Friday, June 16, 2017


Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Detail from “Union drummer boy John Clem at Point Lookout, Tennessee,” c. 1865–70, color lithographic print by James Fuller Queen (c. 1820–1886). At the age of 12, Clem served as a drummer boy for the 22nd Michigan at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863), where he gained fame for allegedly having shot and wounded a Confederate officer. Promoted to sergeant, he became the youngest noncommissioned officer in the history of the U.S. Army. Click on image to see full print. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Ostensibly a topographic engineer responsible for drawing maps of the front lines, First Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce found himself deeply immersed in combat at the Battle of Chickamauga in northwestern Georgia, September 19–20, 1863—a virtual rematch between the armies led by Union general William S. Rosecrans and Confederate general Braxton Bragg, which had nine months earlier faced each other at the Battle of Stones River. “Chickamauga was not my first battle by many,” he recalled three decades later, “for although hardly more than a boy in years [he had just turned 21], I had served at the front from the beginning of the trouble, and had seen enough of war to give me a fair understanding of it.”

A horrific day of fighting was followed by “a night of waking.” The following morning the battle resumed; “the enemy came again and again—his persistence was dispiriting.” Bierce’s commanding officer sent him to get more artillery shells, and he soon returned with a skittish officer in possession of several wagons of ammunition. They hesitantly reached the top of the ridge overlooking the area Bierce had just left and “to my astonishment I saw the entire country in front swarming with Confederates; the very earth seemed to be moving toward us! They came on in thousands, and so rapidly that we had barely time to turn tail and gallop down the hill and away.” At about this time General Rosecrans fled to Chatanooga and telegraphed President Lincoln: “We have met with a serious disaster; extent not yet ascertained.” Yet, Bierce drily noted, “The rest of his army was standing its ground.” At the end of the day the victorious Confederates decided not to make a final attack to complete the rout (“I don’t know why they did not; probably they were short of ammunition”), and Bierce retreated with the defeated Union army to Chattanooga.

In 1889 Bierce reimagined Chickamauga in a short story of that name—told from the point of view of a six-year-old boy. It is, “in a way, his most American story,” writes biographer Roy Morris, Jr. “The new man in the new land, often depicted as a child to underscore both the purity and the vulnerability of an America groping its way across a hostile continent, has had many names in the national literature.” The boy’s misadventures in the Chickamauga forest also serve as “a perfect synopsis of Rosecrans’s blunder [and] mirror those of the Union army during the battle.”

In addition, Morris sees the story as a “virtual prĂ©cis of Stephen Crane’s more celebrated The Red Badge of Courage.” Although Crane himself acknowledged his debt to (and deep admiration of) Bierce’s stories, “the direct link between ‘Chickamauga’ and Crane’s great novel has rarely been noted by modern critics.” According to Richard Harding Davis, a mutual friend of both writers, Bierce read Red Badge when it was published in 1895 and begrudgingly conceded, “This young man has the power to feel. He knows nothing of war, yet he is drenched with blood. Most beginners who deal with this subject spatter themselves merely with ink.”

Within a few months Bierce apparently had second thoughts. After a reviewer compared Crane’s novel unfavorably to Bierce’s Civil War stories and further criticized two other new writers as being even worse, Bierce responded with his trademark bitterness.
That hardy and ingenious explorer, that sun-eyed searcher of the intense inane, that robber baron invader of literature's loud oblivion, that painstaking chiffonier of fame's eternal dumping ground has dragged to upper day two worse writers than Stephen Crane and names them out loud. I had thought there could be only two worse writers than Stephen Crane, namely, two Stephen Cranes.
Something more than envy of Crane’s success may have been at work here; Bierce may have also come to regard the younger author as a bit of a pretender. Shortly after Red Badge became a national phenomenon Crane published the story collection The Little Regiment and Other Episodes from the American Civil War. The younger author was born six years after the war ended; in an interview with Library of America, literary scholar S. T. Joshi reminds us that “Bierce was always insistent on the radical distinction between the ‘soldier’ and the ‘civilian,’ and he felt that the latter could never fully understand what the former had gone through.”

Note: The lines of poetry on the second page are from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), canto 3, stanza 38; the reference is to Napoleon.

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One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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