Ambrose Bierce would probably have been happier if he had never been born. Failing that, he would certainly have been more happy if he had not survived the Civil War; or, if he had, he would have been far happier if he had never left the Army at the war’s end. Instead, almost against his will, he went on to become one of the sharpest American humorists who ever put pen to page. Today Bierce ranks second only to Samuel Clemens as a sarcastic chronicler of the quaint, the ridiculous and the downright idiotic in American life. In fact, Bierce’s short stories about his Civil War service were like literary cousins to the books Clemens wrote about his youth on the Mississippi. But the cousins were extremely distant ones; whereas Clemens remembered his time as a riverboat man with rich fondness, Bierce remembered the Civil War with bleakness, and the humor of his stories, unlike Clemens’, was twisted and grotesque rather than simply funny. The Civil War blasted Bierce’s youth, and his recollections of the war turned up full of routine stupidities, wasted braveries and empty illusions. And perhaps for just that reason, Bierce’s memories of the Civil War rang truer than the memoirs of corps commanders and supply clerks.
His angular name, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, was part of a family tradition. His father was named Marcus Aurelius Bierce, his uncle was Lucius Verus Bierce, and all of the Bierce brothers and sisters were equipped with names beginning with ‘A’ (Ambrose himself had been named for the obscure hero of an obscure 18th-century play). That, unfortunately, was where their father’s ingenuity exhausted itself, for Marcus Aurelius Bierce was otherwise a poor dreamer-farmer. The only thing he excelled at producing was children, Ambrose being the 10th, born on June 24, 1842, in the Western Reserve of Ohio. The Bierces’ family life was no country idyll, and apparently young Ambrose did everything he could to make it harder. He rebelled frequently and was frequently whipped. He rejected the old-time religion of his family and grew up’suspicious, introverted, and resistant to authority.’ Much of this he later blamed on his parents’ inattentiveness. There were, it seemed, too many competing egos in the form of brothers and sisters for Marcus Aurelius to shine any paternal warmth down to Ambrose, and Ambrose never forgave him for it.
Therefore, the boy got away from his family as early as he could. The Bierces had moved to Warsaw, Ind., in 1848, and in 1856 Ambrose got himself apprenticed to the editor of an abolitionist newspaper and moved into the editor’s home. Two years later, he quit his apprenticeship and was taken in hand by uncle Lucius Verus, who thought he would do the boy a favor by entering him into the Kentucky Military Institute. Ambrose wanted no more favors from his relations than he absolutely had to accept, and in two years he was back in Indiana, where he became a ‘waiter and general handy man’ in a store in Elkhart. In April 1861, the war broke out, and five days after Fort Sumter surrendered to South Carolina forces, Bierce enlisted in Elkhart’s own Company C, 9th Indiana Volunteers.
Bierce remembered himself as a crusading idealist, probably the only time in his life he would admit to being such. ‘At one time in my green and salad days,’ he wrote 36 years later, ‘I was sufficiently zealous for Freedom to engage in a four years’ battle for its promotion. There were other issues involved; but they did not count for much with me.’ But instead of crusading for ideals, Bierce and the 9th Indiana got a month of drill, and then a summons to western Virginia as part of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s expedition to wrest the pro-Union western Virginia counties away from the rest of Confederate Virginia.
Not until June 3 did Private A.G. Bierce and the rest of the regiment get their first whiff of military glory at Philippi, where Bierce noted that their chief accomplishment had been to shoot off a Confederate’s leg. That was enough for the 9th to take it as a victory, and ‘we gave ourselves, the aristocracy of service, no end of military airs; some of us even going to the extreme of keeping our jackets buttoned and our hair combed.’ On July 10, Bierce was bold enough to try his hand at personal heroics. In a skirmish at Girard Hill he rescued a wounded comrade, Private Dyson Boothroyd, from ‘within fifteen paces of the enemy’s breastworks.’ Although Boothroyd quite ungratefully died, Bierce was written up in the Indianapolis newspapers and, as he confessed, was ‘vain enough to be rather proud.’
By the end of July, the war was not any closer to being over than in April, and the 9th’s enlistment time was nearly up. After seeing some last-minute action at Rich Mountain and Carrick’s Ford, they returned to Indianapolis and a tumultuous welcome. Bierce had never had a tumultuous welcome from anyone, and he enjoyed the swaggering so much that when the regiment was reorganized in August as a two-years’ regiment, he reenlisted and was promoted to sergeant, and then to sergeant major. Bierce and the regiment were then shipped back to western Virginia, but by then most of the action there had ended, and the 9th’s colonel guaranteed their peace of mind by having ‘the forethought to see that we lay well out of range of the small-arms’ of the enemy. Only once did ugliness intrude on them. After a skirmish at Camp Allegheny in December, Bierce ‘passed something — some things — lying by the wayside.’ He recalled, ‘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 uncovered by contraction of the lips.’ Bierce and his green recruits marched away in fearful silence. They had not known before that men died that way, and Sergeant Bierce was about to behold that sort of dying on a far more awful scale.
