Ambrose Bierce on American War Dead

CW Graves larger
“Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves?” 

On Memorial Day, Americans honor those who died in all our wars. Traditionally, we honor the men and less the cause they fought for. There have been wars America fought which, in retrospect, may have been less than just: some were unnecessary, a few were futile; but we honor those who fell in them nonetheless.

Ambrose Bierce joined the Union Army the instant he heard of Lincoln’s call for troops; unlike many, he not only joined because he wished to preserve the Union, but because he and his family were ardent Abolitionists. His Uncle Lucius Bierce had supplied John Brown with the broadswords that Brown used to commit the Pottawatamie Massacre, and later eulogized Brown when he was executed. But after four years of war, killing his fair share of the enemy and after nearly dying himself, Bierce was no longer that idealistic young man. He had seen too much death, too much suffering, to gloat over his former foes defeat; he never regretted his war service, but neither did he rejoice in the victory achieved at such a cost. 

In 1903, Ambrose Bierce, still very much haunted by his experiences in the war, penned this essay after revisiting the scenes of his first experience of the war. He saw the ill- tended graves of his former foes and the neglect which they had fallen into. His eloquence on viewing the graves of not enemies, but fellow soldiers, remains an eloquent Memorial Day statement: 

A BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

“Away up in the heart of the Allegheny mountains, in Pocahontas county, West Virginia, is a beautiful little valley through which flows the east fork of the Greenbrier river. At a point where the valley road intersects the old Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, a famous thoroughfare in its day, is a post office in a farm house. The name of the place is Travelers’ Repose, for it was once a tavern. Crowning some low hills within a stone’s throw of the house are long lines of old Confederate fortifications, skilfully designed and so well “preserved” that an hour’s work by a brigade would put them into serviceable shape for the next civil war. This place had its battle–what was called a battle in the “green and salad days” of the great rebellion. A brigade of Federal troops, the writer’s regiment among them, came over Cheat mountain, fifteen miles to the westward, and, stringing its lines across the little valley, felt the enemy all day; and the enemy did a little feeling, too. There was a great cannonading, which killed about a dozen on each side; then, finding the place too strong for assault, the Federals called the affair a reconnaissance in force, and burying their dead withdrew to the more comfortable place whence they had come. Those dead now lie in a beautiful national cemetery at Grafton, duly registered, so far as identified, and companioned by other Federal dead gathered from the several camps and battlefields of West Virginia. The fallen soldier (the word “hero” appears to be a later invention) has such humble honors as it is possible to give.

His part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the Summer hills
Is that his grave is green.

True, more than a half of the green graves in the Grafton cemetery are marked “Unknown,” and sometimes it occurs that one thinks of the contradiction involved in “honoring the memory” of him of whom no memory remains to honor; but the attempt seems to do no great harm to the living, even to the logical.

A few hundred yards to the rear of the old Confederate earthworks is a wooded hill. Years ago it was not wooded. Here, among the trees and in the undergrowth, are rows of shallow depressions, discoverable by removing the accumulated forest leaves. From some of them may be taken (and reverently replaced) small thin slabs of the split stone of the country, with rude and reticent inscriptions by comrades. I found only one with a date, only one with full names of man and regiment. The entire number found was eight.

In these forgotten graves rest the Confederate dead–between eighty and one hundred, as nearly as can be made out. Some fell in the “battle;” the majority died of disease. Two, only two, have apparently been disinterred for reburial at their homes. So neglected and obscure is this campo santo that only he upon whose farm it is–the aged postmaster of Travelers’ Repose–appears to know about it. Men living within a mile have never heard of it. Yet other men must be still living who assisted to lay these Southern soldiers where they are, and could identify some of the graves. Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves? One would rather not think so. True, there are several hundreds of such places still discoverable in the track of the great war. All the stronger is the dumb demand–the silent plea of these fallen brothers to what is “likest God within the soul.”

They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime. They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification–did not pass from the iron age to the brazen–from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen. Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society.

Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause. Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”

 

For more on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, University of Tennessee Press.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the author’s wartime experiences in the Army of the Cumberland and his coming of age in the crucible of war.

 

 

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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.

Ambrose Bierce: Spymaster?

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce, best known as fiction writer, muckraking journalist and cynic, was also a soldier during the Civil War, among whose duties may have been that of spy-master.

Having spent several years researching, then writing and revising Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, the first tome devoted solely to noted American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime service during the Civil War, one would think that I had uncovered all there was to know about the wartime career of Bierce.  One would think. But alas one would be wrong.

In truth, while I corrected many false impressions and incorrect assumptions created by some of his previous biographers, the reality is that the more I uncovered about Ambrose Bierce and his service during the Civil War, the more questions arose about him.  Some questions may only be of interest to those already devoted to Bierce and his work; other mysteries about Bierce’s life and career are fascinating quandaries which we may, or may not, some day find a solution.  One such quandary that tantalize this present author concerns  what facts may lie behind Ambrose Bierce’s career as a spy—something which he only mentioned in print once, yet is a subject I think many would greatly love to learn more abou.

I had come across reference to his espionage activities hidden in amongst the papers regarding his war service, 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 role that entailed duties aa a general purpose MP and disciplinarian—and about this duty he shared considerably more to his readers in his postwar newspaper columns than he did his espionage work.

In the Western Theater of the war where Bierce served, 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 espionage was part of Bierce’s cop duties when he was assigned to Provost Marshall duty in the early part of 1863..

An artist's impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper's Weekly.
An artist’s impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper’s Weekly.

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 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 earn the soldier in question a summary execution by the opposing side–something which Bierce wrote about in his short stories.

Still, it seems clear that Lt. Bierce was not just penetrating behind enemy lines on mapping expeditions, but also coordinating a network of civilian spies, at least for a brief time.  I only recently stumbled across Bierce’s own brief reference to his espionage work in his rambling 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

The use of field or "spy" glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.
The use of field or “spy” glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.

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.”

Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish radical Socialist turned American spymaster, was Lincoln's chief of intelligence. Unfortunately much of his information regarding the Rebel army was faulty.
Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish Socialist turned U.S. spymaster. He was Lincoln’s chief of intelligence. 

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 Bierce’s 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, details about Lt. Ambrose Bierce’s work as espionage operative must remain an enduring enigma.

 

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is now in print with 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.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Based on extensive primary research, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife in now in hardcover via the University of Tennessee Press.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Other Flag Debate

Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani
Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani

 

For anyone who followed the recent debates over the display of Confederate flags, they may find it of interest that the Confederate Battle Flag has been a bone of contention before, albeit under different circumstances.

Ambrose Bierce, whom I have spent several years researching and writing about, once weighed in on that previous flag dispute.  At that time, it had little to do with the issue of racism–since whites north and south were all on the same page–racist–but rather with the return of the actual battle flags to the South.  After the war, northern politicians could be assured of getting votes if they “waved the bloody shirt”–reminded voters of the loss of northern lives in the Civil War.  That this was as self-serving political bloviating perhaps goes without saying.  Then, as now, there were any number of “chicken-hawks”–politicians who had not fought in the war but acted as though they had–who raged against returning the battle standards to the Southern states.

Among those who argued for conciliation and return of these symbols–not in praise of their cause–but in honor of the many fellow Americans on the other side who had also suffered and died in the war–was Ambrose Bierce.  It is in this context that Bierce’s poem should be understood:

The Confederate Flags

Tut-tut! give back the flags – how can you care,

You veterans and heroes?

Why should you at a kind intention swear

Like twenty Neros?

Suppose the act was not so overwise –

Suppose it was illegal;

Is’t well on such a question to arise

And punch the Eagle?

Nay, let’s economize his breath to scold

And terrify the alien

Who tackles him, as Hercules of old

The bird Stymphalian.

Among the rebels when we made a breach

Was it to get the banners?

