Ernest Hemingway confidently proclaimed Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s naturalistic Civil War novel of cowardice and redemption, “the first great American war story.” Most historians and literary critics have agreed with Hemingway and Crane’s book has been devoured by readers and analyzed by literary critics almost from the day it was first published in 1892.
Unfortunately, Hemingway and many others have ignored a series of great Civil War short stories begun 11 years earlier. They were penned by a curmudgeonly journalist better known for his Edgar Allan Poe–like tales of the supernatural and for his mysterious disappearance into Mexico in 1914.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce is rarely recognized as a first-rate literary stylist, but he used narrative techniques most critics now consider modern. Although not known for his military exploits, Bierce served with distinction on most of the Civil War’s killing fields in the West.
A former printer’s devil, brickyard laborer, and retail clerk, Bierce enlisted at age 19 as a private in the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry on April 19, 1861. He fought in the mountains of Western Virginia (now West Virginia), before being transferred to the Western Theater in which he fought at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and in the campaign for Atlanta. He was severely wounded at Kennesaw Mountain on June 23, 1864, but returned to duty and participated in the decisive battle of Nashville. He resigned his lieutenant’s commission on Jan. 25, 1865.
Stephen Crane was born six years after the Civil War ended. His novel is unquestionably a literary masterpiece, written from the perspective of an individual soldier on the battlefield. But Crane substituted a brilliant imagination for his lack of military experience. He did use ideas and realistic details culled from stories told to him by old soldiers, and he read articles, memoirs, and regimental histories written by veterans during the last decades of the 19th century.
Bierce’s Civil War writings are a mixture of fiction, journalism, and savage polemic. Instead of the romance of war and the manliness of a good fight between honorable adversaries that characterized the writings of most veterans, Bierce wrote about an ugly war that he cloaked in allegory, satire, sarcasm, irony, all surrounded by an aura of supernaturalism.
His stories are often set far from the fields of battle. They usually dealt with the unseen war;, the war waged deep in the individual conscience of soldiers caught up in situations they could not control and rarely understood. For Bierce, these were the battles that defined a man’s character. This highly personalized style was probably the only way he could imaginatively relive the obscenity he had somehow managed to survive.
Bierce wanted his readers to see the clouds of smoke, hear the ear-splitting noise, and smell the stench of gunpowder mixed with rotting flesh. In his stories, the brightest field or greenest mountain quickly turned into a gray twilight world populated by spectral wraiths floating among bloated corpses. In an era that extolled idealism, moral progress, and righteous causes associated with the war, Bierce was the first writer of his era to cry out that war was also about wasted lives, mutilation, disease, decay, and death.
Bierce’s actual battlefield experiences became the basis for his stories, and he began with the battle that changed his life forever. “What I Saw of Shiloh” (1881) seems to be written in a straightforward, journalistic style. Many scholars consider the incidents in this account as accurate renderings of events on the battlefield.
But Bierce is setting a clever ambush for his readers just as he repeatedly set them for his fictional characters. The real and the super real (or supernatural) can and do exist simultaneously in his stories. Understanding just what Bierce saw requires paying close attention to the language he uses to convey his vision of how event and memory meld together to become history.
The 9th Indiana, part of the Army of the Ohio, arrived during the night of April 6, 1862, to reinforce the beleaguered forces of Major General Ulysses S. Grant at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee. Determined to regain the ground he had lost during the previous day’s fighting, Grant ordered the reinforcing regiments into the line immediately, without benefit of bivouacs, fires, or hot food.
“The night was now black-dark:” Bierce wrote, “as is usual after a battle, it had begun to rain … Inch by inch we crept along, treading on one another’s heels by way of keeping together … Very often we struck our feet against the dead; more frequently against those who still had spirit enough to resent it with a moan. Those were lifted carefully to one side and abandoned.”
Bierce combined the sense of dread that hung over the weary troops with his own biting irony to relate the absurdity of tenderly moving the wounded out of the path of marching men and then leaving them in the mud and rain where many of them undoubtedly died untended and alone.
