Chilling, unpredictable war stories were the forte of Ambrose Bierce.
Before there was Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling, there was Ambrose Bierce. Misanthrope is probably the best way to characterize this turn-of-the-century journalist and prodigious short-story writer, who, in the words of one editor, was “an angry young man who got angrier as he got older.” Like Hitchcock and Serling, he produced stories characterized by dark, wicked, gut-wrenching twists. You’ll love him, I promise.
Bierce was born on an Ohio farm in June 1842, and moved with his family to Indiana when he was 4. Although he harbored some empathy for the South, Bierce enlisted in the 9th Indiana Regiment and fought in several important Civil War battles, including Shiloh and Chickamauga, and received a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on the eve of his 22nd birthday. Toward the war’s end, he left the Army a brevetted major; he also came away with a jaded vision of war—and of man—that colored his writing for the remainder of his life. The most constant character in his tales is death.
Among his works is a collection of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The “Soldiers” section contains 15 stories that come out of the Civil War by way of the House of Horrors. Most of them are gems. The best known of the Tales is the brilliant “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” From the first line, the reader is hooked:
“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.”
The condemned, a wealthy young Southern planter named Peyton Farquhar, is tricked into attempting to sabotage a bridge that Federal forces are about to cross. He is captured and sentenced to death. As he stands upon the bridge contemplating what little time he thinks he has left, he hears the seconds of his life ticking away on his pocket watch. At this point, things get interesting.
So timeless is this story that a French production company made a 25-minute film of it that won top prize for short film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962 and an Academy Award the following year. Shortly thereafter, Rod Serling ran it on The Twilight Zone. “Here is a haunting study of the incredible, from the past master of the incredible, Ambrose Bierce,” Serling told his viewers. High praise, from one master of the macabre to another.
In “One of the Missing,” we meet young Jerome Searing, a scout in Sherman’s army, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Private Searing is “an incomparable marksman, young, hardy, intelligent and insensible to fear.” He is sent to determine the enemy’s presence and report back to headquarters. By story’s end, his courage will be tested to the breaking point. Through a quirk of fate, Searing finds himself in a terrifying position and is forced to make a horrific decision.
Another tale finds a glib Federal spy captured by the enemy and sentenced to die. In “Parker Adderson, Philosopher,” the condemned man—believing himself to have accepted his fate—engages the Rebel general in witty conversation. Stunned by his prisoner’s cold-blooded attitude toward his own demise, the general exclaims:
“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.”
All the while, Adderson has assumed that he will be hanged the next day, in a formal execution upon a properly constructed scaffold. When the general wearies of the clever exchange and orders that he be taken out and summarily shot, the story takes a dark and sudden turn, with consequences for others besides the stunned prisoner.
And so with all Bierce’s tales, irony abounds and endings are anything but predictable. He delights in introducing us to strong men of character—handsome, valiant, imperturbable soldiers—and turning their world upside down. Good intentions guarantee nothing. A Union soldier tracks his enemy through the length of one story, and finally shoots him dead—only to discover the personal horror of his act. A superb Union gunner is ordered to direct his artillery on a domestic target, with unspeakably tragic results.
Nothing in Bierce’s writing justifies war or grants mercy to those who wage it. And yet his stories are irresistible; once you’ve started, you don’t put them down until you’ve read them all. If you try to guess the endings, you will be wrong. The author’s sinister genius lies in his ability to surprise and to shock.
Bierce is relentless in his dismissal of the brave or gallant gesture. An officer exhibits bravery to such an extent that he is deemed to have “one most objectionable and unsoldierly quality: he was vain of his courage”; and yet, all his gallantry, even unto death, is in response to a woman’s selfish and fleeting concern that he not show cowardice. All Bierce’s characters are fodder for his cynicism.
Bierce’s life paralleled the darkness of his writings. Having established himself as something of a literary lion in San Francisco, his acerbic pen soon earned him many enemies, and the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” As he aged, his health gradually declined. One of his sons, only a teenager at the time, was shot to death in a brawl over a woman; the other died of alcoholism. His wife left him—as a biographer said, “33 years too late”—and as he entered old age, his talent deserted him as well.
Finally, in 1913—alone, ill and unproductive—Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce traveled to Mexico to join the army of Pancho Villa. He went looking for his own death. He told people that an American who went into revolution-torn Mexico was seeking violent euthanasia, and he found it. No one knows exactly how he was killed, whether murdered or executed; it is conjectured that he died as a consequence of deserting Villa’s forces.
So when you’ve grown weary of historical research and of reading any of the 70- odd books on Lincoln that came out this year alone, and you’re in the mood for a little escapist fiction, Ambrose Bierce’s handful of Civil War tales is well worth the read, especially on a cold blustery night in front of the fire.
Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.