Tales of Soldiers and Civilians

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When Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?) published Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1892, he took the literary world by surprise and instantly raised the bar for realism. From remote San Francisco, a continent's width away from the literary center of the United States, came the book. Wherever it reached, critics reacted strongly to it. Not all liked the book—some felt it was too brutal, too gruesome, or too cynical—but almost all respected it and understood that it was exceptional. Most of the nineteen stories it contained shocked readers with vivid depictions not seen since Edgar Allan Poe of human beings pushed by horror and terror to their limits and beyond. Half of the stories recalled the Civil War. These were immediately recognized as the best stories ever written of that war, indeed some of the best stories ever written about any war, and several became instant classics.

A Bierce scrapbook of review clippings in the Library of Congress documents that the book quickly spread throughout the English-speaking world. By the late 1890s foreign translations began to appear. One or more of its stories are regularly reprinted in anthologies, and the book is represented today wherever American literature is studied. Authors around the world have appreciated that the stories are so skillfully wrought that they are models worth studying, and an incomplete but impressive list of obvious or probable indebtednesses can easily be compiled. The influence of Bierce on other writers of fiction began in his own times and continues. George Washington Cable borrowed an incident from the story "Chickamauga" in his 1894 novel John March, Southerner. Stephen Crane and, to a lesser extent, Frank Norris and Jack London accepted Bierce as a new standard of realism and branched off from the trail Bierce had blazed. It is possible that William Dean Howells's famous story "Editha" (1905) owes something to Bierce's "Killed at Resaca." In Japan, Ryunosuke Akutagawa wrote "In a Grove" and "Rashomon," two of his best stories, in the mode of Bierce. Both Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" (1935) and William Golding's novel Pincher Martin (1956) have echoes of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and Bierce also influenced Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.

But the author of this notable collection was, in his own lifetime, and has remained until now one of American literature's most controversial and least understood writers. There are several likely reasons for this. One is that Bierce is a "loner" in that his works do not fit conveniently into critical pigeonholes. Another is that the austere but audacious personality he cultivated made him a legend. He was famous—or notorious—for a weekly column of commentaries on people and events that was often written in elegant and witty but corrosive irony or vituperation. His targets appear to be many: government, organized religion, the masses, capitalism, socialism, anarchism, utopianism, feminism, democracy, as well as personalities in the news. This extreme variety makes him seem a curmudgeonly iconoclast to whom nothing was sacred, but his real targets in each one of those categories are the same: fools, rogues, and what he perceived as error or deception. He was fearless in his attacks, and in an age when journalists might be called upon to back themselves with fists or guns, his reputation as a dead shot restrained potential intimidators. Many anecdotes have survived that depict him as a cynic, and The Devil's Dictionary, his collection of wittily irreverent definitions, has reinforced this impression.

But the most probable reason for his reputation is the stories themselves. In the way they confront gruesome realities fully and with unsparing honesty, their surface levels are, characteristically, so shocking and dazzling that few critics have gotten beyond them, and most have consequently addressed only the surface features of plot and characterization. In addition, the stories are often narrated with an ironic tone, which is often mistakenly assumed to be that of the author and not the narrator. Because of this, while the stories are generally conceded to be skillfully written, Bierce is often described as "bitter" or "mocking" or "heartless." Nothing could be farther from the truth.


As the title indicates, there are two groups of stories in the book: those about soldiers and those about civilians. But the authorial philosophy that underlies both groups originated in Bierce's participation in the Civil War.

It is an unusual fact that although the Civil War was America's most convulsive event in the nineteenth century and sucked into its furious maelstrom the cream of American manhood between the late teens and middle age, no first-rank author fought in it. Of those authors who did serve in the military, Bierce is the best and the one with the most extensive experience. He fought in many battles from April 1861 to January 1865, when he was discharged because of wounds, and rose in rank from private to lieutenant. The war shocked and horrified Bierce and left him with terrible memories that haunted him for the rest of his life. Insofar as these experiences were incorporated into his fiction, Vincent Starrett astutely observed in Buried Caesars: Essays in Literary Appreciation that Bierce's tales about war should more accurately be considered antiwar stories.

Bierce lost in the war whatever religious faith he had and rejected any belief that life or nature was benevolent. After the war, he searched for a formal philosophy that could make sense out of what he had experienced. He never found one that fully satisfied him, but classical Stoicism came closest, and he adopted the Stoic doctrine of vivere est militare, to live is to be a soldier. If war is the true state of life, he reasoned, then it makes most sense to become a soldier, that is, one who understands that life is deadly and who learns how to fight. All will eventually lose the fight, but the civilian, that is, the unprepared or inept, will be most likely to die needlessly early. The two groups of stories in the book, therefore, represent not social roles so much as two mental orientations: those who are disciplined to fight and those who are not.

