An Execution in Alabama

La Riviere du Houbou
The French short film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, “La Riviere du Houbou” by Robert Enrico, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar.

Something recently came across my cluttered work-desk which put me thinking about one of my favorite authors–and one of the great writers of American letters–Ambrose Bierce.

The object in question is an audio gem produced by a company called American Listeners Theatre.  The CD is a recording of three Civil War tales by Ambrose Bierce, including an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky.  Titled “Ambrose Bierce, Live on Tour,” it is performed by Timothy Patrick Miller, who, it is said, is to Bierce what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain. The version I heard was a commemorative performance held at the Union League. The presentation is straightforward—just the human voice and the work of an acknowledged master of the written word. No doubt the producers of the CD could have overdubbed all sorts of computer gimmickry and sound effects, but when your material is as good as Ambrose Bierce’s word-craft, such trickery is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the drama.

I should admit that I have a more than passing interest in Ambrose Bierce, since I toiled in the archives and on battlefields near and far researching the wartime career of Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce during the Late Unpleasantness. It is a curious fact that, as influential as that era was on the author and as famous as his war fiction is, no one before had hitherto taken an accurate in depth look at his military service and his role in those momentous historical events. To be sure, many professors of American Literature have expounded on “Almighty God Bierce,” and their efforts are by no means to be denigrated; but the craft of History is not the craft of Literature; Biography is their illegitimate offspring, which must be handled with care

But I digress; for now, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Mr. Miller’s dramatic readings of Bierce. Another selection from Bierce’s work is on a CD called “A Civil War Trinity,” which feature three non-fiction pieces, one of which is Bierce’s “What I Saw of Shiloh,” also through American Listeners Theatre; unfortunately, this audio is out of print. However, a newer edition of Bierce’s fiction and non-fiction works on audio has been put together called, TELLING TALES OF CIVIL WARRIORS, and at three hours plus narration, there is more than enough for you to listen to if you would traverse the Civil War battlefields with Lt. Bierce from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama. It is available through Amazon’s subscriptions service Audible.

If you are not ready to listen to three hours of Bierce quite yet, “A Bit of Chickamuaga” is available as a free sample from ALT via Audible. This particular quote is familiar to readers of my bio of Bierce, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, from my chapter on Bierce’s role in that fight.

If you prefer the pictorial medium, be aware that several of Bierce’s war stories have been rendered into film over the years and while some versions are very good, by my lights I think the best rendition of them was not made by some big Hollywood Studio, with star-studded cast (no doubt they were too busy, then as now, filming car chases) but rather was made on a rather meager budget in France in 1962, and directed by Robert Enrico.

Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has scarcely any spoken word to tell the tale. It was later edited for American television and broadcast on the Twilight Zone in black and white in 1964. The film not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but an Oscar as well.  Unfortunately, the original 28 minute French cut of the film is virtually unobtainable on YouTube now; mostly what you get is the version edited for American TV.  Amazon Prime now offers a version of it which I have yet to watch, so I can’t say whether they went back to the original French color print or did the TZ B&W edition of it.  Fortunately, his other two Bierce masterpieces Chickamauga and The Mocking Bird are easily accessible on YouTube.

Now, if your taste does not run to grainy old French shorts (or at least ones where they keep their clothes on), I refer you to a modern musical version of the story by a group called Babybird, who have put the visual story to their song “Unloveable.”  The look of this video is authentic and could easily have been shot in Tennessee or northern Alabama.  It was actually shot in Herts, England, however: Babybird is a British group!

The music video was directed by Johnny Depp and if this is a sample of his directing ability, we can only hope he switches to behind the camera very soon. The “Unloveable” music video is available on YouTube.

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
If you like uncanny tales of the Civil War, needless to say, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is your cup of tea.  Sadly, no one has seen fit to turn it into audio or video yet, but I’m open to suggestions!
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
For the full story of Ambrose Bierce’s experiences with war and death, and the Civil War, go to Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.
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The Day Lincoln Was Assassinated: The Final Premonition

PP Lincoln and his Prophetic Dreams Ridiculed
Lincoln’s belief in prophetic dreams were well known during his lifetime and were ridiculed by his political enemies.

“Presentiments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are
signs; and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has
not yet found the key”  Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre 

As every school child knows–or should know–Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was assassinated on April 14, 1865, breathing his last in the early morning hours of the following day, April 15.  Less well known is that, on the very morning of his assassination, Lincoln revealed to his cabinet a premonition—a presentiment some would call it—of his very own death.

The incident has been a favorite anecdote of Lincoln biographers for generations, although academic historians have tended to dismiss or ignore it.  In researching The Paranormal Presidency, however, I went back into the primary sources, to people who worked with Lincoln or were his friends, to verify the story. Often times an anecdote, especially one about Lincoln, makes for a good story and is repeated over and over, yet has no basis in fact. At first glance, this premonition of Lincoln’s might seem to fit that category.

pp Lincoln and Cabinet Emancipation Proc.
Lincoln and his Cabinet earlier in the war. Their last meeting was on the day he died, when he told them of his “usual dream.”

While I give Lincoln’s final premonition in full in Chapter 17 of the Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, for those poor deprived souls who have not yet had the opportunity to read it, a brief synopsis is warranted.

