The ABP Journal
Fall 2007, Vol. 3 No. 1

ISSN 1939-4578

Earl J. Hess is Associate Professor of History and the Stewart McClelland Distinguished Professor in Humanities at Lincoln Memorial University. One of the most prolific scholars of the Civil War working today, his books include The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (1997), Picketts Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2000), Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War (2005), and Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee (2007). He is a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

[journal table of contents]





The war experience itself, though traumatic and testing, did not make a “lost soldier” of Bierce.  Instead, it was the failure of Reconstruction that soured him on the worth of what he and his fellow soldiers had suffered.


















the union soldier in battle
The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat, by Earl J. Hess



















What Bierce saw at Shiloh was not just death and conflict, but man’s ability to be brutalized.  He saw the lack of harmony in life, and the complementary evil in the natural world as well.





















Visiting Richmond in 1912, Bierce found the “tragic and pathetic history” of the city overwhelming.  It got on his “nerves with a particular dejection,
. . . making solemn eyes at me.”


ambrose bierce, the soldier's memoir, and reconstruction
From The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat, by Earl J. Hess, published by the University Press of Kansas © 1997. Used by permission of the publisher.

early j. hess

bierce in the early 20th-centuryAMBROSE BIERCE IS A FIGURE who crosses interdisciplinary lines among academic writers. While the body of his work that has garnered the most attention is his fiction, making him a fit subject for literary studies, his Civil War experience in the 9th Indiana and as a staff member in the Army of the Cumberland make him an interesting subject for military historians as well.  In the substantial wave of studies about Bierce and his writings, the tendency has been to evaluate him within the context of literary studies.  There are impressive publications which set his fiction within the context of war stories, or within the context of his extensive career as a newspaper writer for the San Francisco Examiner after the war.  While many literary scholars have taken Bierce’s war experiences seriously, they nevertheless tend to evaluate his published writings, especially his fiction, from a disciplinary standpoint that places him within the general picture of late nineteenth century American fiction. [1] 

There are two other contexts within which Bierce’s work should be understood, and the focus can be shifted away from his fictional short stories and toward the substantial body of autobiographical writings that he produced.  These are the contexts of the soldier’s memoir and veterans’ attitudes toward Reconstruction.  Bierce’s world was dramatically shaped by his war experience, as was true of many Union and Confederate soldiers who did not go on to become famous authors.  He never forgot that he was part of a generation seared by its voluntary service in the Civil War, and he produced a series of short reminiscences of that service much in the way that thousands of other veterans wrote of their war experience.  Naturally, the war itself is the focus of these recollections, but Bierce’s reaction to what followed Appomattox, the political trauma of Reconstruction, also influenced his attitude toward the war and toward the future of America.  After looking at his war recollections, and then gaining insight into Bierce’s thinking through some of his poetry, I suggest in this short article that the war experience itself, though traumatic and testing, did not make a “lost soldier” of Bierce.  Instead, it was the failure of Reconstruction that soured him on the worth of what he and his fellow soldiers had suffered during the war years.  In other words, what was suffered in the conflict was endurable, as long as the cost of that suffering was valued by a society that followed through to bring justice to freed slaves and suppressed the slave power that many Northerners thought had started the war in the first place.  When that reconstruction effort failed to achieve those goals, many veterans like Bierce wondered why they had fought at all.

As a soldier in the 9th Indiana Infantry, veteran of Shiloh, Chickamauga, and much of the Atlanta campaign, and as a staff officer, Bierce served faithfully through some of the worst combat the Civil War had to offer.  He saw much and conscientiously analyzed and absorbed it.  After the conflict, Bierce wrote a remarkable body of work.  His “Bits of Autobiography” are just what the title implies, fragments of memories of his war experiences, valuable as insights into how the conflict affected his life.  However, he became much better known for his fictional writings, a series of short stories that expose one of the most bitter indictments of war ever produced by an American veteran.  Bierce was relentless in his macabre irony; his refusal to see anything noble, heroic, or redeeming in the war experience; his hard-edged narrative style; and his detailed knowledge of the reality of warfare.  He wandered through life after the war, participating in the failed experiment of Radical Reconstruction, rejecting ideological interpretations of the war’s significance, and finally losing himself in the turbulence of the Mexican Revolution early in the twentieth century.  His fate in Mexico is still a mystery, but Bierce’s literary legacy and what that legacy tells us about this lost soldier of the war to save the Union remain. [3]  

