Skepticism and Dissent, cit.; R. Morris, Ambrose Bierce, cit., pp. 231-234. Torna al testo

Nota 61 A. Bierce, Modern Warfare [1899], in R. Duncan, D. J. Klooster (eds.), Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, cit., pp. 309-311. Torna al testo

Nota 62 See footnote 6. Torna al testo

Nota 63 S. R. Kleinedler (ed.), The American Heritage College Dictionary, cit., p. 310. Torna al testo

Nota 64 Cf. J. T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond, cit., pp. 52-65. Torna al testo

Nota 65 Cf. W. Newhouse, Reeking Black Skin, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 66 S. R. Kleinedler (ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary, cit., p. 430. Torna al testo

Nota 67 More Americans died, were wounded, or went missing in the two-day battle at Shiloh Chapel in Tennessee than in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War combined. Torna al testo

Nota 68 Bierce served under General William B. Hazen. Cf. D. M Owen, The Devil's Topographer, citTorna al testo

Nota 69 Cf. S. K. Johnson, Uncanny Burials, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 70 A. Bierce, The Hesitating Veteran, in R. Duncan, D. J. Klooster (eds.), Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, cit., pp. 317-318. Torna al testo

Nota 71 A. Bierce, A'Soldiering for Freedom, ibidem,p. 316. Torna al testo

Nota 72 Cf. L. W. Adams, Bakhtin and “A Resumed Identity”, in «The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal», 1/1 (2005). Torna al testo


Questo saggio si cita: B. von Bremen, Victims? Civilians in Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Short Stories, in «Percorsi Storici», 3 (2015) []

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