In February 1862, the 9th Indiana was transferred to Nashville, where it was brigaded under Colonel William B. Hazen. Hazen was the first real professional soldier Bierce had ever come into close contact with, and Hazen entranced him. A hard-boiled officer with a sharp tongue for superiors and subordinates alike, Hazen spun a gruff, fatherly spell over the young Bierce, who warmed up to good fathering. Hazen was also a skilled tactician and drillmaster, and he happily beat the freewheeling Hoosiers into something like military shape. Surprisingly, the beating only endeared him more to Bierce. The colonel became ‘my commander and my friend, my master in the art of war,’ and Bierce noted gleefully that ‘his memory is a terror to every unworthy soul in the service.’
In April Hazen’s brigade was marched into Mississippi as part of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, with the object of destroying the Confederate supply base at Corinth. But before Buell got anywhere near Corinth, the Confederates struck first. Side-stepping Buell, they struck at Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Army of the Mississippi, camped at Shiloh Church by the Tennessee River. Bierce, Hazen and the rest of their division were promptly force-marched all night to Grant’s aid ‘through a country presenting nothing but interminable swamps and pathless `bottom lands,’ with rank overgrowths of jungle.’ They arrived on the opposite bank of the Tennessee that evening, ‘breathless, footsore, and faint with hunger. It had been a terrible race; some regiments had lost a third of their number from fatigue, the men dropping from the ranks as if shot, and left to recover or die at their leisure.’ Across the river, at Shiloh, the situation was bad and getting worse. Crossing the Tennessee, Bierce found that Grant’s men had been utterly surprised and’spitted on Confederate bayonets’ while still ‘as naked as civilians.’ Now, in the night gloom, the riverbank was ‘a confused mass of humanity.’ They were ‘mostly unarmed; some dead. All the camp-following tribes were there; all the cowards; a few officers.’ They were ‘defeated, beaten and cowed…deaf to duty and dead to shame’ and ‘whenever a steamboat would land, this abominable mob had to be kept off her with bayonets.’ The whole 9th Indiana cursed them for their cowardice, and ‘in return they expressed their unholy delight in the certainty of our destruction by the enemy.’
The 9th was wedged in the left of what remained of the Federal line, and on the next morning they were ordered to attack into the face of Confederate artillery. The Confederates, however, were exhausted from the previous day’s fighting, and Hazen’s men not only advanced for almost a mile, but handily beat off a Confederate counterattack. The Rebels withdrew, and the 9th garnered high praise from its division commander, Maj. Gen. William ‘Bull’ Nelson, a man who usually did not hand out compliments. But Bierce’s mind was not on the congratulations. What he saw of war at Shiloh deeply shocked him, and the shock stayed with him for the rest of his life. He had seen where a forest fire had incinerated men immobilized by wounds: ‘at every point…lay the bodies, half buried in ashes; some in the unlovely looseness of attitude denoting sudden death by the bullet, but by far the greater number in postures of agony that told of the tormenting flame.’ He had stumbled onto one Federal sergeant, still alive, ‘taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks.’ He had been shot in the head, and ‘the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings.’ One of Bierce’s men, ‘a womanish fellow,’ offered to end the man’s agonies with a bayonet, but Bierce was too unnerved by the sight and the offer. ‘I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.’
In November, after doing nothing in particular at the battles of Corinth and Perryville, Hazen and Bierce were both promoted, Hazen to brigadier and Bierce to second lieutenant. Bierce promptly became as fierce a martinet as Hazen, but his men obviously refused to take Bierce with the seriousness he demanded. The American volunteer, Bierce discovered, ‘wants to be a little general, deciding for himself, and is resentful of the despotism necessary to his success and his welfare.’ Bierce turned more and more taciturn, finding companionship largely with Hazen and amusement with bizarre feats of heroism. Pursuing Confederates in Tennessee, Bierce, single-handed, went galloping off toward the Rebels, ‘exposing myself recklessly to draw the Confederate fire and disclose their position.’ At the Battle of Murfreesboro at the end of December 1862, the 9th Indiana was pinned down behind a railroad embankment where they were so badly cut up that they were down to taking orders from a major. The major then went down, and it was Bierce, under a blistering fire, who scooped him up in his arms and carried him to safety.