For Bierce, humanity's most valuable weapon in the battle of life is reason. Without it, an individual has little hope of surviving, but the possession of it does not guarantee survival. Nor, for that matter, is survival necessarily an end it itself. To his credit, Bierce was honest enough to recognize that life is more complicated than his philosophy; that sometimes the civilian is lucky and that sometimes the soldier is in an impossible situation; and that reason can neither account for nor equal other goods, such as love, bravery, virtue, or happiness. Underlying most of Bierce's work is a basic compassion for humanity. He does not criticize individuals for being victims of circumstances beyond their control. Tragedy, in his stories, occurs when an innocent individual's best is not good enough and when reason becomes a liability. The stories in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians examine the limitations as well as possibilities of reason and assess how well or poorly it serves both civilian and soldier types.

All of the stories in Tales were first published in San Francisco periodicals. With one exception ("A Holy Terror," which appeared in the Wasp in 1882), the stories were written for the San Francisco Examiner, which employed Bierce in 1887. He occasionally substituted these stories for his regular feature column, "Prattle," which usually appeared once a week on the Sunday editorial page. The stories received immediate acclaim, and E. L. G. Steele, a San Francisco businessman and friend, offered to publish them. Bierce gratefully accepted the offer. The book was copyrighted around September 1891 but not manufactured and distributed until 1892. Despite the book's dedication, which begins "Denied existence by the chief publishing houses of the country, this book owes itself to Mr. E. L. G. Steele, merchant, of this city," there is considerable doubt about the extent of Bierce's efforts to publish the book, especially since three of the stories first appeared in 1891.

By 1891 Bierce had been publishing fiction for over twenty years. Almost all of it is thoughtful and at least technically competent, much of it is good, and some of it is surprisingly good. The early fiction tends to be quite short—"sketches" would be an accurate description—and it is apparent that Bierce began early to experiment with pushing the envelope of form and with finding distinctive themes he intended to pursue. He entered upon what may be called his mature period in the middle 1880s, and all the stories in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians date from this time. Ideas and memories that had been percolating in his mind since his war years at last ripened and coalesced and impelled him to express them in an intense burst of composition. If he wrote quickly, however, the skills he learned over the previous twenty years ensured that he wrote well. Even so, he was a perfectionist and edited the stories he collected for Tales. As a result, there are some significant differences between the periodical and book versions of the same stories. He continued, in fact, to make stylistic changes in the stories when subsequent editions of them came out, even as late as the Collected Works edition he prepared between 1909 and 1912. In general, his editing resulted in improvement, and a study of those editorial changes provides an interesting record of the growth of his mind and art.


"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is an excellent example of how information from the editorial process can assist in interpretation. "Owl Creek" is definitely the most well known of the stories in Tales, and from its enduring popularity and frequent reprintings, it may justly be regarded as one of world literature's classic stories. Anticipating the zoom lens, the story zooms from a distant perspective into the mind of the protagonist and thereafter switches almost undetectably between the protagonist's thoughts and the omniscient narrator's comments. The tale requires extremely close attention to language and careful reflection, for it is aimed directly at the reader. Almost everyone who reads the story is caught up by what appears to be its surprise ending, the realization that its last section was the hallucination of a hanging man. Insofar as readers identify with that man, Peyton Farquhar, they feel an uncomfortably close encounter with death.

The story is a complex and subtle hoax in which Bierce allows Farquhar and sympathetic readers to conspire to put themselves in an untenable position. Most readers regard Farquhar as the story's tragic hero, a patriotic Southerner who was tricked into a fatal trap. But Farquhar is more of a fool and hypocrite than a hero, is patriotic only in his mind, and is solely responsible for putting his neck in the noose. Only a few sentences in the story are actually complimentary of Farquhar, and they describe his facial features and his family. Most of what we learn of him is negative, although not obtrusively so.


Colston here puts Marsh to the test. He questions Marsh's courage and dares him to read a ghost story under conditions that are favorable to the superstitious fears the story will evoke. "The Suitable Surroundings" will demonstrate how human nature can turn reason into a liability.

Colston turned suddenly and looked him squarely in the eyes as they walked. "You would not dare—you have not the courage," he said. He emphasized the words with a contemptuous gesture. "You are brave enough to read me in a street car, but—in a deserted house—alone—in the forest—at night! Bah! I have a manuscript in my pocket that would kill you."

Bierce, "The Suitable Surroundings," in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, p. 235.

Ominously, we are told early that "he was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit." "Habit" ("dress" in the Examiner version), of course, refers to his accustomed actions and inclinations as well as his clothes. The truth is that Farquhar acts and thinks like a civilian, and his fatal mistake is to play at being a soldier against real soldiers. Although he regards himself a patriot, he did not join the Confederate forces, even when the South was in dire need of every able-bodied man. He helped incite the war but sat it out on a rustic bench on his lawn, speciously rationalizing his inactivity. When a "grey-clad soldier" rides up to his home one evening, Farquhar suddenly conceives the notion of sabotaging the Owl Creek Bridge. The text shows that the soldier only answers truthfully questions that Farquhar puts to him, questions which reveal Farquhar's plan to the Union soldier, for the soldier is a Federal disguised as a Confederate, a professional example of what Farquhar amateurishly intends to be.

