Sunday, August 2, 2015

Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was an enigmatic man.  He wrote for newspapers, short stories, and poetry.  His writing was colored by acerbic wit and more than a touch of bitterness.  He traveled to Mexico in 1913.  In a farewell letter he wrote, "If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it a pretty good way to depart this life..."

That was the last heard of Bierce.  It is assumed that he died in the siege of Ojinaga in January 1914.

This collection of stories are considered some of the best of Bierce's fiction.  They are inspired largely from his own experiences in the war.  However, Bierce's writing isn't worth reading because he is an authority on the Civil War but rather because of his ability to cause the reader to dive into each scene and experience along with the characters the events that take place.

Perhaps he is a little verbose on detail but that seems to be a characteristic of writers of that day.  Another common story technique that Bierce uses is to create a story line that appears to have no arc.  It simply builds until the final paragraph, sometimes the last sentence, where the full force of the story arrives home to astound the reader.  

My one criticism is that in some of the stories the difficulty for the protagonist could have been avoided if he had only employed common sense.  In one such story a man does amazingly foolish things because, as it turns out, some idjit of a woman back home "hoped he wouldn't turn out to be a coward as Captain so and so claimed."  Really?  We counter that with risking our life to the point of finally losing it for nothing?  How about just finding a new girlfriend?

Another story has a Captain so blindly following orders that he knowingly engages in friendly fire because ordered to "shoot ahead no matter what" by a superior who had also told him to never question an order.

But there are also some real gems.  Parker Addison, Philosopher is my favorite.  A Union spy engages in a witty, belligerent repartee with a Confederate General who has him in custody.  The wit and belligerence is all on the side of the spy.  The general merely asks formal questions.  He even smiles at some of the remarks.  The spy apparently has no belief in any kind of afterlife and thumbs his nose at his imminent death.  Until he is unexpectedly faced with it.  The ending is tense and the action lightening-speed paced culminating to a surprisingly peaceful end.  Well, at least for one of them.

Bierce doesn't spare the reader the horrors of war.  There is no romanticism here.  Nevertheless his stories are told with rich descriptions and show the honor and respect due to both sides as they each act according to their convictions.  Probably the most poignant of his stories deal with the dividing of families as each choose the side they serve, sometime with harrowing  results.

Anyone interested in Civil War history and plot twist play in the style of Poe, O Henry or even Lovecraft will enjoy this small collection of short stories by a man who, sadly, lived  through enough of the war to become tired of living.


  1. I had heard really good things about this collection. Ambrose Bierce himself was a fascinating character.

    In terms of some of the characters doing things for incredibly stupid reasons, unfortunately, that is sometimes a reflection of real life.

    1. Hi Brian. I think you're right. Bierce was probably fascinating. I plan to read more of his works.

      You bring up an interesting point about people acting foolishly for the sake of others. I would like to read a book that researched the psychology of that.

      Have a great week!

  2. I enjoyed reading your fine posting; my favorite by Bierce is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Did you read it? What do you think of it?
    BTW, over at my blog, I have resumed postings with a bit of provocation. Perhaps you will drop by and comment.
    Now, since I have some time on my hands this weekend, I think I will download some Bierce from Kindle. Thanks for pointing me in that direction with your posting.

    1. HI RT. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was the first Bierce story I read which was in an anthology. It is a fantastic story probably one of his best. I need to visit your blog as well.
      Hope you enjoy your reading of Bierce!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.