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The Devil’s Topographer:Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story

By David M.Owens (University of Knoxville Press,Knoxville, 2006, $33)

“To this day I cannot look over a landscape without noting the advantages of ground for attack or defense;here is an admirable site for an earthwork,there an able place for a field battery.”Those words, written in 1887 by Ambrose Bierce,the curmudgeonly journalist, eccentric short story writer and valiant Civil War soldier,reveal the importance of topography to his worldview.

Biographers and literary critics have rightly concluded that Bierce’s Civil War experiences were the most important events of his life.He enlisted as a private in the 9th Indiana Infantry in April 1861 and served with distinction on almost every killing field in the West,including Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga,Lookout Mountain,Resaca and Pickett’s Mill. He was severely wounded at Kennesaw Mountain and resigned as a lieutenant in January 1865. But when asked to write a history of his Civil War experiences, Bierce caustically replied,“The fools would probably not understand a word of it.”

So,beginning in 1883,Bierce used fiction to reimagine his wartime experiences. His extraordinary stories usually deal with the unseen war,the war waged deep in the individual conscience,heart and psyche of soldiers caught up in situations they could not control and rarely understood.Those battles did not make the headlines and usually were fought far from the front lines.For Bierce,these were the battles that defined a man’s character, or revealed the lack thereof. Now Professor David M.Owens of Valparaiso University has conclusively demonstrated in The Devil’s Topographer:Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story that the geographic locales described in Bierce’s stories coincide with places where he actually served as a soldier.

From the Cheat Mountain region of Western Virginia,an area Bierce described as “a land of enchantment,”to the loamy killing fields of middle Tennessee and the red clay hills of northern Georgia,Owens persuasively argues that Bierce used his topographer’s eye and uncanny memory to enhance the quality of verisimilitude in his writings, a criterion, Owens says, that Ernest Hemingway deemed essential to a good war story.

Bierce’s service as the topographical engineer for the brigade of General William Babcock Hazen during much of his Civil War career leads Owens to argue that the quality of verisimilitude is the touchstone for an analysis of the writer’s Civil War canon. He shows that while Bierce occasionally used a specific location to set his story, more often he combined the characteristics of many of the places he visited to create an otherworldly locale inhabited by his fictional characters. Owens’Appendix I, a chart listing the time and location of each story and the date Bierce served in that area,is particularly useful for the reader following Bierce’s wartime journey.

Geography is the primary focus of Owens’ book, and his analysis is important to a more complete understanding of a complicated and still underappreciated American writer.While every reviewer must resist the temptation of reviewing the book he wished the author had written, Owens might have profitably broadened the scope of his inquiry to show how Bierce’s narrative strategies,the construction of the very language he chose to use,are drawn from his actual experiences on the battlefields where he fought.

In an era that extolled idealism, heroism, moral progress and the myth of the good war, Bierce gave his readers destruction, disease, decay and death.His contemporaries,steeped in literary naturalism, did not know what to make of his writing, and most modern literary critics still don’t understand how he transmuted the harsh realities of battle into words. Indeed,Daniel Aaron,usually a perceptive literary critic,wrongly concludes that “Bierce’s tales of war are not the least realistic;they are, as he doubtless intended them to be,incredible events occurring in credible surroundings.”

Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam combat infantryman whose fiction closely resembles that of Bierce,wrote,“you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”Bierce would have heartily agreed. Instead of the romance of war and the manliness of a good fight described in naturalistic terms, Bierce gave his readers an ugly war cloaked in allegory,satire, sarcasm and irony, surrounded by an aura of superrealism, or supernaturalism.

A modern psychologist probably would have diagnosed him with posttraumatic stress disorder and a strong dose of survivor’s guilt. But for Bierce,the process of writing his Civil War stories was a way to imaginatively relive the obscenity he had somehow managed to survive.

O’Brien believes that war stories enable the writer to reincarnate long dead comrades. “The thing about a story,”O’Brien wrote,“is that you dream it as you tell it,hoping others might dream along with you,and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.There is the illusion of aliveness.”

Bierce sought the illusion of aliveness in all his Civil War writings.He probably never exorcized “the phantoms of a blood-stained period” that he carried with him all his life; in his heart,he probably didn’t want to.Now David Owens has helped us navigate through Ambrose Bierce’s phantasmagoric world and shows it to be a world very much like the one in which he lived and fought as a soldier.


Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here