Farquhar foolishly undertakes a military mission in a civilian habit. He plans to kill an unsuspecting sentry and burn the bridge but fundamentally overestimates his abilities and underestimates the enemy's. When he is caught and about to be hanged, his mind desperately conceives of an escape scenario. It is implausible, but in the fraction of a second of consciousness that is left him after his neck is broken, his mind tries to spin it out, adjusting a fantasy to physical symptoms of hanging. Ultimately, Farquhar gets what he deserved: for inciting the war, for evading military service, for being an "assassin" and attempting sabotage, and for thinking that war is a game to whose rules he is superior. The revised ending of the story is grim enough, but the last sentence of the Examiner version criticizes Farquhar with overt irony in a long phrase deleted from the book version: "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body with a broken neck and suspended by as stout a rope as ever rewarded the zeal of a civilian patriot in war-time, swung gently" (italics added). Bierce's compassion in "Owl Creek" is not for Farquhar, but for the reader, who can learn from the story that romantic fantasies can be fatal in wartime.


Bierce's compassion is more direct in other war tales. In "Chickamauga," for example, a deaf and mute child playing at soldier is caught in a rout of wounded and dying soldiers, and, with them, in a forest fire kindled by the battle of Chickamauga. He of course does not hear the battle sounds, and he is too young to fully comprehend what he sees. The handicapped child and the retreating invalids are alike victims of nature and of war. In "A Son of the Gods," a heroic scout attempts to save his fellow soldiers from ambush by bravely risking his life to reveal where the enemy is hiding. He is almost successful, but the sight of him being shot down so inflames his comrades that they rush from their cover and charge—and are needlessly killed. Ironically, the scout's brave self sacrifice has the opposite of its intended effect.

In "A Horseman in the Sky," the impending Civil War splits a Virginia family. The father joins the Confederacy, the son the Union. Later in the war, the son on sentry duty spots a Confederate horseman on a cliff observing an exposed Union force. The sentry draws a bead on the horseman, only to realize it is his father. In the split second he has to make a decision, he recalls his father's parting admonition to do his duty, and the son obeys. But he lowers his rifle slightly to shoot the horse, which leaps with his father into space. The merciful gesture dooms his father, but it is all the son can do, and it suggests a civil war within the son that allows for no victory; reason only intensifies his anguish. "The Affair at Coulter's Notch" puts Union artillery captain Coulter, from the South, under the command of a malicious and imperious general. Coulter is ordered to shell what he knows to be his own home, with his wife and child inside, and he cannot refuse the command. Again, there can be no victory for Captain Coulter. There is evidence that this story was adapted by Bierce from a story about the Franco-Prussian War that was reprinted in the Examiner. This therefore uncouples Bierce from a dependence on personal experience and shows him capable of developing his themes more imaginatively.

An example of Farquhar's self-deceiving claptrap. Although it sounds impressive, it is specious reasoning that is impossibly loaded with qualifications and fallacious assumptions. Up to the present, he has rendered the South no service at all, but other men fight the war he had helped cause. What he is contemplating is a villainous but foolish sneak attack that underestimates his enemy's abilities and overestimates his own.

No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians p. 27.

The stories about civilians also show reason in opposition to human nature. In "The Suitable Surroundings," a man proud of his rationalism takes a dare from a friend to read a frightening manuscript alone at night in a haunted house. The situation, plus some unexpected coincidences, frightens him to death. Reason, in short, is shown to be of limited efficacy; in this case it augments superstition. "The Man and the Snake" displays what M. E. Grenander in Ambrose Bierce called "ironical terror," a situation in which reason leads a character to misplace apprehension and make it worse. "Haïta the Shepherd" is a paradoxical parable whose point is that happiness is such a great good that a man would be wise to forfeit his wisdom to get it.

Subsequent editions of Bierce's work added stories to both the soldier and civilian categories, but the original edition remains the core of his fame and encapsulates the philosophy he ambivalently held at the time of its composition. Not all of the stories in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians are Bierce's best, and not all of his best stories are in Tales, but on the whole the book is outstanding and it nevertheless established Bierce as a brilliantly original author and an American classic.

See alsoCentury Magazine; Civil War Memoirs; Realism; Violence


Primary Works

Bierce, Ambrose. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003.

Bierce, Ambrose. Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898–1901. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1986.

Bierce, Ambrose. A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998.

Bierce, Ambrose. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. San Francisco: E. L. G. Steele, 1891.

Secondary Works

Berkove, Lawrence I. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002.

Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Grenander, M. E. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne, 1971. Joshi, S. T., and David E. Schultz. Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Logan, F. J. "The Wry Seriousness of 'Owl Creek Bridge.'" American Literary Realism 1870–1910 10 (1977): 101–113.

McWilliams, Carey. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. N.p.: Archon Books, 1967.

Owens, David M. "Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge." American Literary Realism 1870–1910 26 (1994): 82–89.

Starrett, Vincent. Buried Caesars: Essays in Literary Appreciation. Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1923. Wilt, Napier. "Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War." American Literature 1 (1929): 260–285.

Lawrence I. Berkove

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