In February 1863, Bierce was promoted to first lieutenant, and Hazen got him assigned to brigade staff as a ‘topographical engineer,’ a pretentious title for mapmaker. The staff job kept Bierce out of harm’s way until September, when, at Chickamauga, the Union Army of the Cumberland fell apart. Bierce and his brigade had done their part for two days ‘with foul pieces and exhausted cartridge boxes’ until relieved, and then retired behind an artillery battery. Oddly, Bierce found his brother Albert there, an officer in the 18th Ohio Artillery. The two chatted with veteran nonchalance ‘amongst such of the enemy’s bullets as had inconsiderably been fired too high’ until one of Albert’s gunners fell dead. The brothers coolly propped the dead man up against a tree and went on talking.
Bierce vividly remembered the effect of the artillery on charging Confederates: ‘the guns opened fire with grape and canister and for perhaps five minutes — it seemed an hour — nothing could be heard but the infernal din of their discharge….When all was over, and the dust cloud had lifted…the Confederates were still there — all of them, it seemed — some almost under the muzzles of the guns. But not a man of all these brave fellows was on his feet, and so thickly were all covered with dust that they looked as if they had been re-clothed in yellow.’ Hazen ordered Bierce off to find some artillery ammunition, but he was lost in the confusion and wound up attaching himself to Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, who was trying to cover the jumbled retreat of the Union army with the broken bits and pieces of several corps and divisions. There, Bierce found that ‘had the Confederates made one more general attack, we should have had to meet them with the bayonet alone.’ Thomas had run out of ammunition, too. ‘While the sun was taking its own time to set we lived through the agony of at least one death each, waiting for them to come on.’ But the Confederates did not attack. Night fell, broken only by the Rebel yell, which Bierce called ‘the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard — even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting.’
In the months that followed Chickamauga, Bierce turned into a first-class mapmaker for Hazen. It seemed as though something in his finicky nature was satisfied with the abstract precision of cartography. He developed an eye for ravines, bridges and hills, and years later his stories would abound in geographical detail. But his mapmaking also pulled him back far enough from combat for him to see more of the reasonless bloodletting that went on for the sake of putting points on maps. ‘It is a business in which the lives of men counted as nothing against the chance of defining a road or sketching a bridge. Whole squadrons of cavalry escort sometimes had to be sent thundering against a powerful infantry outpost in order that the brief time between the charge and the inevitable retreat might be utilized in sounding a ford or determining the point of intersection of two roads.’ And where there was not slaughter, there was stupidity. Bierce carried orders to Colonel James Foy of the 23rd Kentucky to attack a Confederate position, but Foy managed instead to get lost in a heavy forest. Bierce found him, a half-mile off target, ‘utterly isolated and marching straight to Kingdom come. Foy had not the faintest notion of where he came from, or where he was going to. `What are you doing here, Colonel?’ I asked….He looked at me for a moment in a helpless and bewildered way, then pulled on a grave face and replied: `O, I’m sort o’ flankin’ em.”
And yet Bierce made no effort to leave the Army when the opportunity presented itself. In December 1863, the 9th Indiana’s term expired, and the entire regiment, Bierce included, reenlisted. And, as if he could not find enough hot water to immerse himself in, that winter he became engaged to Bernice Wright, a girlfriend from his youth in Warsaw, Ind.Bierce had known ‘Bernie’ Wright in his teenage days in Warsaw, and used to delight her with satirical cartoons of mutually hated persons, such as the schoolteacher. He nicknamed her ‘Fatima,’ or Tima for short, and she flirted with him enough to convince him that he seriously loved her. Part of his eagerness to enlist in 1861 might have been a romantic attempt to impress her with his manliness, for he wrote her an embarrassingly passionate poem of farewell before the 9th Indiana marched off. By the time he came back to Warsaw, he was a veteran officer, and ready to put flirting behind him. He formally introduced Tima to his parents, and the two were summarily engaged.
By any standards, it ought to have been a storybook courtship. Bierce’s frame had filled out, and his profile was rugged and handsome, with his blond hair and mustache contrasting gaily with his blue uniform. And he decorously took long chaperoned rides with Tima and her sister Clara and read aloud to them to pass the time. But there was a tension pulling at Bierce below the surface of their romance, a slow, acid pain that had begun burning back at Shiloh, and about which frivolous Tima understood nothing. When Tima wanted to frolic, Bierce sharply ordered her to stop and be serious; when he read to her, it was from the melancholy works of Edgar Allan Poe. Tima comprehended little of his distress, and by the time Bierce left again in February 1864, he was depressed and full of forebodings. He grew more depressed when Tima stopped writing in June, and he scrawled a pathetic letter to Clara, forlornly observing that ‘I hardly expect to see you again….Every day someone is struck down who is so much better than I….Since leaving Cleveland, Tenn. my brigade has lost nearly one third its numbers killed and wounded.’ He added, ‘my turn will come in time.’
