Ambrose Bierce: The Civil War’s Stephen King?

If any of you are into the horror genre, then you may want to consider reading the stories written by Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce. I own a published collection of his stories and have read several of them. They are quite disturbing in their graphic details and edgy plots. According to the book, many of the stories were influenced by Bierce’s service in the war with the Ninth Indiana Infantry. Bierce’s short stories were some of the best literature of the nineteenth century and were but one part of a larger career in writing and journalism. Bierce reportedly served briefly with Pancho Villa’s army in 1913 and then mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. The power and horror of many of his stories make him comparable to Stephen King, as while they are not as long as King’s works, they were as popular at the time as King’s works have been lately.

Three stories have stuck in my mind for years. One story, titled “Chickamauga”, involves a little boy about six years old that runs off to play. The boy runs too far and cries himself to sleep in the woods. He then wakes up and witnesses several wounded soldiers walking and crawling along, and he proceeds to ride one man who had his lower jaw shot off like a horse. The boy begins to think of this all like a game and pretends to be a soldier leading the men on. The boy then comes up to his house, finding it burned to the ground and his parents both killed, including his mother having part of her head blown off by a shell. The boy begins to cry and make an unintelligible sound. It is only at the second to last line that the reader realizes how a boy could have slept through the Battle of Chickamauga, as Bierce provides the important detail about the boy, that he was a deaf mute.

The second story is one titled  “A Horseman in the Sky” and it is equally as chilling. The protagonist, Carter Druse of Virginia, joins the Union army and is somewhat rebuffed by his father. Druse is part of a unit in a hidden encampment and is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to shoot a Confederate cavalryman. He remembered his father’s words to do his duty and fired. The ending is as cryptic as “Chickamauga”, as a sergeant orders Druse to report who he killed, to which Carter replies that he killed his own father.

The final story that has stuck with me was “Two Military Executions”, which deals with revenge from beyond the grave. Private Bennett Greene, of Gen. Buell’s army, was executed for striking an officer, which he knew from back home. The execution was carried out with the officer in question feeling guilty. Eventually, the company is traveling along to assist Grant’s army, when it is stopped by the weather. The company commander decides to take roll and has the first sergeant do so, as the sergeant remembers the soldiers’ names. When he arrives at G, he calls out Greene’s name, which receives a response of “here” by Greene’s voice, even though Greene is dead. The captain can not believe it either and has Greene’s name called out twice more with the same results, Greene responding “here”. Suddenly, a shot rings out and appears to hit something and the captain asks what it is about, at which time, the officer that Greene struck, resulting in his execution comes forward, opens his coat, and reveals a bullet wound to the chest. The officer promptly dies and Greene’s name is never responded to again.

Overall, Bierce’s writings are very depressing stuff. As mentioned last week, two of the historical schools of thought on Civil War soldiers revolve around soldiers becoming disillusioned with the war and the ideals that initially motivated them to enlist. Bierce certainly conveys a disillusionment with the war through his writings, but how much of the horror and emotion is related to a head wound that he suffered is not certain. What is certain is that his writings are dark, cynical and would fit nicely into the Gerald Linderman school of thought on Civil War soldiers. If you can stomach gory details and a bit of the paranormal, I would recommend reading a little bit of Ambrose Bierce, as it is some truly amazing writing.

3 thoughts on “Ambrose Bierce: The Civil War’s Stephen King?

  1. Daniel,

    Horror fiction just happens to be another strong interest of mine, so Bierce fits in well with my interests. I did a series of blog entries ine late 2006 and early 2007 exploring all of Bierce’s short stories, which are appropriately enough contained in a paperback entitled _The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce_. Due to an issue transferring these posts from my old blog to TOCWOC, they are not up yet. Your post is enough to get me going and get those entries copied over.

    For now, though, if you’re interested, the first post is located at

  2. Pingback: Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Veteran and Author

  3. Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War stuff reminds me of Goya’s The Disasters of the War. Chickamauga is his cleverest tale – it has a very creepy atmosphere, but you only work out exactly why at the very end of the story, when you realise that the whole thing has been soundless. It’s like not realising that you’re living in a silent film. And the man with his jaw shot off has to be one of the most frightening things in 19th c fiction

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