One would have to look beyond “Bits of Autobiography” and the short stories to gain another important insight into Ambrose Bierce.  In a set of miscellaneous poems and stories, he revealed his utter disgust with the failure of Radical Reconstruction.  The South was re-enslaving African Americans, Bierce wrote, and the North was doing nothing to prevent it.  In a poem entitled “The Hesitating Veteran,” Bierce depicted a wounded ex-soldier of the Union who contrasts the exhilaration and faith of the war years with the seeming lack of morality in the postwar world of graft, industrialization, sharecropping, and Jim Crow.  “I know what uniform I wore — O, that I knew which side I fought for!” laments the veteran bitterly.  In another poem, “A Year’s ‘Casualties,’” Bierce sarcastically tells us that two score thousand veterans die each year, mourned only by pension agents and “orphaned statesmen.”  Their work during the war has been forgotten, and the North has lost the peace it sacrificed so much to gain. “O Father of Battles, pray give us release / From the horrors of peace, the horrors of peace!”  There is no doubt from Bierce’s other work that he felt the shock of battle, that it set the stage for disillusionment.  But there is also no doubt that he left the war still hopeful and tried to secure the Northern victory by working for the Radicals to reform the prostrate South.  His real disillusionment became apparent when that reformation failed.  Bierce’s major writings — produced in the 1880s, the decade following the collapse of Reconstruction — depict the war experience itself as a failure.  What had been a horrible but necessary experience could have been redeemed if the effort to reconstruct the nation in a progressive fashion had succeeded.  Without that necessary work, the war became a hollow, cruel lie. [4]

Bierce wrote differently of the war experience in “Bits of Autobiography” compared to his short stories.  In several of the “Bits,” he wrote much like the typical veteran, concentrating on the beauty of the landscape in West Virginia, the scene of his earliest service with the 9th Indiana Infantry, or describing his capture and escape in Alabama in the fall of 1864, or describing “What Occurred at Franklin” in much the same matter-of-fact way that any veteran related the occurrences within his own line of vision in a great, seething battle.  The only difference lay in Bierce’s style — his lucid, detailed, evocative language tinged with irony even when he meant only to describe the vision of one soldier among many.  The piece entitled “A Little of Chickamauga” was most like the reminiscences produced by thousands of other veterans.  It is a straightforward telling of his experiences at the battle without the bitterness that would characterize his fiction. [5]
The two “Bits of Autobiography” that step away from the model of the soldier’s memoir and point the way toward Bierce’s fiction are “What I Saw of Shiloh” and “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.”  Shiloh was Bierce’s first full-scale battle and by the 1880s he had come to view it as a turning point in his life.  He began the piece by imitating the soldier’s memoir, apologetically telling the reader that this would be “a simple story of a battle, such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier.”  He also summarized the strategic context of the battle.  Yet in his description of the litter on the battlefield and the sight of dead, charred bodies, Bierce’s vivid prose transcended the writings of his fellow veterans.  He had gone into line at night, into unfamiliar woods, with the possibility of enemy troops only yards away who would try to kill him.  Nature had always seemed comforting to him before the war, a physical arena demonstrating harmony, beauty, and beneficence.  Now it was the arena for hatred and brutality.  Bierce turned the title of his piece on its head.  Whereas most other veterans literally described what they saw at a battle, he pointed out the characteristics that a man was capable of assuming in battle.  What Bierce saw at Shiloh was not just death and conflict but man’s ability to be brutalized.  He saw the lack of harmony in life, the incomprehensibility of human nature, and the complementary evil in the natural world as well.  All this changed him. Bierce plaintively lamented the loss of his innocence at Shiloh.  “O days when all the world was beautiful and strange; when unfamiliar constellations burned in the Southern midnights, and the mocking-bird poured out his heart in the moon-gilded magnolia.”  This innocent at war lost his comforting sense of coherence on his first field of battle; at least that was how he viewed it twenty years later. [6]

