Analysis of Ambrose Bierce’s Chickamauga

Chickamauga is Cherokee for “bad water,” the name a branch of the tribe gave to the creek alongside which they lived in the northwest corner of Georgia when they were decimated by an outbreak of smallpox. Subsequent historians dubbed Chickamauga Creek the “River of Death” (Morris 56); the Civil War’s Battle of Chickamauga on September 19–20, 1863, was “the largest battle in the western theater of operations and the bloodiest two-day encounter of the entire war” (Morris 61), with Union and Confederate casualties estimated at 16,000 and 20,000, respectively (McPherson 674–675).

Ambrose Bierce (born 1842), an Indiana farm boy who had enlisted on the Union side in 1861, took part in this battle, and in his story “Chickamauga” (1889) he not only accurately describes the tactical military aspects of the terrain but also captures the horrors of war in gruesome detail. Bierce accomplishes this with the expertise he had gained as an advance scout and topographical engineer (cf. “A Little of Chickamauga” [1898], Collected Works I, 275) and with the dual-narrative perspective he uses in having an adult tell the story of a six-year-old farm boy’s first and shattering experience of war. This “child” strays “one sunny autumn afternoon” from his “home in a small field” and enters “a forest unobserved.” He is “the son of a poor planter,” who “in his younger manhood . . . had been a soldier,” in whom “the warrior-fire survived” and from whose “military books and pictures” the boy has made himself “a wooden sword,” which he now recklessly brandishes as he advances with ease in the forest against “invisible foes.” Here Bierce (cf. “A Little of Chickamauga,” Collected Works I, 271, 274) has the boy duplicate the Union general William S. Rosencrans’s tactical blunder when he incautiously advanced south from Chattanooga, by noting that the boy was committing “the common enough military error of pushing the pursuit to a dangerous extreme,” arriving at “a wide but shallow brook,” whose “rapid waters” he nevertheless crosses and vanquishes “the rear-guard of his invisible foe.” However, he is then frightened by “a rabbit,” from which he flees, “calling with inarticulate cries for his mother,” and eventually sobs himself to sleep between two rocks near the stream. Meanwhile, “the wood birds sing merrily above his head,” and “somewhere far away was a strange, muffled thunder.”

When he awakens at twilight, he sees “before him a strange moving object which he took to be some large animal—a dog, a pig—he could not name it; perhaps it was a bear.” But as it nears, he gains courage, “for he saw that at least it had not the long menacing ears of the rabbit.” Then he notices that “to right and to left were many more; the whole open space about him was alive with them—all moving toward the brook.” The narrator identifies these creatures as wounded soldiers dragging themselves away from the battle site, seeking a place to drink or die: “They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. . . . They came by the dozens and by hundreds. . . . Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads, spread their palms upward. . . .” The boy jumps on one of the crawling soldiers, thinking he can ride him as he had often ridden his father’s slaves “for his amusement.” The soldier collapses but turns “a face that lacked a lower jaw,” and “from the upper teeth to the throat was a red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone,” which gave him “the appearance of a great bird of prey.” Meanwhile, the soldiers “moved forward down the slope like a swarm of great black beetles.” The narrator reinforces the animal imagery by comparing the trail of their discarded equipment to “the ‘spoor’ of men flying from their hunters.”

Ambrose Bierce/The Paris Review

Fire “on the farther side of the creek” was “now suffusing the whole landscape,” and the boy, ahead of the crawling soldiers, crosses the creek and heads for the fire “across a field,” where he recognizes “the blazing building as his own home” and finds the body of his mother, “the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood,” and “The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.” “Looking down upon the wreck,” the boy utters “a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries—something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey.” The “child,” only now revealed to be “a deaf mute,” is brutally brought face to face with the horrific reality of war in ironic contrast to his war games in the forest.

In its review (February 20, 1892), the London Atheneum objected to Bierce’s focus on “the minutest details of bodily and mental pain,” most gruesomely in “Chickamauga,” in which the reviewer mistakenly notes that the child “was struck deaf and dumb” by the sight of his dead mother. The Atheneum found this “extremely unsuitable for young readers, to whom it is surely more wholesome to present the nobler side of war” (Critical Essays 15–16). Indeed, whether in Victorian England or in the United States, where the Civil War had been portrayed for decades “through a halo of civilian romance” (Grattan 137), Bierce’s Civil War stories shocked readers. In its review (March 1898) of In the Midst of Life (New York, 1898), however, the Nation praised “Chickamauga” as “an allegory” and noted that “this volume could not have been revived at a more opportune moment,” just before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War (April–August 1898), and that it therefore deserved “the widest circulation as a peace tract of the first order, in the present craze for bloodshed” (Critical Essays 16). After the republication of the English edition (1915) during World War I, the London Opinion cited Bierce “as one of the greatest masters in depicting the horrors of war” and called him “the veritable Goya of literature” (Critical Essays 47). Although he has remained in the shadow of Stephen Crane (1871–1900), whose novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) has become a classic, Bierce, too, is a worthy forerunner of such 20th-century American war writers as Ernest Hemingway or Tim O’Brien.

Bierce, Ambrose. “Chickamauga” (1889). In Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. San Francisco, Calif.: Steele, 1892. ———. “Chickamauga.” The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. Vol. 2. New York/Washington: Neale, 1909. ———. “Chickamauga.” In The Civil War Stories of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Ernest J. Hopkins. Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), 1988. ———. In the Midst of Life—Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. London: Chatto & Windus, 1892. ———. “A Little of Chickamauga” (1898). In The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. Vol. 1. New York/Washington: Neale, 1909. Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage and Selected Short Fiction. Edited by Richard Fusco. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Davidson, Cathy N., ed. Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Goya, Francisco. The Disasters of War. Edited by Philip Hofer. New York: Dover, 1967. (Translation of Los Desastres de la Guerra, Madrid, 1863.) Grattan, C. Hartley. Bitter Bierce: A Mystery of American Letters. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1929. McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. 1988. Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1989. Morris, Roy, Jr. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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