Sunday, October 2, 2022

An Affair of Outposts

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

Battle of Shiloh, April 6–7, 1862, by American illustrator Thure de Thulstrup (1848–1930). Chromolithograph published by L. Prang & Co., Boston, 1888. Library of Congress.
“For fifteen hours we had been wet to the skin,” wrote Ambrose Bierce in 1881, recalling the day two decades earlier, near the end of fighting at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee. “Chilled, sleepy, hungry and disappointed—profoundly disgusted with the inglorious part to which they had been condemned—the men of my regiment did everything doggedly. The spirit had gone quite out of them.” It was the afternoon of April 7, and the Ninth Indiana Regiment had arrived the previous evening in the midst of the Battle of Shiloh. That morning, when some Union officers believed that the enemy, outnumbered and outgunned, had abandoned the field and fled 20 miles south to the Confederate camp in Corinth, Mississippi, Sergeant Bierce led his men right into an ambush:
Then—I can’t describe it—the forest seemed all at once to flame up and disappear with a crash like that of a great wave upon the beach—a crash that expired in hot hissings, and the sickening “spat” of lead against flesh. A dozen of my brave fellows tumbled over like ten-pins. Some struggled to their feet, only to go down again, and yet again.
The Ninth Indiana Regiment would lose 170 men at Shiloh—its worst casualty count of the war. During the two-day battle, more than one in five of the 110,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. “Shiloh’s casualties eclipsed the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and Mexican War combined,” writes Ron Chernow. Although the battle was and is considered a Union victory, the casualties were so horrific that some contemporary journalists and observers blamed Generals Ulysses Grant and Benjamin Prentiss (the latter taken prisoner after surrendering his division) for not anticipating the Confederate attack. The lieutenant governor of Ohio visited the field after the battle and found among the surviving soldiers “a general feeling among the most intelligent men that Grant and Prentiss ought to be court-martialed or shot”—a sentiment shared by Bierce. For the rest of his life, Bierce attributed the meager Union victory at Shiloh to the last-minute arrival of reinforcements commanded by General Don Carlos Buell and minimized Grant’s successes during the war—an argument he reiterated in several essays and stories, including “An Affair of Outposts.”

A year earlier, in April 1861, eighteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce had enlisted in Indiana just seven days after Confederate troops had attacked Fort Sumter. In late May, the regiment departed for the front, sent off with a formal review conducted by General George McClellan and a rousing speech delivered by Governor Oliver P. Morton. Shortly after the Battle of Shiloh, Morton traveled to Tennessee to check in on the young men he had dispatched the previous year. Morton was generally popular among Union troops and would have the steadfast support of veterans after the war, but one might guess what the exhausted, filthy soldiers thought of the intrusion onto the field of the governor and his well-dressed retinue. In “An Affair of Outposts,” however, Bierce doesn’t leave it to our imagination: “The bedraggled soldier looked up from his trench as they passed, leaned upon his spade and audibly damned them to signify his sense of their ornamental irrelevance to the austerities of his trade.” Although Bierce’s story was written a full thirty-five years later, in 1897, long after Morton’s death, there is no mistaking that the flabby, faint-hearted politician in the tale is a merciless caricature of the former governor.

Roy Morris Jr., in his 1999 biography of Bierce, regards “An Affair of Outposts,” as one of his strongest stories, “a bitter denunciation of both romantic betrayal and fatuous patriotism. Its unusual mixture of the two can be read on one level as an old soldier’s disgusted farewell to arms, his hard-earned realization that impassioned appeals to patriotism are in a way the ultimate seduction. . . . It is a theme that Bierce would reiterate in several of his stories.”

Notes: The quotations by Bierce in the above introduction are from his essay “What I Saw of Shiloh.” The “unwritten law” in the story refers to the supposed right of an individual to avenge moral offenses committed against members of his family; here, the right of a husband to kill his wife’s lover. The phrase “excursions and alarums” are the sounds of war and battle, used as a stage direction in Elizabethan plays for moving soldiers across the stage. Bierce’s description of “the unstrained quality of this military humor dropped not as the gentle rain from heaven” echoes Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath.”

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