How Ambrose Bierce Went to War—and Never Came Back

Review: Christopher Kiernan Coleman, ‘Ambrose Bierce And the Period of Honorable Strife’

Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce / Wikimedia Commons
November 27, 2016

How is war reported or summarized to the people back home, in whose name it’s usually being fought? How do they view the actions of those who fought it—or the war in its awful wholeness? These are questions haunting our day, and questions obliquely considered in a new biography of Ambrose Bierce, most of whose output after his soldiering years concerned or was influenced by the Civil War he fought in.

Bierce is largely forgotten as an author nowadays, except perhaps in the read-in-high-schools tale "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." This story, which readers may be able to dredge up from the depths of adolescent memory, is about the execution of a Southern spy, who imagines himself having survived the hanging that (spoiler alert!) at the end of the story does in fact kill him, and who in the split-second before he dies, dreams of returning to his wife and family at a Tara-like Southern mansion. This is presented to the reader as if the spy has actually escaped, so it’s a "gotcha" when at the end we realize that, alas (we’ve gotten to like the guy) it’s all a dream, not to mention an early stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Bierce also wrote the now all but unread "Devil’s Dictionary," a title later imposed on a series of definitions for common words published serially in newspapers, many of which are mordantly funny. For example, to stay with "A" words, here are several that give the tone:

ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

ACADEMY, n. [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught.

What better than the first summarizes the political turmoil of our day? And the pairing of the last two nails my own three-decade career at the U.S. Naval Academy, categorized and rated (quite well, in fact, based on inflated claims about our selectivity), by the influential U.S. News and World Report, as a "liberal arts college." USNA is thus not academe but an academy, where the superintendent recently cancelled classes to celebrate an unexpected win by our football recruits.

So Ambrose Bierce is my kind of guy. Bierce had (unlike other Civil War writers such as Stephen Crane) actually gone to war, and so had something to write about. But Bierce’s attitude also seems to prefigure some of the modern disaffection for Hollywood’s post-World War II take on combat, marked with soaring music and tales of heroism, and also to offer a warning against sanctimonious and judgmental views of the Civil War itself.

The generalization with which most "War Literature" courses start is that up to Vietnam, war is portrayed in heroic terms; after it, not so much. Certainly the trickle, perhaps soon to be a flood, of writing occasioned by the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts is in the absurdist/critical post-Catch-22 category (Heller’s celebrated novel made such a splash because it considered World War II, a conflict considered holy, from the deprecatory viewpoint of the Vietnam generation). Consider David Abrams’s Fobbit or Ben Fountain’s novel (now a movie by Ang Lee) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or the memoirs Kaboom or Love My Rifle More Than You. To be sure, some critics have suggested that Roy Scranton’s more recent War Porn represents a "second wave," more distanced than the first, which is limited by its ant’s-eye view of things: this is what I saw, and this, and this.

It’s hard to write motivational literature about a loss, as almost everyone agrees Vietnam was, and which seems pretty clearly to describe Iraq and Afghanistan too. Tales of these fights contrast to the "Greatest Generation" narratives of World War II, the last great Victory we can remember—and whose aftermath seems to constitute the Golden Age of President-elect Trump. Thus when Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan came out, it was hailed as the first realistic World War II movie: remember the opening minutes where countless numbers of the motivated, pumped, scared soldiers ready to hit the beach ate a bullet and never made it off the boats. That’s war, folks, not the usual story of a jacked pretty boy we’ve followed for an hour and a half who, though perhaps making the Ultimate Sacrifice, does so in the process of taking out the enemy sniper nest and making it possible for his buddies to advance, and save the day.

Bierce had the luck to be on the winning side of the Civil War, in the Ninth Indiana Regiment, though having gone to school in Kentucky. In his book Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, Christopher Kiernan Coleman gives blow-by-blow Civil War Re-enactor-level accounts of the battles Bierce was a part of, most notably Shiloh and Nashville. (Personally, I find these rehearsals soporific, but many others won’t.) But Bierce also seems to have respected the Confederates he fought against: the "Owl Creek Bridge" story has as its hero a Southern spy, and Bierce later wrote a poem supporting President Chester A. Arthur’s decision to give back to the Confederate regiments their captured battle ensigns.

Such a chivalrous respect-thy-enemy attitude toward the South is hard to find nowadays, when we are busy removing the Stars and Bars from state capitols, taking down statues of Confederate generals, and re-writing the story of the Civil War to suit our own contemporary sensibility. Re-reading Bierce, and this biography, reminds us that this was not—from the soldier’s point of view—Good vs. Evil, but a fratricidal war, with families divided, and no clear divisions in many cases between loyalties.

For me, the Civil War is summed up in the photographs of the dead lying amid the cannon balls at Gettysburg made by Timothy O’Sullivan, one of the most famous of which is called "A Harvest of Death." Specialists may be able to figure out which side the dead fought for from close-ups of the uniforms, but for the casual viewer, they are just dead, side be damned. Bierce’s attitude toward the war seems to capture some of this ambivalence. The battles recounted in this biography, whose premise is that the Civil War was far more determinate of the author’s output than has hitherto been acknowledged, do seem in this re-telling to underlie Bierce’s sense of mordant absurdity, his sense that today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s friend. We fight because we must, not because we want to. It’s an attitude that is expressed as late as Jean Renoir’s celebrated World War I movie "Grand Illusion," where the officers of both sides are far more alike than they are different.

Coleman suggests that the Civil War had so determined Bierce’s character that he willingly went to Mexico to die in another one for an equally uncertain cause. We don’t know how he died, but it seems possible he was lined up against a wall and shot. At least that’s what he imagined, acceptingly, his fate to be. The unsettling suggestion is that while those who have been in a war may find it appalling at a rational level, it would always remain the most exciting thing they had ever done.

And why wouldn’t it be? Some years ago Chris Hughes compiled a book called Every Person’s Guide to War that answered laconic questions about war based on research. These questions ranged from the prosaic (about recruiting and pay) to whether one was likely to die and what it felt like (Hughes drew from the reports of people who almost died but didn’t) and then to how soldiers were likely to adapt to society once it was over (badly) and whether they would be in contact with their battle buddies (probably not). Apparently it isn’t over when it’s over, and the ugly chaos of war at least beats the drudgery of the ordinary. Who knew? Apparently Bierce did.

And this finally is the message of this book: a few years of this and that, death and destruction, in Bierce’s youth, defined all his subsequent output as a writer, and led him to seek a sort of honorable suicide in yet another possibly pointless war. Nowadays we see the Union’s cause in the Civil War as a heroic undertaking; Bierce didn’t. Did he like it? Apparently not. Did he miss it once it was over? This book suggests he did.

My personal suggestion: don’t read the wearying scholarly introduction, full of bows to previous biographers of Bierce and phrases like "it is unfortunate that" and "previous considerations of X have failed to give sufficient weight to" and "notwithstanding the fact that" which cause non-specialists to fall asleep, and to understand all too well why a man like Bierce, young and full of beans, would have volunteered to fight in 1861. War has always seemed more interesting than the everyday, and so it clearly is. Whether it’s worth it is, of course, another question.

Published under: Book reviews