THE CLASSICS: Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War (Book Review)

Reviewed by Peter S. Carmichael
Edited by William McCann

Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, edited by William McCann, reveals Bierce’s wartime experiences through his vivid accounts.

When considering the violence and intense trauma experienced by Civil War soldiers, their letters and memoirs reveal very little about the true horrors of combat. Letters were public matters that the recipient would read to all family members and friends. A comrade decapitated by an enemy shell or slowly expiring from a stomach wound was a gruesome occurrence that veterans generally buried in the recesses of their minds. Many soldiers reasoned that women and children should never learn of the ghastliness of the battlefield, and they consequently cleansed their letters of any hint of horror.

Victorian sensibilities also explain why men on both sides were reluctant to write about the real war. Northerners and Southerners firmly believed that men possessed the capacity for innocence and that they could harness their darker impulses in order to achieve radical purity. These Victorian assumptions and hopes were shattered as soon as men put on the uniform, for in the army they encountered the basest behavior. From the typical sins of drinking and prostitution in camp to the wholesale slaughter of frontal attacks, soldiers became hardened to their cruel reality. Many repressed authentic memories, especially after the war when veterans on both sides wanted future generations to remember only their sense of duty and bravery and nothing else.

The postwar writings of Ambrose Bierce are exceptional, for he, like no other Civil War veteran, forced his readers to confront the human destruction in combat in all its cold and hideous forms. He makes no attempt to celebrate heroism or duty, nor does he attempt to cast the Civil War as a noble event. Bierce wants us to understand Civil War soldiers as cold-blooded killers. During one engagement, for instance, Bierce encountered a soldier with a mortal head wound who was screaming in agony. Another comrade, whom Bierce considered particularly effete, asked Bierce if he should put a bayonet through the wounded fellow. "Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal," Bierce wrote, "I told him I thought not: it was unusual, and too many were looking."

These gruesome episodes cannot be found in the highly romantic and better-known works of Civil War soldiers like Joshua Chamberlain and John Esten Cooke. The best introduction to Bierce can be found in Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, edited by William McCann. In this superb collection of Bierce’s fictional and nonfictional writings, one sees the Civil War as a terrible human tragedy that possessed no deeper meaning. The cynicism that pervades Bierce’s prose speaks to his own difficulties in adjusting to the psychological trauma of combat. Tragically, his deep pessimism prevented him from fully appreciating the revolutionary consequences unleashed by Union victory. Yet, it is this bitterness and deep sadness that produced his greatness as a writer, making him one of the most honest observers of how men tried to survive the killing fields of the Civil War.

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