Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War

Ambrose Bierce was born in Ohio on June 24th, 1842.  He was the 10th of 13 children of Marcus Aurelius Bierce and his wife Laura.  The family moved to Warsaw, Indiana in 1848.  By all accounts, Ambrose did not have a happy childhood and received little attention, getting lost in the shuffle of so many children in the family.  He set out on his own in 1856, trying his hand at various things until the Civil War broke out.  Bierce enlisted in Company C of the 9th Indiana Infantry five days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, rising to the rank of Sergeant Major in a few months time.  He would later make it to 1st Lieutenant.

After some relatively easy duty, the 9th Indiana was sent to Nashville, Tennessee in February 1862.  The unit was part of Colonel William B. Hazen’s 19th Brigade of the Army of the Ohio.  Hazen was a tough West Point graduate, a professional soldier who trained the volunteers and made them into soldiers.  Bierce admired Hazen, who became a friend and mentor.  In 1863, Hazen had Bierce join his staff as a cartographer, or as the Army called it in those days, a topographical engineer.

Ambrose Bierce experienced some of the fiercest fighting of the war  including the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, and Chickamauga.

During Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, Bierce was shot in the head at Kennesaw Mountain on June 23rd, 1864.  He was found on the battlefield by his brother Albert, an officer in the 18th Ohio Artillery, who got him to a hospital.  He returned in September 1864, and was at the Battles of Franklin  and Nashville later in the year.  In the winter of 1865, he participated in Sherman’s Campaign of the Carolinas.  Bierce had tried to resign from the army in January of 1865, but his discharge did not come through until April.  Bierce had served in the army for essentially the entire Civil War.

Writing Career

After the war, Bierce ended up in San Francisco, where he began writing to earn some money.  His work was well received, and his career took off.  He published several novels in the 1870’s.  In the 1880’s Bierce began writing short stories about the Civil War, drawing on his wartime experiences, writing 25 such stories in the 1880’s and 1890’s.   In 1887, he joined the San Francisco Examiner newspaper.

In 1913, Ambrose Bierce toured the old Civil War battlefields one last time, and then headed for Texas.  From there, he crossed into Mexico and joined with  Pancho Villa’s army in its revolution against the Mexican government. 

The old soldier again was in a war, this time with his reporter’s pen and notebook instead of a musket.  In a letter dated December 26, 1913,  Bierce stated he would be going with Villa’s men to the town of Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande River from Presidio, Texas.

The letter was the last correspondence from Ambrose Bierce.  Then he simply disappeared.  There are plenty of theories as to his fate, but he was probably killed in the Battle of Ojinaga on January 11, 1914, when Villa’s army captured the town and drove out Mexican government troops.

Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Short Stories

Bierce wrote 25 Civil War short stories.  There are no glorious struggles in Bierce’s stories;  his focus is on the horrors of war, both physical and psychological.   Many of his stories contain plot twists near the end, much like those found in the classic TV series The Twilight Zone.  In fact,  An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, perhaps his best known Civil War short story, was made into a Twilight Zone episode.  Some of his better works (or at least my favorites) include The Affair at Coulter’s Notch, Chickamauga, and The Coup De Grace.  Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War short stories are still in print and they can also  be read online at The Literature Network website. 

Sources:

  • A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion  by Frederick H. Dyer.  Des Moines, Iowa:  Dyer Publishing Co. 1908
  • “Bierce’s Civil War:  One Man’s Morbid Vision” by Allen Guelzo. Civil War Times, Vol.  XLIV, No. 4 October 2005.
  • “Phantoms of a Blood Stained Period” by Gordon Berg.  Civil War Times,  Vol. XLIV, No. 4, October 2005.
  • The Civil War Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce  Compiled by Ernest J. Hopkins.  Lincoln, Nebraska:  University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
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1 Response

  1. Michael F Halasz says:

    The `Devil’s Dictionary’ is worth studying. It has been described as an American version of Voltaire’s French cynical view of the world.

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