The Unending Civil War of Ambrose Bierce

You can download or stream the third episode of Inward Empire on iTunes, or at http://inwardempirepodcast.podomatic.com/.

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.

Music: “Fratres (for violin and piano)” by Arvo Part, from the album Tabula Rasa (ECM Records, 1984).

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

SECONDARY SOURCES

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001.

Drew Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2008.

Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009.

Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1995.

Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1987.

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2007.

Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1952.

Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962.

PRIMARY SOURCES

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales & Memoirs. New York, NY: Library of America, 2011.

Ambrose Bierce, Civil War Stories. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1994.

Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1. New York, NY: The Century Company, 1887.

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3 thoughts on “The Unending Civil War of Ambrose Bierce

  1. This episode’s intro, like many of the sources it pulls from, suffers from the prejudice against the spiritual dimension of the age. Is the “golden haze” a filter to be removed? Or is it a window into a different though perfectly valid way of understanding an extraordinary experience. Several primary sources from the Civil War ought to give us pause before writing off the religious vision of that great conflict. Certainly valor and glory were often overwrought themes in retrospective Civil War literature, and 19th Century prose is often overwrought. But can we really ignore the spiritual dimension to soldiers’ experience as “inauthentic?” Many sources of the time are not so unreflective to the cost of war as they may seem, as a closer read of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” attests to. The religious literacy of the time may actually reveal more about calamity to modern persons than we may think. Horror and glory are, thematically, not so far removed after all as we can see in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, typically inaccurately regarded as a classic “anti-war” novel, while it is in fact a loving tribute to the brotherly love and dignity that can only be forged in war, not too far off from Holmes’s glowing idea of martial life. Modern commentaries often proceed as though we now we know for sure that the true experience of war is staring into a horrifying abyss of utter meaninglessness, and that man’s search for meaning must halt in the face of it. Victor Frankl would disagree. Elie Wiesel (perhaps with Bierce) might have concurred. Certainly all voices should be included in the discussion, and so writing off one side as “santized” is perilous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for listening, and thanks as well for your very insightful comment. I absolutely agree with you that we shouldn’t write off what you call the “spiritual dimension” of soldiers’ memory. Certainly most veterans writing about their experiences emphasized the brotherly love, the profound value and pride of their service, and so on. Even Bierce, in his softer moments, wasn’t immune to these feelings. I try to dissect and understand this viewpoint in the episode, rather than write it off completely. But it’s undeniable that postwar memory (in novels, memoirs, histories, art, etc) more often than not obscured the ugliness and horror of combat. Those modern histories you mention (“Living Hell” by Michael Adams, to pick a really extreme example) are bringing to light a side of the war that was largely hidden for a long time. By no means do I think Bierce’s intense cynicism is the “true” or definitive take on the soldier’s experience in the conflict – but I think his value is in expressing a side of that experience that most veterans, in public at least, were silent about.

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