In 1861, a strange, restless nineteen-year-old from Indiana named Ambrose Bierce enlisted in the Union Army. Four years later he emerged much like the rest of the country, deeply scarred and forever changed by what remains the bloodiest conflict in American history. In the fifty years after 1865, the imperatives of healing and reunion shaped the memory of that war in bizarre ways: the squalor and horror, and the physical and psychological damage inflicted in battle, were swept under the rug. What remained were heroism, sacrifice, patriotism, and the shared valor of “the Blue and the Grey,” remembered fondly by the veterans themselves. The war loomed in the American imagination as a glorious time, a “cavalier epoch” of high virtue and noble service to the nation – and this paved the way for war and military values to dominate the country to an extent never seen before or since.
Ambrose Bierce was virtually alone in offering a counterpoint to this interpretation of the conflict. In a series of visceral, unsettling stories, he demolished the myths surrounding the soldier’s experience, presenting a dark and disturbing vision that anticipated the great antiwar writers of World War 1. We still view the Civil War through a haze of distant glory and heroism, obscuring its grit and squalor – and for us, no less than his 19th-century audience, “Bitter Bierce” provides the perfect antidote.
Inward Empire theme by Stephen Spencer.
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