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Authors: Ambrose Bierce

Tags: #United States, #Fiction, #Civil War Period (1850-1877), #Classics, #History

Civil War Stories

BOOK: Civil War Stories
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Bibliographical Note

This Dover edition, first published in 1994, is a new selection of sixteen stories from
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce,
Volumes I and II, first published in 1909 by The Neale Publishing Company, New York. The stories are printed here unabridged, with a new introductory Note specially prepared for this edition.


Copyright © 1994 by Dover Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.


















Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bierce, Ambrose, 1842—1914?
[Collected works of Ambrose Bierce. Selections]
Civil War stories / Ambrose Bierce.
p. cm. — (Dover thrift editions)
“A new selection of sixteen stories from The collected works of Ambrose Bierce,
volumes I and II, first published in 1909 by The Neale Publishing Company, New
York” — T.p. verso.


1. United States — History — Civil War, 1861—1865 — Fiction. 2. War stories,
American. I. Title. II. Series.
PS 1097.A6 1994
813’.4 — dc20 93—46121







Manufactured in the United States by Courier Corporation


AMBROSE GWINNETT BIERCE (1842-1914?) was born in Meigs County, Ohio, the youngest son of poor farmers. In 1861, after one year in a military academy, he enlisted in the 9th Indiana Volunteers. He participated in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including Chickamauga, where 34,000 men died. Twice Bierce risked his life to rescue fallen comrades, and in 1864 at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, he was himself seriously wounded.

Several years after the war, Bierce joined his brother Albert in San Francisco, where he began contributing to various periodicals. In 1868 he became editor of the
News Letter
and in 1871, his first short story, “The Haunted Valley,” was published in the
Overland Monthly.
From 1872 to 1876, Bierce lived in England, writing for such magazines as
Fun, Figaro
Hood’s Comic Annual.
There his biting sense of humor earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce,” and the two books he published in 1872 —
The Fiend’s Delight
Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California
— confirmed his reputation for vitriolic wit.

The Civil War stories collected here are some of the finest examples of Bierce’s fiction. Relying heavily on his own experiences of the War, he describes the darker side of human nature in grim, unflinching narratives. In the characters, we see glimpses of Bierce’s own personality: alienation, sardonic wit and fatalism.

In 1913, Bierce went to Mexico to meet the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa and to observe first-hand the Civil War there. By this time Bierce had become increasingly disenchanted with his own life. He had been divorced from his wife in 1891; in 1889 his older son had died in a fight over a girl; and in 1901 his other son had died of alcoholism. His best work was behind him. “Goodbye,” he wrote in a farewell letter, “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. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”

Nothing more was heard of Bierce, and the circumstances of his death remain a mystery. It is assumed that he died in the siege of Ojinaga in January 1914.

Table of Contents


Title Page
Bibliographical Note
Copyright Page
What I Saw of Shiloh
Four Days in Dixie
A Horseman in the Sky
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
One of the Missing
Killed at Resaca
The Affair at Coulter’s Notch
The Coup de Grace
Parker Adderson, Philosopher
An Affair of Outposts
The Story of a Conscience
One Kind of Officer
The Mocking-bird

What I Saw of Shiloh


THIS IS 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.

The morning of Sunday, the sixth day of April, 1862, was bright and warm. Reveille had been sounded rather late, for the troops, wearied with long marching, were to have a day of rest. The men were idling about the embers of their bivouac fires; some preparing breakfast, others looking carelessly to the condition of their arms and accoutrements, against the inevitable inspection; still others were chatting with indolent dogmatism on that never-failing theme, the end and object of the campaign. Sentinels paced up and down the confused front with a lounging freedom of mien and stride that would not have been tolerated at another time. A few of them limped unsoldierly in deference to blistered feet. At a little distance in rear of the stacked arms were a few tents out of which frowsy-headed officers occasionally peered, languidly calling to their servants to fetch a basin of water, dust a coat or polish a scabbard. Trim young mounted orderlies, bearing dispatches obviously unimportant, urged their lazy nags by devious ways amongst the men, enduring with unconcern their good-humored raillery, the penalty of superior station. Little negroes of not very clearly defined status and function lolled on their stomachs, kicking their long, bare heels in the sunshine, or slumbered peacefully, unaware of the practical waggery prepared by white hands for their undoing.

Presently the flag hanging limp and lifeless at headquarters was seen to lift itself spiritedly from the staff. At the same instant was heard a dull, distant sound like the heavy breathing of some great animal below the horizon. The flag had lifted its head to listen. There was a momentary lull in the hum of the human swarm; then, as the flag drooped the hush passed away. But there were some hundreds more men on their feet than before; some thousands of hearts beating with a quicker pulse.

Again the flag made a warning sign, and again the breeze bore to our ears the long, deep sighing of iron lungs. The division, as if it had received the sharp word of command, sprang to its feet, and stood in groups at “attention.” Even the little blacks got up. I have since seen similar effects produced by earthquakes; I am not sure but the ground was trembling then. The mess-cooks, wise in their generation, lifted the steaming camp-kettles off the fire and stood by to cast out. The mounted orderlies had somehow disappeared. Officers came ducking from beneath their tents and gathered in groups. Headquarters had become a swarming hive.

