Sunday, June 16, 2024

Soldiers and Ghosts

“A Baffled Ambuscade” and “Two Military Executions”

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

“‘It means this,’ he said, throwing open his coat.” Illustration by American artist Charles B. Falls (1874–1960) for “Two Military Executions,” the second of two “Soldiers and Ghosts” stories by Ambrose Bierce in the November 1906 issue of Cosmopolitan.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, Union General Samuel Beatty received word that one of his brigades, in pursuit of the retreating Confederate forces, had become separated from the main army and was in danger of being routed. First Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce was assigned to lead a force to reinforce the isolated brigade. Two decades later, he mockingly recalled and embellished his role in the “rescue”:
I never felt so brave in all my life. I rode a hundred yards in advance, prepared to expostulate single handed with the victorious enemy at whatever point I might encounter him. I dashed forward through every open space into every suspicious looking wood and spurred to the crest of every hill, exposing myself recklessly to draw the Confederate fire and disclose their position. I told the commander of the relief column that he need not throw out any advance guard as a precaution against the ambuscade—I would myself act in that perilous capacity, and by driving in the rebel skirmishers gain time for him to form his line of battle in case I should not be numerically strong enough to scoop on the entire opposition at one wild dash. I begged him, however, to recover my body if I fell.
Arriving at the destination, Bierce quickly realized that Confederate forces had fled the scene and that the detached “troops were holding their ground nobly, reading dime novels and playing draw poker.” His commander later learned the report had been the result of a misunderstanding but, Bierce joked, “my unusual gallantry elicited the highest commendation in general orders, and will never, I trust, be forgotten by a grateful country.”

Several biographers and critics have suggested that this expedition and Bierce’s illusory bravery probably inspired “A Son of the Gods,” one of the most popular of his stories during his lifetime. A “young officer on a snow-white horse” with a bright scarlet saddle blanket suicidally gallops onto the open field in the hope of learning if and where Confederate forces are hidden on the other side. The officer and his horse are shot and killed, thus revealing the hidden enemy, but his suicidal bravery unexpectedly motivates the soldiers to rush out to avenge his death, resulting in the “many, many needless dead” the hero had hoped to avoid by his selfless act.

“A Son of the Gods” is not Bierce’s only story featuring a protagonist who gives up his life to save his fellow soldiers. Late in his career, he used another of his war experiences to create a second tale with a self-sacrificing hero. In April 1863, Bierce took part in an expedition to raid the Confederate camp in Woodbury, Tennessee, and to chase the fleeing soldiers into an ambush. The Union troops marched fourteen miles through a territory notorious for soldiers and snipers hiding in the forest. Although the concluding ambush had to be called off, the Third Ohio Cavalry commanded by Major Charles B. Seidel successfully raided the camp. Colonel William B. Hazen, Bierce’s commanding officer, reported “three of the enemy killed (his wounded is not known)” and the capture of “twenty-five prisoners, fifty horses, four wagons, eight mules, with all their baggage and provisions.”

This nighttime raid forms the basis of “A Baffled Ambuscade,” in which Bierce portrays Major Seidel under his real name. As in “A Son of the Gods,” the tale spotlights a soldier who bravely risks his own life to reveal the enemy hiding in the woods, yet Bierce adds a supernatural element to what would otherwise be a straightforward report of a skirmish. The ghost is so ambiguously and subtly introduced that many readers who encounter the story on its own are perplexed about what happens. When “A Baffled Ambuscade” was originally published in the November 1906 issue of Cosmopolitan, however, it appeared with another tale under the heading “Soldiers and Ghosts,” thereby letting readers know that they were about to read two ghost stories. In addition, the appearance of the ghost-like figure in the magazine version is less ambiguously (and more gruesomely) the image of a dead man, “his face showing a great gout of blood.” When Bierce reprinted the story in the 1910 edition of Can Such Things Be?, he eliminated the gore, perhaps calculating that readers wouldn’t need everything spelled out in a book collecting three dozen tales of the supernatural.

For the second of his “Soldiers and Ghosts” stories, Bierce once again mined one of his Civil War experiences. “Two Military Executions” describes a unit much like Bierce’s 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment under General Don Carlos Buell, and the climax of the story occurs after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1863, when the regiment “ferried over the Tennessee River to assist in succoring Grant’s beaten army.” (Bierce disparaged Grant in numerous stories and essays and attributed the meager Union victory at Shiloh to the last-minute arrival of reinforcements commanded by Buell.) In this second story, the supernatural element seems more obvious—although Christopher Kiernan Coleman in an article on Bierce’s Civil War experiences in Tennessee intriguingly suggests that the story is ambiguous enough to be interpreted as an account about what we would now call fragging.

For our Story of the Week selection, we present both of the “Soldiers and Ghosts” stories together again, using the revised texts from the 1910 edition of Can Such Things Be?

Note: In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a vainglorious fool goaded into challenging Olivia (disguised as Cesario) to a duel: “I’d have seen him damn’d ere I’d have challeng’d him.”

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C onnecting Readyville and Woodbury was a good, hard turnpike nine or ten miles long. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.