In surveying Ambrose Bierce’s war literature, one will inevitably come across two anthologies which had supposedly collected all AGB’s stories and memoirs related to the Civil War. Unfortunately, both anthologies, while each work has its merits, both omitted at least one war tale of his–a short piece called A Cold Night.
Typical of Bierce, on reading the short tale, one is hard put to tell whether Bierce’s account is fact or fiction. It is certainly macabre, and some would say unbelievable, but the circumstances he describes–the night after the first day’s battle on December 31, 1852–are nonetheless accurate.
Bierce leaves us to speculate as to whether the dead may catch a chill after receiving a bullet to the brain.
This short piece was originally published as a newspaper article, then subsequently amalgamated it with several other strange tales which he combined to make “Bodies of the Dead.”
The story first appeared in book form amalgamated with a number of non-Civil War tales, later editors have overlooked it ever since. So, for those of you Civil War buffs with a taste for the offbeat and macabre, I republish it here:
A Cold Night
THE first day’s battle at Stone River had been fought, resulting in disaster to the Federal army, which had been driven from its original ground at every point except its extreme left. The weary troops at this point lay behind a railway embankment to which they had retired, and which had served them during the last hours of the fight as a breastwork to repel repeated charges of the enemy. Behind the line the ground was open and rocky. Great boulders lay about everywhere, and among them lay many of the Federal dead, where they had been carried out of the way. Before the embankment the dead of both armies lay more thickly, but they had not been disturbed.
Among the dead in the boulders lay one whom nobody seemed to know — a Federal sergeant, shot directly in the center of the forehead. One of our surgeons, from idle curiosity, or possibly with a view to the amusement of a group of officers during a lull in the engagement (we needed something to divert our minds), had pushed his probe clean through the head. The body lay on its back, its chin in the air, and with straightened limbs, as rigid as steel; frost on its white face and in its beard and hair. Some Christian soul had covered it with a blanket, but when the night became pretty sharp, a companion of the writer removed this, and we lay beneath it ourselves.
With the exception of our pickets, who had been posted well out in front of the embankment, every man lay silent. Conversation was forbidden; to have made a fire, or even struck a match to light a pipe would have been a grave offense. Stamping horses, moaning wounded – everything that made a noise had been sent to the rear; the silence was absolute. Those whom the chill prevented from sleeping nevertheless reclined as they shivered, or sat with their hands on their arms, suffering but making no sign. Everyone had lost friends, and all expected death on the morrow. These matters are mentioned to show the improbability of anyone going about during those solemn hours to commit a ghastly practical joke.
When the dawn broke the sky was still clear. “We shall have a warm day,” the writer’s companion whispered as we rose in the gray light; “let’s give back the poor devil his blanket.”
The sergeant’s body lay in the same place, two yards away. But not in the same attitude. It was upon its right side. The knees were drawn up nearly to the breast, both hands thrust to the wrist between the buttons of the jacket, the collar of which was turned up, concealing the ears. The shoulders were elevated, the head was retracted, the chin rested on the collar bone.
The posture was that of one suffering from intense cold. But for what had been previously observed — but for the ghastly evidence of the bullet-hole — one might have thought the man had died of cold.
For more strange and unexplained accounts of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, published by Rutledge Hill Press and still in print. My most recent work, The Paranormal Presidency, delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life and career. Now in print in hardcover is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.