The sound of the great guns now came in regular throbbings — the strong, full pulse of the fever of battle. The flag flapped excitedly, shaking out its blazonry of stars and stripes with a sort of fierce delight. Toward the knot of officers in its shadow dashed from somewhere — he seemed to have burst out of the ground in a cloud of dust — a mounted aide-de-camp, and on the instant rose the sharp, clear notes of a bugle, caught up and repeated, and passed on by other bugles, until the level reaches of brown fields, the line of woods trending away to far hills, and the unseen valleys beyond were “telling of the sound,” the farther, fainter strains half drowned in ringing cheers as the men ran to range themselves behind the stacks of arms. For this call was not the wearisome “general” before which the tents go down; it was the exhilarating “assembly,” which goes to the heart as wine and stirs the blood like the kisses of a beautiful woman. Who that has heard it calling to him above the grumble of great guns can forget the wild intoxication of its music?


The Confederate forces in Kentucky and Tennessee had suffered a series of reverses, culminating in the loss of Nashville. The blow was severe: immense quantities of war material had fallen to the victor, together with all the important strategic points. General Johnston withdrew Beauregard’s army to Corinth, in northern Mississippi, where he hoped so to recruit and equip it as to enable it to assume the offensive and retake the lost territory.

The town of Corinth was a wretched place — the capital of a swamp. It is a two days’ march west of the Tennessee River, which here and for a hundred and fifty miles farther, to where it falls into the Ohio at Paducah, runs nearly north. It is navigable to this point — that is to say, to Pittsburg Landing, where Corinth got to it by a road worn through a thickly wooded country seamed with ravines and bayous, rising nobody knows where and running into the river under sylvan arches heavily draped with Spanish moss. In some places they were obstructed by fallen trees. The Corinth road was at certain seasons a branch of the Tennessee River. Its mouth was Pittsburg Landing. Here in 1862 were some fields and a house or two; now there are a national cemetery and other improvements.

It was at Pittsburg Landing that Grant established his army, with a river in his rear and two toy steamboats as a means of communication with the east side, whither General Buell with thirty thousand men was moving from Nashville to join him. The question has been asked, Why did General Grant occupy the enemy’s side of the river in the face of a superior force before the arrival of Buell? Buell had a long way to come; perhaps Grant was weary of waiting. Certainly Johnston was, for in the gray of the morning of April 6th, when Buell’s leading division was en bivouac near the little town of Savannah, eight or ten miles below, the Confederate forces, having moved out of Corinth two days before, fell upon Grant’s advance brigades and destroyed them. Grant was at Savannah, but hastened to the Landing in time to find his camps in the hands of the enemy and the remnants of his beaten army cooped up with an impassable river at their backs for moral support. I have related how the news of this affair came to us at Savannah. It came on the wind — a messenger that does not bear copious details.


On the side of the Tennessee River, over against Pittsburg Landing, are some low bare hills, partly inclosed by a forest. In the dusk of the evening of April 6 this open space, as seen from the other side of the stream — whence, indeed, it was anxiously watched by thousands of eyes, to many of which it grew dark long before the sun went down — would have appeared to have been ruled in long, dark lines, with new lines being constantly drawn across. These lines were the regiments of Buell’s leading division, which having moved up from Savannah through a country presenting nothing but interminable swamps and pathless “bottom lands,” with rank overgrowths of jungle, was arriving at the scene of action breathless, footsore and faint with hunger. It had been a terrible race; some regiments had lost a third of their number from fatigue, the men dropping from the ranks as if shot, and left to recover or die at their leisure. Nor was the scene to which they had been invited likely to inspire the moral confidence that medicines physical fatigue. True, the air was full of thunder and the earth was trembling beneath their feet; and if there is truth in the theory of the conversion of force, these men were storing up energy from every shock that burst its waves upon their bodies. Perhaps this theory may better than another explain the tremendous endurance of men in battle. But the eyes reported only matter for despair.

Before us ran the turbulent river, vexed with plunging shells and obscured in spots by blue sheets of low-lying smoke. The two little steamers were doing their duty well. They came over to us empty and went back crowded, sitting very low in the water, apparently on the point of capsizing. The farther edge of the water could not be seen; the boats came out of the obscurity, took on their passengers and vanished in the darkness. But on the heights above, the battle was burning brightly enough; a thousand lights kindled and expired in every second of time. There were broad flushings in the sky, against which the branches of the trees showed black. Sudden flames burst out here and there, singly and in dozens. Fleeting streaks of fire crossed over to us by way of welcome. These expired in blinding flashes and fierce little rolls of smoke, attended with the peculiar metallic ring of bursting shells, and followed by the musical humming of the fragments as they struck into the ground on every side, making us wince, but doing little harm. The air was full of noises. To the right and the left the musketry rattled smartly and petulantly ; directly in front it sighed and growled. To the experienced ear this meant that the death-line was an arc of which the river was the chord. There were deep, shaking explosions and smart shocks; the whisper of stray bullets and the hurtle of conical shells; the rush of round shot. There were faint, desultory cheers, such as announce a momentary or partial triumph. Occasionally, against the glare behind the trees, could be seen moving black figures, singularly distinct but apparently no longer than a thumb. They seemed to me ludicrously like the figures of demons in old allegorical prints of hell. To destroy these and all their belongings the enemy needed but another hour of daylight; the steamers in that case would have been doing him fine service by bringing more fish to his net. Those of us who had the good fortune to arrive late could then have eaten our teeth in impotent rage. Nay, to make his victory sure it did not need that the sun should pause in the heavens; one of the many random shots falling into the river would have done the business had chance directed it into the engine-room of a steamer. You can perhaps fancy the anxiety with which we watched them leaping down.

BOOK: Civil War Stories
7.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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