BOOK REVIEW – AMBROSE BIERCE – CIVIL WAR STORIES Dover Thrift Edition 1994
Bierce fought in the American Civil War, for the Union, and saw the full horrors of conflict at Shiloh. The sixteen stories here capture the relentless horror of conflict with terrifying realism.
WHAT I SAW OF SHILOH is largely autobiographical, and describes graphically the nature of close quarter woodland fighting, where forest fires sparked by rifle fire would often kill those too wounded to escape the flames, burning men to death on the ground. Later battles for the same terrain would take place round their charred remains.
A HORSEMAN IN THE SKY tells of a sniper shooting an enemy horse and rider causing them to plummet over a cliff, creating a delusion for many that they were flying for a moment. Only in the last instant do we learn that the sniper has shot dead his own father, who is fighting for the enemy.
CHIKAMANGA A terribly sad tale of a child of six, running off with a toy sword to play act soldering in the woods. Lost, he finds himself surrounded by the crawling wounded men who have just lost a real battle. The boy is unable to tell that this is all real until he gets near to the burnt remains of his house and sees his dead mother lying in front of it, when the reality of the situation strikes home to him.
AN OCCURANCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE Bierce’s most famous story, filmed several times, tells of a union saboteur, captured for trying to destroy a railway bridge, and sentenced to hang from the same bridge. As he takes the drop, the noose breaks and he faces a desperate escape down the river before being reunited with his family, but just as all seems well, he finds that he is still dying in the noose – the vision of his escape has all flashed through his mind in his final agonizing seconds before death.
FOUR DAYS IN DIXIE – A Union soldier on a reconnaissance mission laments having to swim across a river in his brand new uniform. That proves to be the least of his worries once he is lost behind enemy lines alone. He blunders through a Confederate camp, but finds the enemy all asleep. He eventually gets back to his own men so exhausted that he collapses and they initially assume that he is dead.
A SON OF THE GODS – A young officer is sent to check on enemy positions just beyond a hedgerow. The men know that he cannot see them without being seen himself, and potentially dying in a hail of gunfire, which will bring them to battle and bloodshed within minutes. He follows his orders in objective detachment rather than from any sense of bravery, with inevitable tragic consequences.
ONE OF THE MISSING – A soldier ends up trapped, alone in the rubble of a collapsed house, with his own gun in danger of shooting him in the head if he moves in any way and dislodges the debris. A nerve-wracking tense read.
KILLED AT RESALA – Captain Brayle is a much respected officer, who always leads from the front, and always gets in trouble with his superiors for not flinching or taking cover from enemy gun fire. When his luck inevitably runs out, even the enemy pay their respects to him. Later, the narrator discovers that the officer had a suicidal need to prove himself. He had served with another soldier who had been killed and the man’s girlfriend had accused him of cowardice for not helping her lover. The narrator goes to seethe girl who seems pleased that Brayle is dead. The narrator tells her that a snake killed him. The girl seems oblivious that the snake is she.
THE AFFAIR AT COULTER’S NOTCH – A soldier is ordered to set up a cannon and fire against twelve enemy cannon. He accepts the orders, but not without reasonable protest. His defiance is treated as insubordination, and there are rumours that he has Confederate sympathies, as some of his family serve the enemy. Only after the costly, but victorious battle is it discovered that his family were killed at the very plantation the Union has set up the cannon in.
THE COUP DE GRACE – A soldier finds a severely wounded friend among the many wounded men on a battle field, and having run out of ammunition, he uses his sword to put the man out of his misery as a mercy killing, just as the medics arrive to help, accompanied by the doomed soldier’s brother who sees him killed before his eyes.
PARKER ADDISON – PHILOSOPHER – Captured as a spy and sentenced to a traditional execution for the next morning, Adderson shocks his captors by being flippant about the fate awaiting himself, and indifferent to his looming death. Tired by his rhetorical wit, they bring his execution forward to right away, at which point Adderson panics and cowers his way to his death – An allegory on how we do not fear death until it stares us in the face.
AN AFFAIR OF OUTPOSTS – A civilian State Governor bestows a high promotion on a soldier and later goes to see him in action, strictly as an observer, but he finds himself stuck in the middle of a brutal battle, and the man he promoted rescues him, but loses several men in the attempt.
THE STORY OF A CONSCIENCE – A Union soldier turns out to be a turncoat and a traitor. He is captured and sentenced to death. The guard assigned to keep watch on him on his final night falls asleep on duty, and realizing that the man would be executed for dereliction of duty if he were discovered to have been negligent, the prisoner wakes him up and provides him with an alibi before escaping anyway. A few years later, the spay is captured again, by the same man, who is unable to return the favour and assist the man in escaping again. As the spy is executed, the man who he saved from death takes his own life too.
ONE KIND OF OFFICER – Captain Ransome is ordered to set up a field battery in a fixed location in heavy fog. He protests and gets ordered to obey his instructions without question. He does, even knowingly to the point of using the guns to decimate a division of his own men. The officers responsible for his instructions are either dead or in denial of the situation, and Captain Ransome realizes that he faces court martial for his actions.
GEORGE THURSTON – THREE INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A MAN – The story of a stubborn, useless soldier and the effect the has on the morale of men around himself. A field cartographer, mapping terrain that could be Thurston burdens a potential battlefield with accompaniment, ho decides to come along just as an observer. When they stumble into the enemy, Thurston endangers the men by refusing to take adequate cover. He just stands around with his arms folded. Later, in a separate battle, Thurston wanders casually around; taking no protection, again with his arms folded, and ends up wounded. He is finally killed in an accident on a rope swing set up by the men to amuse themselves with in between battles. He ignores instructions on how to use it safely, and falls off in mid air. His body is found later with the arms folded.
THE MOCKINGBIRD – A soldier on sentry duty thinks he sees an enemy approaching, and shoots. No body is found, though he is sure that he hit someone. Breaking rank to search for the body he finds it – he has been shot himself and he is a ghost.
Haunting, highly impressive, unforgettable material – some of the best writing about war ever. The author, in his sixties, went to fight for the rebels in the Mexican rising in 1914, He was never seen again, and his body was never found.
FACEBOOK - http://profile.to/arthurchappell/