Friday, December 29, 2006

Bierce: "Civil War Stories"

Recalling earlier readings of "Chickamauga" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", I spied this collection of Ambrose Bierce's Civil War Stories while browsing and picked it up. I am unfamiliar with Bierce's complete body of work, but each of the sixteen short stories included in this particular collection is fascinating in its own way. "Bitter" Bierce's writing is attractive in its surprising level of modernity. Infused with a deep pessimism and fatalism, these stories reject all romantic notions of combat, and the consequences of the Civil War's violence are frankly and graphically portrayed. The anguish of the deaf mute child in "Chickamauga" as he discovers the body of his mother near the battlefield

"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."

is a particularly memorable, and awful, example of this. There is no heroic death or noble sacrifice, just an abrupt and often painful end to a promising life. The survivors that are willing to think about it are left to wonder if the cost was worth the gain, if there was any.

Bierce has an abused subordinate's principled disdain for the unworthy man placed in a position of great responsibility. The big men in his short stories -- General Cameron in "One Kind Of Officer", 'the general' in "The Affair at Coulter's Notch", and the 'Governor' in "An Affair of Outposts" -- are uniformly callous in their manipulation of the lives of the men beneath them.

Of course the twist ending is ruined for anyone who's seen the wonderful Twilight Zone episode, but my particular favorite will always be "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Several of Bierce's stories employ intentional ambiguity, but the unusual (and perhaps experimental for the period?) structure of "Occurrence" and its truly startling conclusion are delightful. As a reader generally uninterested in Civil War fiction, I was enthralled with Bierce's storytelling. That the tales sprouted from the mind of an actual Civil War veteran only enhances the authenticity of the imagery and the reader's consideration of the author's brutal examination of so many of the conflict's themes.

[btw, another story from this particular collection successfully adapted to the screen is "Parker Adderson, Philosopher". I remember being impressed by it when I viewed in on Bravo (way back when they actually showed good stuff on that awful channel).]


  1. Drew,

    I love Bierce's Civil War stories. There's another volume out (or several), like "Ambrose Bierce's Civil War" which includes both his CW fiction and his nonfiction recollections or essays -- e.g, "What I Saw at Shiloh," "The Crime at Pickett's Mill."

    Pretty powerful stuff.


  2. Drew,

    Same here. I've been through the "Complete Stories" of Bierce, only failing to finish the "fables", and Bierce is a GREAT writer. In fact, he's one of my favorites, trailing only Poe, Lovecraft, and several others. Anyone interested in horror fiction or war stories would do well to pick up a copy of Bierce's stories.

    Brett S.

  3. Dave,
    Since the others are straight fiction, I was a bit suprised to see "What I Saw at Shiloh" in this collection. It's been a while since I've read the latter and wish they'd included it as well.

    Your posts inspired me to take up Bierce again, but our library system believe it or not has nothing on him. I just happened to see this little paperback new for 75 cents and couldn't pass it up.

    BTW, there was an interesting article about Bierce's disappearance in one the CW magazines (or maybe another history mag) a short while ago. Alas, it remains a mystery.

  4. I am a huge fan of Bierce. I didn't realize until I typed in today 'Bierce' in your search engine that you had written such a excellent article on his stories.

    The best collection of his Civil War writings is in 'Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce'. It has a excellent introduction and it contains all of his fiction and nonfiction stories on the war. The various articles on Chickamauga are fascinating, for example.



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