Any of you who have read my bio of Ambrose Bierce are aware that, despite his innate cynicism regarding the art of war, Ambrose Bierce was anything but a pacifist, much less a coward. During his service with the Union Army during the War of the Rebellion,
Almighty God Bierce served, first as a lowly private, then as a non-com, and finally as an officer & a gentleman (or at least as an officer), his promotions being the result of his valor on the field of battle.
Whether he ever attained the gentleman part of the epithet “an officer and a gentleman” is a dubious proposition, but it is known that Bierce did spend a year in military school at his Uncle Lucius Bierce‘s expense. Bierce attended Kentucky Military Institute shortly before the Election of 1860, when sectional passions were running high in the border states. It is not known for certain why he left, but presumably his family’s outspoken Abolitionism may have come into conflict with one or another Southern gentleman attending the school, who held the opposite viewpoint regarding Secession and slavery. In any case, Bierce left voluntarily. So it was that, when war came, Bierce had a good bit more military training than of the other volunteers of his Hoosier regiment, the Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
When Bierce went “To See the Elephant” as the expression of the day put it, Bierce did a lot of running, but never away from the sound of the guns, but almost always directly towards them. One time in western Virginia (soon to become West Virginia) he and his fellow “Swamp Angels” (their early nickname) Bierce and his comrades conducted a self-led charge up a hill at some Georgia boys who were contesting the summit. The charge through the trees went along alright, until Bierce suddenly realized he had become an army of one, his comrades having chose the better part of valor and ducked down behind the nearest stumps and rocks. A nearby comrade having been hit, Bierce picked up the wounded soldier, grabbed both their rifles and made a hasty retreat back down to where the rest of the ninety-day warriors safely lay at the bottom of the hill. The Rebels won the laurels on Laurel Hill that day.
Bierce’s first real experience with soldiers showing their backside to the enemy came at Shiloh, but here again, it was not Bierce and his comrades of the Ninth Indiana, but Grant’s men who were found wanting in courage. Admittedly, the men of the Bloody Ninth and of General Buell’s Army of the Ohio did not see the men of Grant’s army in the best light: in fact, it was night by the time they arrived on the opposite shore and were ferried across to the landing where the badly battered remnants of Grant’s army lay. But it was a sight that Bierce never forgot:
“They were mostly unarmed; many were wounded; some dead. Not one of them knew where his regiment was, nor if he had a regiment. Many had not. These were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions.”
With that sardonic wit typical of him in the postwar years, Bierce observed that, “an army’s bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” There were, of course, far too many deserters to shoot at Pittsburg Landing, but that may not have kept the Bloody Ninth’s divisional commander, General “Bull” Nelson, from plugging a few anyway.
We do know that Bierce and his comrades witnessed at least one execution of a deserter while stationed in Nashville in the early part of 1862 and was he present at other military execution. As Provost Marshall, he may even have presided over one or two himself. He would later write an essay on the subject as well as cataloging some of the more barbaric punishments the US Army meted out for lesser crimes.
In the postwar era, after spending a short stint as a Treasury Agent in the deep South, trying to track down contraband cotton being hidden by unreconstructed Rebels, like many veterans who were bored and restless, Bierce headed west. His old commander, General William Hazen, was conducting a survey of the western territories and recruited Bierce to come along to put his talents as surveyor and map maker to use.
At one point, Bierce even toyed with rejoining the army and aspired for a captain’s commission. When that was not forthcoming, he headed out to California. Bierce would also spend an interlude in the Black Hills helping an old army buddy with a mining venture. Bierce did not discuss his personal adventures in the west at any length—although they inspired a number of his short stories—save to intimate that the threat from the native tribes was greatly exaggerated and the postwar army not up to the quality of the Civil War army he had served in. Bierce may have had in mind the fact that when Custer’s command was massacred in the Black Hills, besides being bad marksmen, they had obsolete single-shot carbines, versus the Sioux’s deadly accurate repeating rifles.
Regardless, what little we know of his frontier experience indicates he was frequently exposed to danger of one sort or another. It is not certain what set off his later ruminations about desertion, but in the following essay, he had some choice things to say about the frontier army of his day and its lack of readiness.
San Francisco Examiner September 9, 1889
In attempting to account for the wide and lasting popularity of desertion among our country’s gallant but uncommissioned defenders, everybody seems to have overlooked one reason which can hardly fail to influence many of our hardy warriors to “take their hook.” While all the other civilized nations are arming their soldiery with the most afflicting modern weapons—cannon of desolating power and repeating rifles exceedingly disagreeable to confront—we retain the ancient arms of the Rebellion period, whose fire it is more blessed to receive than give.
Now, the American private soldier, born abroad in most cases and having the advantage of personal acquaintance with the superior European weapons, may be supposed to know that in combat with those who wield them he would not have the ghost of a chance for his life. The gratification of dying for his adoptive country is all that we can promise him. In the pomp and circumstances of parade that may be sufficient to sustain his courage and urge him to spectacular deeds; but in the silent watches of the night, when the monotony of his toil is unbroken save by the sound of his brush as he polishes the boots of his officer, he needs a spiritual stimulant of robuster strength. If the pattern of his weapon would assist his fancy to picture himself in triumphant contemplation of a fallen foe it would wonderfully lighten his task of tidying up the rooms of his officer’s wife and pushing the perambulator of his officer’s wife’s baby.
The American private soldier is not insensible to perils of war that lurk in Bismarck’s hostility to the American hog. He is alive to the significant affirmation of his country’s unworthy by the Canadian press, and to all the possibilities involved in our determination to maintain our fences around the Bering Sea. That these “questions” are full of thunder he knows as well as the Secretary of State does; and the consciousness that he may be pitted against a British or German veteran gifted with a gun that will kill is naturally disquieting. We are far from implying that our private soldiers are lacking in the military virtue of courage; they are willing to fight, but do not wish to be made ridiculous. Some of them have already felt the sting of an enemy’s derision while endeavoring to conquer the Red Man intelligently armed by the War Department of his tribe.
If for every man who deserts we would arm a remaining man with a good serviceable weapon we could well afford to let the deserter go, grant him a full pardon and permit Commissioner Tanner to pension his whole family. An army of even one-third the number that we have now would be, if well-armed and equipped, a more effective force. We do not need a large army, but whatever army we have should be maintained in the highest possible state of efficiency. The better our soldiers are armed the fewer we need—a consideration imperfectly apprehended by the economists who are ever to the fore in Congress, demanding a “reduction of the army.” Expended in purchase of improved arms, the amount of a month’s pay to 10,000 men would enable us, with distinct advantage to the service, to muster out that number, giving them back to the arts and industries and making them back to the arts and industries and making them producers of wealth. It would not only increase the efficiency of the force as then constituted, but would secure a better quality of recruits and do at least something to check desertion; for even if all should leave, the blacklist would not contain as many names by 10,000 as it now bids fair to do. AGB
For more about Ambrose Bierce’s war service, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.