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.

 

BEHOLD A PALE RIDER: A CIVIL WAR GHOST TALE

Fact or Fiction? 

BIERCE’S TALE OF A “BAFFLED” AMBUSH

"Near the side of the road, in a little open space and hardly ten paces away, stood the figure of a man, dimly visible and as motionless as he."
“Near the side of the road, in a little open space and hardly ten paces away, stood the figure of a man, dimly visible and as motionless as he.”

After lengthy and arduous research into the wartime career of Ambrose Bierce, famed short story writer, Civil War soldier, satirist, curmudgeon and aficionado of the bizarre and supernatural, readers will forgive me if, from time to time I discuss one or another of his tales as they relate to the Civil War.

As with many of Bierce’s pieces this tale is short—or, more properly, as long as it needs to be.  One reason why Ambrose Bierce is less appreciated today than formerly is that he did not like to write rambling, pointless character pieces drawn out into hundreds of pages—what passes for “literary fiction” these days—and the novel format of writing in general left him cold.  That he often compressed a book’s worth of writing into a short story has not been generally been appreciated by modern critics, although it certainly was by the likes of H. L. Mencken and Earnest Hemingway.

This particular story, “A Baffled Ambuscade,” is generally classed as a short story and feel free to appreciate it as such.

Yet, all the details are factual.  At the time this story takes place–after Stones River but before the Tullahoma Campaign–the Third Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was indeed posted to Readyville, Tennessee.  The Official Records contain numerous reports of patrol actions by thid regiment, especially along the ReadyvilleWoodbury turnpike.  Even the commander mentioned in the story–Major Seidel–was a real person.  This much can be verified.

But, did the ghost of Trooper Dunning actually appear as described?  Here the official record falls silent and we must rely solely on the word on one who was there, but is no more.

For more true Civil War ghost stories, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

For the best and most complete anthology of Bierce’s short fiction, I recommend, S. T. Joshi’s, The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, (three volume set) put out by the University of Tennessee Press.  Joshi et al, have done much primary research on Bierce and his writings, and S. T. Joshi is currently busy compiling a definite collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s writings.

 

A Baffled Ambuscade

Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce

 

Connecting Readyville and Woodbury was a good, hard turnpike nine or ten miles long. Readyville was an outpost of the Federal army at Murfreesboro; Woodbury had the same relation to the Confederate army at Tullahoma. For months after the big battle at Stone River these outposts were in constant quarrel, most of the trouble occurring, naturally, on the turnpike mentioned, between detachments of cavalry. Sometimes the infantry and artillery took a hand in the game by way of showing their goodwill.

One night a squadron of Federal horse commanded by Major Seidel, a gallant and skillful officer, moved out from Readyville on an uncommonly hazardous enterprise requiring secrecy, caution and silence.

Passing the infantry pickets, the detachment soon afterward approached two cavalry videttes staring hard into the darkness ahead. There should have been three.

“Where is your other man?” said the major. “I ordered Dunning to be here tonight.”

“He rode forward, sir,” the man replied. “There was a little firing afterward, but it was a long way to the front.”

“It was against orders and against sense for Dunning to do that,” said the officer, obviously vexed. “Why did he ride forward?”

“Don’t know, sir; he seemed mighty restless. Guess he was skeered.”

When this remarkable reasoner and his companion had been absorbed into the expeditionary force, it resumed its advance. Conversation was forbidden; arms and accoutrements were denied the right to rattle. The horses tramping was all that could be heard and the movement was slow in order to have as little as possible of that. It was after midnight and pretty dark, although there was a bit of moon somewhere behind the masses of cloud.

Two or three miles along, the head of the column approached a dense forest of cedars bordering the road on both sides. The major commanded a halt by merely halting, and, evidently himself a bit “skeered,” rode on alone to reconnoiter. He was followed, however, by his adjutant and three troopers, who remained a little distance behind and, unseen by him, saw all that occurred.

After riding about a hundred yards toward the forest, the major suddenly and sharply reined in his horse and sat motionless in the saddle. Near the side of the road, in a little open space and hardly ten paces away, stood the figure of a man, dimly visible and as motionless as he. The major’s first feeling was that of satisfaction in having left his cavalcade behind; if this were an enemy and should escape he would have little to report. The expedition was as yet undetected.

Some dark object was dimly discernible at the man’s feet; the officer could not make it out. With the instinct of the true cavalryman and a particular indisposition to the discharge of firearms, he drew his saber. The man on foot made no movement in answer to the challenge. The situation was tense and a bit dramatic. Suddenly the moon burst through a rift in the clouds and, himself in the shadow of a group of great oaks, the horseman saw the footman clearly, in a patch of white light. It was Trooper Dunning, unarmed and bareheaded. The object at his feet resolved itself into a dead horse, and at a right angle across the animal’s neck lay a dead man, face upward in the moonlight.

“Dunning has had the fight of his life,” thought the major, and was about to ride forward. Dunning raised his hand, motioning him back with a gesture of warning; then, lowering the arm, he pointed to the place where the road lost itself in the blackness of the cedar forest.

The major understood, and turning his horse rode back to the little group that had followed him and was already moving to the rear in fear of his displeasure, and so returned to the head of his command.

“Dunning is just ahead there,” he said to the captain of his leading company. “He has killed his man and will have something to report.”

Right patiently they waited, sabers drawn, but Dunning did not come. In an hour the day broke and the whole force moved cautiously forward, its commander not altogether satisfied with his faith in Private Dunning. The expedition had failed, but something remained to be done.

In the little open space off the road they found the fallen horse. At a right angle across the animal’s neck face upward, a bullet in the brain, lay the body of Trooper Dunning, stiff as a statue, hours dead.

Examination disclosed abundant evidence that within a half hour the cedar forest had been occupied by a strong force of Confederate infantry–an ambuscade.

 

Library of Congress original source
Equine casualty of war, dead on battlefield

 

For more Civil War ghost tales, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War  while one can learn the truth about Ambrose Bierce’s war career in Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife:

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press and available at better bookstores everywhere.