Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, edited and with an introduction by William McCann, by Ambrose Bierce
Having already read many of Ambrose Bierce’s civil war stories in other collections, much of this work was already familiar to me. Those who are familiar with Bierce’s writings in general have likely read such classics as “A Horseman In The Sky,” “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” “The Story Of A Conscience,” “Killed At Resaca,” or “One Kind Of Officer,” all of which are great stories and all of which are included here. What this book does, though, is place these familiar and excellent stories in a context that demonstrates how it is that Bierce was so strongly affected by his Civil War experience and how he managed to enjoy being a soldier despite his dislike of authority. One also gets a plausible account of the author’s death in the Mexican Revolution as well as a discussion of the serious injuries he suffered and some of their consequences. It is possible that a great deal of Bierce’s known waspishness was due to the pain he suffered as a result of war wounds which gave him constant and massive headaches, which adds to at least some sympathy as far as his suffering is concerned.
The first 75 pages or so of this book of a bit more than 250 pages is made up of the author’s nonfictional writings on the Civil War, which amount to fragmentary materials that would these days likely have ended up in a memoir. These essays include his writings about the second day of Shiloh, his experiences in Chickamauga, four days in Dixie, and his view of the crime of Pickett’s Mill regarding his brigade and its attack on the Confederate lines, as well as a discussion of the Battle of Franklin and its context. The rest of the book consists of Bierce’s short stories about the Civil War, many of which were already familiar to me but still very worthwhile and enjoyable stories. Among the stories that were not familiar with me, the story of “Parker Adderson, Philosopher” and spectacularly unsuccessful spy, was perhaps the most poignant, and “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General” was perhaps the most entertaining, an epistolary short story where a Union officer with greenhorn troops manages to kill and capture a large number of menacing rebels after having been abandoned by his superior and is then promoted as a result of his bravery.
There are at least a few worthwhile insights that the reader can gain from these stories. For one, the Civil War had an obvious and serious effect on Bierce as a person and as a writer. The stories themselves dwell on questions of death and honor, the elusiveness of bravery, the futility of death, and of the occasional lies that people engage in, sometimes with very serious results. One can see that Hazen’s example as a brave but somewhat combative officer was an inspiration for Bierce’s own character and conduct both in the war as a talented topographical officer and after the war as an able writer. One can also see that the author manages not only to turn the Civil War into a question of morality tales or ghost stories or humorous stories, even occasionally adopting the language of blacks–something that would not pass muster today, but manages to turn his own experiences and observations into compelling literature that has managed to endure. Perhaps Bierce would be gratified to know that his own observations on the Civil War as well as his own fictional stories taken from his experiences are still read and enjoyed today, but he would likely not be as enamored of the way that many of the lessons of that brutal war have not been learned or heeded by our nation or the larger world.