“The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” is one of the most evocative descriptions of combat ever written by a Northern veteran.  It reads rather like a typical soldier’s memoir except for the Biercian style — sharp clarity, tinged with irony.  The biggest and most important departure from the memoir model is Bierce’s characterization of the attack as a “crime.”  No other veteran wrote of a failed campaign in that way.  They often described terrible tactical mistakes committed by their superiors but never went so far as to indict their officers as criminals.  Remembering how he had stood on the far right flank of Hazen’s brigade when his comrades came upon the waiting Confederates at the head of that long, torturous march up the ravine, Bierce decided that losing half the brigade for no gain had been a crime, not just another example of the fortunes of war. [7]

Bierce also crafted his fictional stories in such a way as to show continuity and contrast with the typical soldier’s memoir.  Two remarkable features stand out.  First, Bierce, like his fellow veteran-authors, accurately described the experience of battle.  He wrote of the difficulties of seeing and hearing while under fire, of battle’s ability to deafen and mask the senses.  He wrote of the imperative of doing one’s duty, of a wounded man committing suicide, of the fear of failing to do one’s duty while under fire, of soldiers falling asleep while on guard duty, of the impact that a beloved officer’s death could have on the battle spirit of his men, of soldiers who deliberately exposed themselves to danger to prove their bravery.  These fictional works were obviously written by one who knew battle intimately.

The other prominent feature of his fiction is the slant Bierce gave to all these themes.  Unlike the “Bits of Autobiography,” the short stores are consistently ruthless.  Bierce refused to let up in any of them, treating the themes with the most bitter irony possible.  In “Chickamauga,” he described a six-year-old boy, a deaf-mute, who wanders through the rear areas of a great battle, unable to comprehend what is happening or to ask questions or communicate in any way with the wounded soldiers he encounters.  The boy, who began the story assuming that this was a game, is turned into something inhuman at the sight of his mother’s body, mutilated by a shell.  “The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures.  He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries — something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey — a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil.”

Bierce’s treatment of the other themes is nearly as startling in their unrelieved tragedy.  Soldiers unknowingly kill their fathers or brothers in the line of duty, wounded soldiers commit suicide only minutes before comrades arrive to help them, men anxious about their bravery under fire kill themselves rather than put their courage to the test, men maddened by the death of an officer rush into a foolish assault that gains nothing but litters the battlefield with the fallen, soldiers foolishly expose themselves and die because loved ones at home taunt them about cowardice. [8]

Throughout all the stories is the common theme of perception.  Characters perceive the possibility of danger or failure so strongly that they react in illogical or unreasonable ways.
 Or characters fail to perceive reality as it is and commit acts that have unintended consequences.  Bierce knew that the environment of battle is one of reduced visibility, not just in terms of visual seeing but also in terms of emotionally and psychologically comprehending what is happening.  He knew that the physical environment of the battlefield is threatening, that nature can no longer be considered an eternal, knowable truth, and that on any field of battle, comforting assumptions are no longer valid.  Thus he created a fictional field of battle in his short stories where reality was skewed to its most unpredictable, surrealistic margins.  It was a cry of anguish, a profound comment that this horrible experience might have been endured and considered worthy if the North had done a more successful job of winning the peace through Radical Reconstruction.  Without that success, the suffering could not be justified.