That was but incidental – ’twas to teach

Them better manners.

They know the lessons well enough to-day;

Now, let us try to show them

That we’re not only stronger far than they,

(How we did mow them!)

But more magnanimous. My lads, ’tis plain

‘Twas an uncommon riot;

The warlike tribes of Europe fight for gain;

We fought for quiet.

If we were victors, then we all must live

With the same flag above us;

‘Twas all in vain unless we now forgive

And make them love us.

Let kings keep trophies to display above

Their doors like any savage;

The freeman’s trophy is the foeman’s love,

Despite war’s ravage.

‘Make treason odious?’ My friends, you’ll find

You can’t, in right and reason,

While ‘Washington’ and ‘treason’ are combined –

‘Hugo’ and ‘treason.’

All human governments must take the chance

And hazard of sedition.

O wretch! to pledge your manhood in advance

To blind submission.

It may be wrong, it may be right, to rise

In warlike insurrection:

The loyalty that fools so dearly prize

May mean subjection.

Be loyal to your country, yes – but how

If tyrants hold dominion?

The South believed they did; can’t you allow

For that opinion?

He who will never rise though rulers plot,

His liberties despising –

He is he manlier than the sans-culottes

Who’s always rising?

Give back the foolish flags whose bearers fell,

Too valiant to forsake them.

Is it presumptuous, this counsel? Well,

I helped to take them.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce, famous author, noted cynic and war hero.  His portrayal of war was based on personal experience and his realistic style of writing heavily influenced twentieth century writers.

 

 

 

 

 

THE DAY THE RIVER TURNED RED: Christmas 1862, A Civil War Christmas Part 6

 

Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)
Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)

CHRISTMAS 1862. It had been a bloody year and December of 1862 proved to be a bloody month.

The confidence and initial optimism of the Rebels had been dashed by the series of defeats at Forts Donelson and Henry in January, the loss of Nashville and the mid-South in the February and March, and then the stalemate at “Bloody Shiloh” in April. There was also the futile Fall Kentucky Campaign, where the Confederate forces almost conquered the Bluegrass state—but not quite. Back east, Robert E. Lee inflicted defeat after defeat on the Yankees, but still the blue-backs kept coming on against him.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Spencer Welch of the 13th South Carolina, noted just days after Christmas that, “The Yankees are certainly very tired of this war. All the prisoners I have talked with express themselves as completely worn out and disgusted with it. ”

Spencer writes to his wife how the Yankees on the other side of the lines don’t even have their guns loaded and how both sides talk familiarly with each other, as if they were enjoying a time out in some sort of great game. For among all the death and dying, the Christmas spirit had still taken hold of both; North and South, all yearned for peace and home.

As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.
As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.

Out west, however, Christmas day was but a prelude to battle. No sooner was the holy holiday over than General Rosecrans, in charge of the newly renamed and reorganized Army of the Cumberland, marched out of Nashville to do battle with General Bragg’s Rebel Army of Tennessee, laying in wait for them in nearby Murfreesboro, encamped by the winding banks of Stone’s River.

In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.
In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.

On December 26, the two sides faced each other across the river, awaiting battle on the morrow. On one side a regimental band piped up; on the other side an enemy band replied in kind. One side played Dixie; the other Yankee Doodle; and so it went on the eve of battle, until the battle of bands ended with both sides playing Home, Sweet, Home in unison.

The thoughts and prayers of loved ones at home on Christmas Eve were for the safety of their soldiers at the front. While in camp, it seems, Santa had declared for the Union cause—at least insofar as Thomas Nast was concerned.

A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.
A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.

In camps North and South, Christmas was a more mellow holiday in ‘62 than it had been before; for many comrades who had shared their Christmas fare in ’61 were now dead and gone. All wished for peace; but none now dare hope for it anytime soon.

For more about the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Out now is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, which chronicles the wartime service of famous author Ambrose Bierce with the 9th Indiana and Army of the Cumberland.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

 

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins).
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s An alternate version of “Dixie” on YouTube