MAJOR BIERCE ON DESERTION

Lt. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, After the war he was brevetted to Major in honor of his service.

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.”

Grant’s men deserted en masse on the first day of Shiloh, many fleeing to the Landing desperate to escape.

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.

A Union firing squad executes deserters, who are forced to sit on their own coffins.

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.

Concerning Desertion

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.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a wide variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history, Folklore, military history, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My most recent effort is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but hero and patriot and idealist, should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works exploring the mysterious recesses of the Age of Arthur. Also moldering away at the bottom of the Unsol inbox of certain weary editors is a ms about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the origins of mechanized desert warfare during World War One. Ever wonder how the Middle East became such a mess? well this book looks at the origins of the many mistakes we and our allies have made there since 1914.
This entry was posted in 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Ambrose Bierce, Army of the Ohio, Battle of Shiloh, Brigadier General, Civil War History, Desertion in the face of the enemy, General Don Carlos Buell, The American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to MAJOR BIERCE ON DESERTION

  1. Matthew Carpenter says:

    Mr. Coleman,
    Thank you for your work on the Fall of Nashville. I am looking for help… my gg grandfather, Orasmus F. Lamb, fought with Lew Wallace, Co. A 11the Illinois at Ft Donelson. He was shot, captured and moved to Nashville. His daughter reported he was in Nashville for 10 days or so before it surrendered to Union forces. I am wondering where he might have been held during those days between the Battle of Ft. Donelson. Might there have been a defacto military hospital or prisoner of war camp?

    • While my recent book on Ambrose Bierce–Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife– mainly covered the Army of the Cumberland and not Grant’s army, it so happens I did do a little research that indirectly involved your ancestor’s unit. I briefly double checked the 11th’s service record. Your grandfather shows up on the muster list of the 90 day 11th Illinois as “Osbus F” and on the three year regiment as “Orsamus F” so evidently whoever was keeping the muster records had a problem getting his name straight–but at least it does verify that he was with the regiment until discharge on July 29, 1864. The 11th was originally commanded by Colonel W H L Wallace–who later rose to become divisional commander–who was a different Wallace than Lew Wallace, although they both commanded divisions in Grant’s army. W H L was killed at Shiloh in April of 1862, while Lew went on to survive the war and write Ben Hur. You say Orasmus was captured at Fort Donelson and sent to Rebel held Nashville, but I would question that piece of information. The Confederates at Donelson were surrounded and the few Rebels who broke out and escaped to Nashville would not have been able to carry baggage, much less prisoners; and in any case the city fell soon after. The 11th did do some hard fighting at Fort Donelson and he may well have been wounded there, but it’s very doubtful that they would have evacuated him to Nashville before they surrendered to Grant. He may have been sent to Nashville to recover AFTER the Federals occupied the city on February 25. The 11th also fought at Shiloh, but whether he was present for that “tuff tussle” I can’t say. If you want to learn more about Orasmus’ war career, I suggest to apply to the National Archives for his war records–which is where I obtained Ambrose Bierce’s service records. There is an online portal where you can apply and you have enough info that NARAS could easily find it. The records used to be free for the first soldier’s records requested, but now they charge a service fee–I think about 60 dollars or so. That will have his medical record and where he was posted by his monthly muster card, as well as other miscellaneous info. Good luck; all the best, Chris

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