Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913) is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature. Civil War veteran, contrarian journalist, master of the short story, muckraker, epigrammatist, and versifier, he is today most widely known for that word hoard of cynical definitions, The Devil’s Dictionary, and for a handful of shockingly cruel stories about the Civil War.
In those dozen or so “tales of soldiers,” gathered in the collection eventually titled In the Midst of Life (1892, augmented in 1898 and 1909), a brother shoots his brother, a sniper is compelled to kill his father, and a cannoneer obeys the order to destroy his own house, where his wife and child await his return from battle. The best known of these contes cruels, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” has been called—by Kurt Vonnegut, himself a kinder, gentler Bierce—the greatest short story in American literature. Surely, no first-time reader ever forgets the shock of its final sentences.
Throughout these gruesome episodes of war, there is no armor against fate, as seeming coincidence assumes the character of tragic destiny. Bierce himself always insisted that most of his Civil War fiction was based on fact. As he wrote in a letter, “It commonly occurs that in my poor little battle-yarns the incidents that come in for special reprobation by the critics as ‘improbable’ and even ‘impossible’ are transcripts from memory—things that actually occurred before my eyes.” The Battle of Shiloh, for instance, took place near Owl Creek.
While we associate Bierce primarily with California and with San Francisco in particular, he was, in fact, a widely traveled man. Born in Ohio, he turned out to be the youngest surviving child of a zealously Christian couple who gave their ten children names beginning with A: Abigail, Amelia, Addison, Aurelius… Growing up on a hardscrabble farm in Indiana, he gained most of his education from the books in his father’s library (supposedly the finest in the area) but also managed to spend a year at the Kentucky Military Institute.
When the Civil War broke out, Bierce immediately enlisted with the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment and rose to become a brevet major. He fought all over the South—at Shiloh, Chicka- mauga, Missionary Ridge; he marched with Sherman through Georgia. Shot during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, he carried the bullet in his skull for the rest of his life. He was even captured by Confederates in Alabama, but managed to escape. While his stories and memoirs reveal war as hell, Bierce, the scout and topographical engineer, always looked back on his service as the most exhilarating time of his life.
Following Lee’s surrender, Bierce’s former commanding officer persuaded him to serve as the mapmaker and engineering attaché for a survey expedition of western military posts. Denied the rank he deserved, Bierce abandoned the army as a career and instead settled in San Francisco, where he met the author …