Bierce’s regiment was in the thick of the fight on the second day at Shiloh and suffered more casualties than any other unit in the Army of the Ohio. Ordered to clear a wooded area, the regiment had easy going at first. But then “the forest seemed all at once to flame up and disappear with a crash … a crash that expired in hot hissings, and sickening ‘splat’ of lead against flesh.”
After repulsing at least four Confederate counterattacks, “the storm burst. A great gray cloud seemed to spring out of the forest into the faces of the waiting battalions. It was received with a crash that made the very trees turn up their leaves.” Only an ominous silence, followed by the appearance of stretcher-bearers and a chaplain convinced Bierce that the battle had indeed ended.
One story incorporates all of Bierce’s narrative techniques and encapsulates his feelings about war. “Chickamauga” (1889) is one of the finest pieces of short fiction in American literature. While the actual battle is never mentioned in the story, Bierce intended the title to represent all the death and destruction he witnessed on Civil War battlefields.
The story’s protagonist is a deaf-mute child. Experiencing events through the child’s innocent, but fundamentally flawed, senses allows Bierce to re-imagine how soldiers feel moving about on a battlefield in the midst of musket and cannon fire. Unable to see much beyond the man fighting next to them, soldiers were forced to fight deaf and blind. Like the child, they were unable to rely on their senses to tell them what was happening.
The child wanders off into a wooded area, falls asleep, and awakens at twilight to find that he is not alone. “The whole open space about him was alive with them all moving toward the brook,” Bierce wrote. “They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees only, dragging legs … They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt … The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek.”
Unbeknownst to the child, a battle has taken place while he innocently slept. He awakens and finds himself in the midst of desperate men struggling to find water. But he frolics among the wounded, thinking them to be field hands like those he has played with on his father’s plantation. The child completely misconstrues what he sees, while Bierce and the reader understand what the child cannot.
The child moves on as “the haunted landscape began to brighten.” But in Bierce’s world, light does not bring hope and wisdom; it brings death.
Still enchanted by the spectacle, the child comes upon “the blazing ruin of a dwelling.” He recognizes it as his own home. At this scene of fiery desolation, the child/ hero comes to the turning point in his life and the reader learns the lesson of the story.
Among the ruins, the boy finds the dead body of his mother, “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 a jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.”
The graphic description of the mother’s lifeless body seethes with anger. For Bierce, there is no resolution in victory or nobility in defeat. By detailing the horrific death of one person, Bierce forces the reader to question the prevailing victory culture of the North and the myth of the Lost Cause of the South. He tore away the masks of self-satisfying hypocrisy just as the cannon shell tore away the face of the mother of the now not-so-innocent child.
Bierce’s contemporaries didn’t know what to make of this kind of writing and most modern critics still don’t—which probably explains why we still know so little about the phantoms that marched beside him throughout the blood-stained Civil War years and the thin blue ghosts that undoubtedly lived with him all the rest of his life.
But one contemporary writer understands combat the way Bierce did. Infantryman Tim O’Brien, himself a brilliant short-story writer and novelist, instinctively understands, and indeed often mirrors, Bierce’s methods. O’Brien’s war was fought in the steaming jungles of Vietnam but he understood, like Bierce, that stories can be a salvation for those who survived. In an exquisite collection of what he calls “fictional episodes,” entitled The Things They Carried, O’Brien writes, “In a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”
Only by bringing the dead to life through literature could Bierce and O’Brien hope to convince their readers that a true war story is never moral. “You can tell a true war story,” O’Brien writes, “by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
According to O’Brien, in the midst of battle “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.” The “surreal seemingness” O’Brien describes “makes the story seem untrue, but in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” This is exactly what Bierce did time and time again.
The Civil War stories Bierce left behind allowed him to put his physical and psychic wounds into words, thus enabling those long dead to speak eloquently to the living. They also give us insight into the mind of a very uncommon Civil War soldier.