Having spent the last several years researching, then writing, about noted American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime service during the Civil War, one would think by now that I had uncovered all there was to know about the man noted for acerbic wit and cynical outlook—or at least about his wartime activities. One would think.
In truth, while I have corrected many false impressions and incorrect assumptions created by some of his previous biographers, the truth is that the more I uncovered about Ambrose Bierce and his service during the Civil War, the more questions have arisen about him. Some of these unanswered questions are perhaps only of interest to those already devoted to Bierce and his work; others are fascinating quandaries which may or may not eventually find a solution. One such quandary that tantalize this author concerns what facts may lie behind Ambrose Bierce’s career as a spy—something which he only intimated at once, yet is a subject one would greatly like to learn more.
I had come across reference to it in his war service record, deeply buried in the National Archives. The reference to it is fleeting—a one sentence mention on one monthly muster card. Prior to his brief service as spy, Bierce had done a brief stint as his brigade’s Provost Marshal—a general purpose MP and disciplinarian—about which he shared considerably more in his postwar writings. In the Western Theater of the war, the Provost Marshal’s department also sometimes doubled as a counter-espionage bureau, at least in Nashville. But it doesn’t seem as though that was part of Bierce’s cop duties.
Then too, from about mid-1863 on Lt. Bierce served as his brigade’s topographical engineer—in effect its mapmaker. Lest one think that a dull desk job, understand that during the Civil War topographical engineers were required to go out into the field and not only survey roads and physical features, but scout out enemy emplacements and fortifications as well, a task which frequently entailed infiltrating behind enemy lines. It was always a matter of some importance to commanders to know whether a strategic ford or bridge was held by the enemy and if so in what strength. During the war, scout and spy were often interchangeable terms—and both could get you executed by the opposing side.
Still, it seems clear that Lt. Bierce was not just penetrating behind enemy lines on mapping expeditions but coordinating a network of civilian spies, at least for a brief time. I recently stumbled across Bierce’s brief reference to his espionage work in his discussion, generally inaccurate, of naval firepower during the Spanish American War. After pontificating how 12 inch guns couldn’t possibly be used at sea (wrong!) he then informs the readers of his column:
“In our Civil War, as in most wars, spies were employed by both sides and some made honorable records, each among his own people. I once had command of
about a dozen spies for some months—gave them their assignments, received and collated their reports and tried as hard as I could to believe them. I must say that they were about as scurvy a lot of imposters as could be found on Uncle Sam’s payroll (that was before the pension era) and I should have experienced a secret joy if they had been caught and hanged. But they were in an honorable calling—a calling in which the proportion of intelligent and conscientious workers is probably about the same as in other trades and professions.”
Bierce gave his San Francisco readers no chronology for his career as spy-master, but I can. Based on his service record and what I have learned of his military career, his work as spymaster would have been in the late spring of 1863. Beyond that, however, the five w’s of his espionage activities remain an enigma. Unlike some soldiers who wrote voluminous tomes on how they won the war, Bierce largely avoided such self-serving promotions and so, save for some fortuitous discovery, Lt. Ambrose Bierce’s work as espionage operative must remain an enduring enigma.
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is due for release by the University of Tennessee Press. For those interested in Bierce’s fictional works, I recommend the press’s three volume Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce which not only includes all his best known works but quite a few lesser known gems.