LOA: Bierce was not quite twenty when, a week after the firing on Fort Sumter, he enlisted in the Union army in Indiana. He saw considerable action over the next four years, fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga, taking a bullet to the head at Kennesaw Mountain, and being captured by and escaping from the Confederates in 1864. He wrote about his experiences decades later, sometimes as essays, sometimes as fiction. Many consider these pieces, as H. L. Mencken put it, “some of the best war stories ever written.” What distinguishes Bierce’s war writings?
Joshi: Bierce’s war stories are indeed based on first-hand experience, and Bierce himself took pride in that fact; but beyond that, these tales convey the widely varying emotions felt by common soldiers—terror, panic, heroism, tedium, self-preservation—in an absolutely detached and unsentimental manner. The grim paradoxes that were peculiar to the Civil War—where brother turned against brother, where soldiers were ordered to kill their fellow-countrymen and destroy property not in a foreign field but in their own land—are rendered particularly vivid in such Bierce’s tales as “A Horseman in the Sky” and “An Affair of Outposts.”
LOA: Eight of the eleven “Bits of Autobiography” included in this volume deal with Bierce’s war experiences. What aspects of war do these essays get at that his stories don’t?
Joshi: There is a tone of pensive, elegiac melancholy in these essays that one doesn’t find in any of Bierce’s other work. It is clear not only that his Civil War experiences affected him deeply, but that he reflected on many of these experiences for the whole of his life. Bierce was always insistent on the radical distinction between the “soldier” and the “civilian,” and he felt that the latter could never fully understand what the former had gone through. Some scholars think that “What I Saw of Shiloh” is the single best piece Bierce ever wrote, and I am inclined to agree. The final paragraph brings tears to my eyes. Bierce seems to have felt that in writing about himself he could express—and evoke—more emotions than he chose to do in his fiction, which is written with a certain emotional restraint that precludes even the slightest hint of sentimentality. Some of the later essays in “Bits of Autobiography” are light-heartedly comical in ways one almost never finds in the dark satire that is typical of his writing.Read the entire interview
Also of interest:
- The poet-soldiers of the Civil War: Ambrose Bierce, John W. De Forest, Fitz-James O’Brien, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- “The Moonlit Road” and “The Eyes of the Panther,” both by Ambrose Bierce and previous Story of the Week selections
- Some sample entries from The Devil’s Dictionary
- Don Swaim’s Ambrose Bierce site features a wealth of information about Bierce, including updates about new projects based on his work and a message board