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Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories


The April 2013 theme for Mixed Bag: Story Time for Grown-Ups is 'Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories.' One hundred fifty years ago the American Civil War (1861-1865) was in mid-course, and April was a significant month in its history. The Battle of Shiloh was fought on April 6-7, 1862 in southwestern Tennessee. The Surrender at Appomattox Court House was on April 9, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865, coincidentally the evening of Good Friday.


Walt Whitman (American poet, 1819-1892) wrote the poem "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" about Lincon's death, juxtaposing his death with spring's celebration of life and renewal.


Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1913?) was an American author who served in the Civil War. He was a journalist, a short story writer, a poet, a critic, and a satirist. Bierce earned the nickname 'Bitter Bierce' because of his harsh social criticism and sardonic view of human nature. He also wrote tales of the supernatural and fables. Bierce began writing war stories in 1881, years before Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, a work long considered to be the definitive Civil War novel, was published in 1895. Bierce's stories are based on his own experiences and use realistic language and images. They do not glorify or romanticize war but explore the conscience and actions of individual soldiers.

Bierce is perhaps best known for The Devil's Dictionary, a collection of satirical definitions (first published as The Cynic's Word Book in 1906). Here's are some sample definitions:

  • LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.
  • CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
  • CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.

One of Bierce's journalistic assignments was to report on the Railroad Refinancing Bill in 1896. The bill would have excused the railroad companies from repaying outstanding loans of $130 million advanced from the Federal government for the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The railroad owners' plan was to pass the bill without public notice or hearings. Bierce's boss, William Randolph Hearst, assigned Bierce to go to Washington, D.C. to cover the story and publish articles exposing the plan. Bierce's scathing coverage aroused public wrath and the bill was defeated.

Bierce's death is listed as 1913 or 1914 with a question mark because he disappeared without a trace in Mexico at age 71 while reporting on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. The mystery is still unsolved. In his last letter from Mexico in December 1913, he said his destination was unknown. Previously he had speculated on the possibility of being shot by a firing squad. "To be a gringo in Mexico, ah, that is euthanasia." Carlos Fuentes' novel The Old Gringo is a fictional account of Bierce's disappearance. It was adapted to film in 1989, Old Gringo, starring Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, and Jimmy Smits.

Below are the five stories selected for Story Time in April. All of the selected stories are from The Civil War Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
A Southern gentleman dreams his final thoughts of home and family and escape as Yankee soldiers prepare to hang him from the Owl Creek Bridge.

This is the most well-known story by Bierce. It has been adapted to film three times: in 1929 as a silent movie, in 1962 as a black and white French film directed by Robert Enrico, and in 2005 as a film short directed by Brian Egen. The 1962 version is the most famous; it was shown as the final episode of the television series The Twilight Zone in 1964 and won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject that year. The story was also adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959, season 5, episode 13.

This story was originally published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1890. The full text is available online.

Killed at Resaca
Lt. Herman Brayle was the best soldier on our staff, except for one flaw: he was overly courageous, calmly staring death in the face at every opportunity. Eventually Death won. Only afterwards did we discover why Brayle was so foolishly brave. This story was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on June 5, 1877. The full text is available online.

A Horseman in the Sky
Carter Druse was the sentry on duty, charged with guarding the road into the valley where five regiments of Union soldiers were hidden. His mission: prevent a Rebel scout from learning their whereabouts at all costs. This story was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on April 14, 1889. The full text is available online.

The Story of a Conscience
Captain Hartroy captured Confederate spy Dramer Brune behind enemy lines, but it went against his conscience to kill the man who saved his life. This story was first publsihed in the San Francisco Examiner on June 1, 1890. The full text is available online.

Three and One Are One
Barr Lassiter became a soldier in the Union Army against the wishes of his family in Tennessee. When his regiment was assigned to duty near the old homestead, he paid a visit to his family, hoping for reconciliation. This story was first published in Cosmopolitan in October 1908. The full text is available online.

If you want to read more about Ambrose Bierce, Roy Morris wrote a biography published in 1995 called Alone in Bad Company. Another book called A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography is a compilation of Bierce's autobiographical writings.

There are several websites dedicated to Bierce. The Ambrose Bierce Site is one of the first sites established; it has lots of photos and information about attempts to solve Bierce's disappearance. The Ambrose Bierce Project is a non-profit research project site maintained by Penn State University and has most of Bierce's literary works online. The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society also has the full text of several Bierce stories online and links to other Bierce-related sites. All of Bierce's work is in the public domain; full text is available online.

In May 2013, all the stories at Mixed Bag: Story Time for Grown-Ups are by 19th century French author Guy de Maupassant. Please join us on Wednesday at 1 p.m. or Monday at 7 p.m.


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great blog, Lois! I

great blog, Lois! I especially enjoyed the links to the full text online :)

Thanks, Ryan! I was pleased

Thanks, Ryan! I was pleased that I could link to a poem for Poetry Month.

Old Gringo, Devil's Dictionary

I never realized that Ambrose Bierce was the model for Fuentes's Old Gringo. Interesting! I've always been a fan of the Devil's Dictionary - many of the definitions are still funny and apropos today as you have shown - but I've never read any of Bierce's short stories. Sounds like I should give them a try. Thanks for an informative post, Lois!

Thanks for the comment!

I didn't realize Bierce was the model for the Old Gringo either until I started researching this blog! What an interesting life he led, and the mystery still remains.

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