Bierce was not entirely alone in his attitude toward Reconstruction.  Other veterans who had served faithfully during the war and participated in the effort to reform Southern society came away from that experiment disturbed by the complacency of the Northern people.  Albion W. Tourgee of Ohio was one such man.  He had served as an officer during the war and worked diligently to make Reconstruction work.  By the 1880s, he too began to write voluminously about it.  In both fictional and factual works, Tourgee thoroughly laid out his pleas for a raising of the Northern consciousness regarding the postwar South.  He urged people to recall the war not just as a series of campaigns and battles but as a crusade for freedom.  He reminded the Northern people of what they had felt about the war, not just what they remembered seeing or doing in it, and he reminded the North that good men had died to set other men free.  The war had changed nothing in Southern society, Tourgee argued.  Unlike Bierce, he never interpreted the sacrifice of the war as wasted foolishness, but Tourgee certainly warned that the sacrifice was in jeopardy. [9]

Unfortunately for Tourgee, most Northern veterans did not pay much attention to the outcome of Reconstruction.  Most of them did not share Bierce’s disillusionment, or connect the failure of Reconstruction with a negative view of the war.  While glorifying what they had done in the conflict, they ignored the reality that the power structure of Southern society was still intact, that blacks were still oppressed under a different but equally unjustified system of racial control, and that ex-Confederates were winning the battle to interpret the conflict as a “war between the states” rather than a “war for freedom.”

Bierce, of course, did not live the life of a typical veteran after the war.  His world was centered around his literary pursuits and he tried to cope with the devils aroused by the twin traumas of war and a sordid kind of peace that did not suit his sense of justice.  In some ways, however, Bierce exhibited typical attitudes of many Northern veterans.  He was very critical of government civil servants who complained that their salaries were too low.  “Not one of them cares a rap for the good of the service or the country,” Bierce complained to friend George Sterling in 1911, “as we soldiers used to do on thirteen dollars a month (with starvation, disease and death thrown in).  Their grievance is that the Government does not undertake to maintain them in the style to which they choose to accustom themselves.”  Bierce echoed other veterans such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., when he argued that “What this country needs — what every country needs occasionally — is a good hard bloody war to revive the vice of patriotism on which its existence as a nation depends.” [10]

Moreover, Bierce was drawn to places associated with the Civil War even though he had lived much of his post-war life in California.  Visiting Richmond in 1912, he found the “tragic and pathetic history” of the city overwhelming.  It got on his “nerves with a particular dejection,…making solemn eyes at me.” [11] 

Despite everything, Bierce made a point of “visiting my old battlefields” as he made his way to Texas, intending to visit Mexico during a particularly violent phase of the revolution there.  Hoping to pass himself off as what he sardonically called an “innocent bystander,’” Bierce hoped to be able to survive his visit long enough to make his way to South America.  He was never heard from again. [12] 


1. See for example Michael W. Schaefer, Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of DeForest and Bierce (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997); Donald T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004); David M. Owens, The Devil’s Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006). return to text

2. The bulk of this article is taken with permission of the publisher from my book The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 172-177. return to text

Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 184, 189; Cathy N. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 16; Lawrence I. Berkove, “Two Impossible Dreams: Ambrose Bierce on Utopia and America,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 44 (Autumn 1981): 283-92; Lawrence I. Berkove, “The Heart Has Its Reasons: Ambrose Bierce’s Successful Failure at Philosophy,” in Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, ed. Cathy N. Davidson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), 137. return to text

Ambrose Bierce, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 12 vols. (New York: Neale Publishing, 1909-1912), 4:115-18. return to text

5. Ibid., 1:225-33, 279-78, 297-327.
return to text

6. Ibid., 1:254, 269. return to text

7. Ibid., 1:279-96. return to text

8. Ibid., 2:15-26, 46-104, 197-208, 218-29. return to text

9. Albion W. Tourgee, An Appeal to Caesar (New York: Fords, Howard and Hulbert, 1884), and The Veteran and His Pipe (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1888), both passim. return to text

10. Bierce to George Sterling, February 15, 1911, in Bertha Clark Pope, ed., The Letters of Ambrose Bierce (New York: Gordian Press, 1967), 170. return to text

11. Bierce to Sterling, April 25, 1912, Ibid., 185. return to text

12. Bierce to Lora, November 6, 1913, Ibid., 197. return to text

Copyright © 2007 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.