During the cabinet meeting on the morning of April 14, while waiting for the meeting to begin in earnest, Lincoln related a strange dream he had had the night before. It was about a ship sailing to an indefinite shore. What was peculiar about the dream was, he told his cabinet (which included General Grant on that day) that he had had this very same dream before every major event of the war. As Lincoln was hourly expecting news from the Carolinas from Sherman, that the last major Confederate army had surrendered, Lincoln assumed it would be good news from that front.

Doubtless at the time of the meeting, it was regarded as yet another of Lincoln’s little anecdotes that his cabinet had to suffer through.  It was only after he was assassinated that night that everyone present realized that Lincoln had actually foretold his own death.

As noted above, this incident has been told and retold by many folks over the years. Charles Dickens gave a dramatic version of the story, obviously with added Dickensian touches.  Lincoln’s close friend and sometime bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, likewise ornamented the story a bit. Moreover, as time went on, many other writers further elaborated on it. So, for the professional debunkers out there, it has been easy to dismiss the story as fiction, something invented long after the fact.

Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln's close friend and sometime bodyguard and also wrote about Lincoln's final premonition.
Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s close friend and sometime bodyguard and also wrote about Lincoln’s final premonition.

The trouble with professional cynics is that, starting from a priori assumptions, they rarely look at the facts objectively.  More often than not they skip over primary sources that are inconvenient to their already formed thesis. Certainly, a healthy skepticism is a good thing: cynicism in not. Neither is shoddy scholarship.

In fact, there were at least two men present during the Cabinet meeting in question who reported Lincoln’s prophetic dream.  There are slight variations in quoting Lincoln’s exact words, as there are with Lamon’s account. However, any researcher who has dealt extensively with eyewitness accounts knows that such things are to be expected, especially concerning famous or traumatic events.

Within days of his death news of the incident had spread far and wide. When Lincoln’s body was being returned by train to Springfield, Illinois stopped in Philadelphia, on April 22, his body put on display for mourners to view. Among the many memorial wreaths beside the body was one which stood out. It had a banner emblazoned across it which read:

“Before every great national event I
have always had the same dream.
I had it the other night. It is of a
ship sailing rapidly….”

The crowd in Philadelphia that April 22, needed no explanation as to the meaning of that quote. Remarkably, word of Lincoln’s last prophetic dream had already become common knowledge throughout the Northern states. This is not prima facie evidence, it is true; but is proof that the story was no later invention by some fevered hack writer.

Lincoln’s last premonition is a historic fact. That is incontrovertible and true. One can choose to dismiss it as mere “coincidence” if one wishes.  Many have, and that is always a convenient rationalization for an inconvenient truth one wishes not to believe.  Folks are free to believe what they want. But it did happen.

Walt Whitman, who was in Washington during the war years, was so inspired by Lincoln’s prophetic dream that he turned it into one of his most famous poems, O Captain! My Captain! When I was a boy, in fact, we were required to memorize it, along with other famous pieces of American poetry. I doubt they do that any more; and I doubt that many folks who are familiar with the poem really know the true background behind it.

PP  Walt Whitman wrote a poem based on Lincoln's  final prophetic dream
Walt Whitman wrote his famous poem “O Captain! My Captain!” based on Lincoln’s last prophetic dream.

Clearly, Lincoln dreamed of his ship approaching that “indefinite shore,” and while soon after, “The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,”
Lincoln, its captain, did not live to see the ship of state safe in port.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on this last, best documented, of Lincoln’s many presentiments, prophetic dreams and premonitions, as well as the full text of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Oh yes, and be sure to memorize the poem for class next Monday!  Class dismissed.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

 

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor.  But Bierce also served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of this famous authors life.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

 

Fayette Hall Lincoln on Dancing Piano fac 34a

In my recent book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, (Schiffer Press) I document in depth Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and practices regarding the supernatural.  Although Lincoln’s fascination with the paranormal has been talked about by historians such as Carl Sandburg and others for generations, before this present book, no one had taken a serious or objective look at the evidence.

On a number of occasions Lincoln attended séances, both at the White House and elsewhere, with famed psychic Nettie Colburn Maynard.
On a number of occasions Lincoln attended séances, both at the White House and elsewhere, with famed psychic Nettie Colburn Maynard.

The Paranormal Presidency  changes all that. In heavily footnoted chapter after chapter, we analyze various claims relating to Lincoln’s belief in the paranormal and certain practices which he actually participated in.

However, one issue which I did not tackle directly was the question of whether Lincoln actually was psychic or not. While I document what Lincoln and his contemporaries believed in, practiced and experienced, whether such phenomena really were supernatural or not–whether there is even really such a thing as the paranormal–all that is beyond the scope of historical enquiry.

Rather, I left it to the reader to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves.

Suffice it to say, however, that from early youth Lincoln had a firm belief in things we would call supernatural. Prophetic dreams, visions, omens and signs, and other uncanny events: all were part and parcel of Lincoln’s life, career and the world he lived in.

In future articles in this blog I will go into more specifics, providing details of Lincoln and his associates’ uncanny encounters and the nature of the evidence I evaluated in reaching my conclusions which I did not go into in the book. In many cases what they believed to be true directly affected their decision-making during the Civil War.

Lincoln's Assassination on Good Friday of 1865 was not the end of paranormal incidents regarding the president.  Many claim to have seen him in various locations in both Washington and in Springfield, Illinois
Lincoln’s Assassination on Good Friday of 1865 was not the end of paranormal incidents regarding the president. Many claim to have seen him in various locations in both Washington and in Springfield, Illinois

For more details about Lincoln’s relationship to paranormal, supernatural and unexplainable events, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time this book documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.
ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.