Ambrose Bierce’s pronouncements on the American Civil War are a particular interest of mine. My apologia for this has to do with researching his life and times for over six years, not to mention writing and revising my book on Bierce’s wartime experiences more times than I wish to count. Having been one of the few great American authors to actually have seen extensive combat gives great weight to Bierce’s pronouncements on war. Ironically, much of what Bierce wrote about the war had less to do with combat per se than with the other aspects of service, the parts that commanders–and the historians who lionize them–often leave out of the narrative.
Bierce’s favorite subject for scorn were generals and other senior officers. Bierce rarely criticized his former enemies in gray; even General Bragg, who was universally despised by his own men, often gets off with only a few mildly sarcastic remarks in Bierce’s writings. But Union commanders were a different matter entirely; Bierce reserved his best venomous prose for the generals in blue who perpetrated what he viewed as “crimes” against their own soldiers. “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” is a classic piece of Bierce’s war nonfiction and well exemplifies his “bitter” attitude towards these former army commanders.
I fully cover the Battle of Pickett’s Mill and Bierce’s role in it in Chapter 12 of Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife so there is no point to chew my cud twice here. Suffice it to say that in his essay on the fight, we learn how Sherman glossed over the defeat in his memoirs to make his own generalship seem better than it was, while the Corps Commander who bungled the operation, the grossly incompetent Oliver O. Howard (of Chancellorsville infamy) we learn was commonly referred to by his men as “Oh-Oh!” Howard for his unerring knack of getting his men killed unnecessarily.
The outbreak of the Spanish-American War sparked Bierce to ruminate at length about war in general in his columns in The San Francisco Examiner and he often summoned up memories of the earlier conflict which he had fought in when reading about the War with Spain. In Bierce’s “War Topics” for the July 23, 1899 issue of the paper, for example, shared his unique view of incompetent officers with his readers:
“A general’s first duty is to have the confidence, rightly or wrongly, of his men. Without it he is weak for aggression and weak for defense. It is easily had: some of the most incompetent commanders in history have had it in a high degree, and were thereby enabled to accomplish results not otherwise possible to them, especially in averting disaster. Notable examples (I mention them in the hope of arousing evil passions and provoking controversy) are McClellan and Rosecrans.”
On another occasion, on describing General Rosecrans’ performance at Chickamauga, Bierce says, “There is no reason to doubt that he acted on his best judgment, which, however, was never very good. Rosecrans was many kinds of a brilliant crank, but his personal courage was beyond question.”
Bierce had a genius for the left-handed compliment. In the persona of “The Bald Campaigner” (San Francisco Examiner May 31, 1902) Bierce elaborates on Rosecrans’ as a general:
“General Rosecrans was a courageous and dutiful soldier. He always did the best he knew how, and no one can do more than that. He was an accomplished and amiable gentleman, one of the most interesting and lovable characters that I ever met. His men’s belief in him and devotion to him were marvelous; but those of his higher officers who were educated soldiers had little confidence in him, and events justified their doubt.”
Bierce’s attitude towards General Grant has generally been assumed by modern writers to be implacably hostile, mainly for Bierce’s scorching assessment of Grant’s generalship at Shiloh: “for manifest incompetence Grant, whose beaten army had been saved from destruction by Buell’s soldierly activity and skill, had been relieved of his command, which nevertheless had not been given o Buell, but to Halleck, a man of unproved powers, a theorist, sluggish, irresolute.”
Here in what is little more than a parenthetical aside, Bierce has managed to trash both Grant and Halleck. The short story “An Affair of Outposts,” in which it was inserted, was actually about the subsequent Corinth Campaign, another masterly example of passive aggression by “Old Brains” Halleck.
In other cases, however, Bierce’s assessment of Grant seem more tempered, or at least ambivalent. In regard to the allegations about Grant’s drunkenness, Bierce, himself fond of strong drink, comes to the general’s defense–after a fashion.
During the prelude to the Battle of Missionary Ridge, as a staff officer Lt. Bierce was with his commanding officer, General Hazen, on Orchard Knob, where General Grant and the other senior commanders were observing Sherman’s men fail to take their objectives that day. As Grant and his entourage watched the battle, they “passed the poisoned chalice” about and about, and Bierce watched Grant “kiss the dragon.” Bierce says, “I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy…but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would.” Lest Grant and his generals on Orchard Knob that day escape from his appreciation completely unscathed, Bierce notes that while they did not abstain from drink, “these gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.”
Bierce even went so far as to compose an elegy on the event of Grant’s death, in which he went on to praise the controversial hero, while still acknowledging his ruthlessness in pursuing an end to the war:
He fringed the continent with fire,
The rivers ran in lines of light!
Thy will be done on earth—if right
Or wrong he cared not to inquire.
His was the heavy hand, and his
The service of the despot blade;
His the soft answer that allayed
War’s giant animosities.
Lt. Ambrose was a frontline witness to the war, both as a private soldier and later as a staff officer who moved easily among the ranks of the senior commanders of the Federal armies in the west. He saw more than most men did in that war, both of the good and the bad. His testimony should not be ignored.
For more about Bierce and the War in the Western Theater, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.