The war was turning more bitter for Bierce, and he wrote, ‘I am getting very tired of my present life and weary of the profession of arms.’ Certainly, he had good reason to be. Hazen had kept him on his staff, which meant that Bierce went on into Georgia as part of Sherman’s March to the Sea. On May 27, 1864, Bierce witnessed a suicidal attack at Pickett’s Mill, Ga., that administered another great shock to his youthful idealism. For no better reason than to test Confederate firepower, Hazen and his understrength brigade were casually ordered to attack two entrenched Confederate divisions.
The results were predictable. Bierce recorded that ‘in less than one minute the trim battalions had become simply a swarm of men struggling through the undergrowth of the forest.’ The Confederates opened up on them and ‘the forward fringe of brave and hardy assailants was arrested…the edge of our swarm grew dense and clearly defined as the foremost halted, and the rest pressed forward to align themselves beside them, all firing.’ The Rebel artillery joined in, ‘rather felt than heard,’ although ‘the gusts of grape which they blew into that populous wood were audible enough, screaming among the trees and cracking against their stems and branches.’ The color-bearers ‘held their colors erect, shook out their glories, waved them forward and back to keep them spread, for there was no wind.’
Bierce, from the right of the line, saw that ‘most of our men fought kneeling as they fired…but there were considerable groups that stood.’ Frequently, ‘moved by a common despair,’ one of these groups would push forward, but ‘in a second every man of the group would be down.’ Or an individual ‘with levelled bayonet’ would spring forward, but ‘he got no farther than his predecessors.’ The soldiers knew futility when they saw it, even if the officers did not, and ‘man by man, the survivors withdrew at will, sifting through the trees into the cover of the ravines, among the wounded who could drag themselves back; among the skulkers whom nothing could have dragged forward.’ They lost 1,400 men in 30 minutes to no good purpose, except to teach Bierce (among others) that war was not only hell, but an utterly irrational hell.
The young idealist was not given much time to contemplate this irony. True to his forebodings, he was shot in the head by a sharpshooter on Kennesaw Mountain on June 23. He would have been left for dead had not his brother Albert found him lying on the field, still alive. Bierce was hospitalized in Chattanooga and furloughed back to Warsaw, only to find that his beloved Tima had forgotten him and taken up with another. Plunged into hysterical despair, Bierce broke the engagement with ‘tears of hopeless, prayerless pain.’ Bierce never forgave her, or women in general, and when women later appeared in his short stories, they invariably showed up as seductresses who tantalized men into a madness that only death on the battlefield could cure.
Bierce probably should not have rejoined the Army. While his head wound had healed, it left him’subject to fits of fainting.’ But he had quarreled with his parents, and with Tima gone, he really had no other place to call home. In September 1864, he rejoined his old corps, which had been consolidated into the IV Corps, Army of the Cumberland. And in November, Bierce and the IV Corps, along with Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s XXIII Corps, were detached from Sherman’s March to the Sea to chase after Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, who had gotten loose in Tennessee with a potentially dangerous Confederate army. Hood was heading for Nashville, but Schofield headed him off at Franklin, Tenn., where the Union corps, with their backs to the Harpeth River, dared Hood to attack. Hood obliged them grandly. From a slight rise, Bierce watched an advancing Confederate column come up the road, ‘but — ominous circumstance! — it did not come on. It turned to its left, at a right angle, moving along the base of the hills, parallel to our lines.’ The other Confederate columns also came on, ‘impudently deploying on the level ground with spectacular display of flags and glitter of arms.’ The ensuing battle was not so glittering. As Bierce could see, it was no more than a matter of ‘two long, irregular, mutable, and tumultuous blurs of color…consuming each other’s edge along the line of contact.’ Bierce saw the Confederates punch a hole in the Union ‘blur,’ but Union reserves plugged it up and drove the gray blur back until it ‘dissolved into its elemental units, all in slow recession.’ The Confederates pressed the attack again and again, and Bierce could make out ‘dimly in the smoke, mounted officers, singly and in small groups, attempting to force their horses’ over the Union line, ‘but all went down.’
Hood’s costly attacks failed. Schofield pulled his men back over the Harpeth and joined Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland at Nashville, where Hood followed. Hood foolishly thought he was investing Thomas and Schofield, but on December 15 Thomas moved out and in two days smashed Hood’s army permanently. It was a brilliant Union victory, but what Bierce remembered in particular was the performance of the 13th Colored Infantry. ‘Seeing the darkies go in on our left,’ Bierce wrote, ‘I was naturally interested and observed them closely. Better fighting was never done.’ Bierce, something of a closet racist, was amazed at the vigor with which the black infantry rose to charge. Their advance was halted by an abatis of felled trees and ‘its passage by troops under fire was hopeless from the first,’ but ‘they did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into the fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action.’
Still plagued by his wound, in January 1865 Bierce resigned. He was not, however, mustered out at once. In fact, he rejoined Sherman and marched with him up through the Carolinas until April, when his discharge came through. At last, Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War was over.
After that, Bierce drifted. He worked as a Treasury agent until September, when Hazen invited him to rejoin the Army. Hazen was mapping the Overland Trail westward and offered Bierce a captaincy if he would come along. Bierce leapt at the opportunity, which is perhaps odd, given his disenchantment with armies. But for Bierce, even if armies were governed by irrationality and stupidity most of the time, it was an irrationality and stupidity that he at least understood. The Army was a rootless and self-contained society that, for all its slouchiness, gave Bierce a profound sense of belonging, and for that reason it was the only place he was ever entirely at peace with himself. But when he and Hazen reached San Francisco, they found that the commission had fallen through, and Bierce angrily left Hazen and the Army for good. Instead, he got a miserable job as a night watchman in the San Francisco Mint, and to help support himself, he turned to writing. He published his first pieces in 1867 and rapidly built up a considerable reputation as a Western writer, publishing his first book in 1873. In 1887 William Randolph Hearst lured him onto the staff of the San Francisco Examiner, and by the 1890s, Bierce was the literary dictator of the West Coast.
But the Civil War haunted him. The finest of his short stories were those he drew from his memories of the war. And his most famous stories, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and ‘Chickamauga,’ even drew their names from places where the 9th Indiana had fought. These stories were more than merely recollections of an old soldier. They were black, grotesque fables full of weird cacklings at the notion that war is full of anything more meaningful than offhanded slaughter. To be sure, there were heroic bugles blowing in Bierce’s stories, but they called men to suicidal, pointless charges. In ‘A Son of the Gods,’ for instance, an officer rode forward to draw Confederate fire and spare the lives of his men, but when he was killed, his men, ‘choking with emotion,’ rushed forward to avenge him and got themselves killed anyway.
For Bierce, the basic fact of soldiering was that the enemy was not really the gray-clad host at the other end of the field, but death, and the terror of death and wounds. If there was any glory to be had in war, it belonged to the lone individual who struggled to overcome his terror and stare down death, and did not shrink from the end even when ordered to it by some idiot in shoulder-straps. The truth was, however, that such individuals were very few in number, and Bierce’s characters, more often than not, broke under their terror. Captain Graffenreid in ‘One Officer, One Man’ committed suicide when he could not bear his fear in battle; Jerome Searing, the sharpshooter in ‘One of the Missing,’ died of fright when trapped in a collapsed building with his rifle pointing at his head. These ideas were wrenching stuff just by themselves, but Bierce then twisted his tales ironically. Graffenreid killed himself, but only over a skirmish; Jerome Searing’s rifle turned out to have been unloaded. Even Bierce’s heroes had their heroism twisted, like Carter Druse in ‘A Horseman in the Sky,’ forced to shoot his own father; or Captain Coulter in ‘The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,’ who shelled his own house on orders and killed his family. His heroes awe readers with a sense of duty, but appall them with the grimness of their choices. Bierce would remind all, that is what war is made of.
Bierce never seemed able to locate a place for himself in the world outside of war. His marriage in 1871 ended disastrously, two of his three children died tragically before him, and he was never able to accept the flamboyant materialism of the Gilded Age. The idealistic sacrifices of the Civil War had brought only greed, corruption and the presidency of Ulysses Grant. In 1912 Bierce was tired and ready for the end. He finished publishing his Collected Works, and in October 1913 packed his bags for a last nostalgic tour of the Civil War battlefields he had fought on a half-century before. In November he went to Texas and crossed into Mexico, where he joined Pancho Villa’s army as a reporter of one of the incessant Mexican civil wars. His last letter was dated December 26, 1913, announcing his intention to follow the Villistas to the town of Ojinaga. He was never heard from again, and was probably killed at the capture of Ojinaga on January 11, 1914. One civil war had lived with Ambrose Bierce all his life; he ended his life with another.
This article was written by Allen Guelzo and originally published in the October 2005 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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