“Strange and Beautiful”: Ambrose Bierce on the Battle of Shiloh
In the visitor center of Shiloh National Military Park, an interpretive display identifies renowned participants in the Battle of Shiloh, the first large-scale battle of the American Civil War. John Wesley Powell lost an arm at Shiloh but still went on to chart the Green and Colorado rivers by boat, becoming the first to navigate through the Grand Canyon. Also present at Shiloh was Henry Morton Stanley, a Welshman fighting for the Confederacy; after the war he would become a journalist and famously search for and find Dr. Livingstone in Africa. James A. Garfield, who in 1881 would become the twentieth U.S. president (and the second to be assassinated), was on the scene as well. Curiously, the display does not mention Ambrose Bierce, an odd omission given Bierce’s stature in American letters and the significance of the Civil War in his works. In fact, no American writer saw more of the Civil War than Bierce, who was just nineteen years old when he fought at Shiloh. Subsequently, he participated in several other major battles and was severely wounded toward the end of the war. He was even, briefly, a prisoner of war. Later, as a writer, he would revisit his experiences in a series of short stories (including the well-known “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). Besides fiction about the war, Bierce wrote several essays that deserve greater attention and recognition, not only for their content but also for their contribution to the essay as a genre. First and foremost among these essays is “What I Saw of Shiloh,” written nearly thirty years after the battle.
Last summer, I went to Shiloh specifically because of Bierce. I wanted to see the topography of his compelling but under-recognized essay, a powerful piece that details the horrors of war and explores the psychological state of soldiers in battle. Located one hundred miles east of Memphis in rural southwestern Tennessee, Shiloh is more remote and isolated than most Civil War battlegrounds. Still, a fair number of people visit, including the usual enthusiasts of warfare, the kind of folks—mostly men—who carefully study the visitor center’s relief maps and dioramas to analyze troop movements and battery placements. Since I was more interested in Bierce than in military strategy, I did not follow the tour group setting out to visit the battleground. Instead, I wandered off on my own, looking for places associated with the 9th Indiana Infantry, Bierce’s regiment.
What makes Bierce’s Shiloh essay on Shiloh so good? Start with the basics: description. Trained as a military topographer, Bierce developed advanced observational skills, not only for the details of terrain but also for military activity, weather, and something less tangible—the “feel” or mood of a scene. He was often sent out as a scout, and the stories and essays he wrote years later are packed with the kind of details that a scout might include in a report. Here, for example, is Bierce’s description of the moment when his regiment arrived at the scene of the battle, which was already in progress:
There were broad flushings in the sky, against which the branches showed black. Sudden flames burst out here and there, singly and in dozens. Fleeting streaks of fire crossed over to us by way of welcome. These expired in blinding flashes and fierce little rolls of smoke, attended with the peculiar metallic ring of bursting shells, and followed by the musical humming of fragments as they stuck into the ground on every side, making us wince, but doing little harm. The air was full of noises. To the right and the left the musketry rattled smartly and petulantly; directly in front it sighed and growled. . . . There were deep shaking explosions and smart shocks; the whisper of stray bullets and the hurtle of conical shells; the rush of round shot. ...Occasionally, against the glare behind the trees, could be seen moving black figures . ...They seemed to me ludicrously like the figures of demons in old allegorical prints of hell.
The newly arrived Bierce encountered a chaotic nighttime scene—“a confused mass of humanity” that included the wounded, the dead, and those desperate to escape the battle—“the cowards...defeated, beaten, cowed” who “were deaf to duty and dead to shame.” Pushing past “this abominable mob,” Bierce’s regiment marched through the darkness to find their assigned place in the line.
I followed them, walking through woodlands until I came to the place where the 9th Indiana had encamped for the miserable, rainy night of April 6. (Signboards placed around the military park indicate which regiments were stationed where and when.) “A thunderstorm broke upon us with great violence,” Bierce wrote. “The rain, which for hours had been a dull drizzle, fell with a copiousness that stifled us; we moved in running water up to our ankles.” Here and there, he saw the bodies of the dead and severely wounded: “Their clothes were soaken; their hair dank; their white faces, dimly discernible, were clammy and cold.” Bierce heard the wounded calling out for water. He also saw “large tents, dimly lighted with candles”—the medical stations. “These tents were constantly receiving the wounded, yet were never full; they were continually ejecting the dead, yet were never empty.”
Another description, this of the scene Bierce witnessed as the second day of the battle dawned: “Here and there were small pools—mere discs of rainwater with a tinge of blood. Riven and torn with cannon shot, the trunks of the trees protruded bunches of splinters like hands, the fingers above the wound interlacing with those below. Large branches had been lopped, and hung their green heads to the ground...or swung critically in their netting of vines, as in a hammock. Many had been cut clean off and their masses of foliage seriously impeded the progress of the troops. ...Angular bits of iron, concavo-convex, sticking in the sides of muddy depressions, showed where shells had exploded in their furrows. Knapsacks, canteens, haversacks distended with soaken and swollen biscuits, gaping to disgorge, blankets beaten into the soil by the rain, rifles with bent barrels or splintered stocks, waist belts, hats and the omnipresent sardine-box—all the wretched debris of the battle still littered the spongy earth as far as one could see, in every direction. Dead horse were everywhere; a few disabled caissons, or limbers, reclining on one elbow, as it were; ammunition wagons standing disconsolate behind four or six sprawling mules.”
The passage displays all the qualities that we expect in a compelling description: evocative images, effective word choice, sonic echoes, specificity, implied empathy, a catalog of objects that prompt an emotional response—something akin to Eliot's objective correlative. Detailed description alone does not make for a great essay, of course. What else distinguishes Bierce’s work? At certain points in the essay, the narrator (and with him the reader) enters into the moment, almost experiencing it in real-time, not just physically but psychologically as well. The effect—call it the “rhetoric of psychological presence”—is displayed in the essay’s most startling—and troubling—passage, an encounter with a hopelessly wounded soldier: “He lay face upward,” Bierce writes, “taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men, whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.”
Beyond detailed observation and startling word choice, this passage is remarkable for the way that Bierce implies a range of complex and contradictory battlefield emotions, condensed in just a few lines—condensed so that it corresponds to the short passage of time, the handful of seconds it took to experience these emotions. Following the intense description of the dying man, Bierce shifts gears with a shockingly crass comment: “I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain.” Readers of Bierce’s work might recognize here the acerbic, vicious tone that “Bitter Bierce,” as he came to be known, developed as a newspaper columnist in San Francisco. To this point in the essay, however, there has been very little of this trademark Bierce tone, such that the example comes out of the blue and at a seemingly inopportune moment—a crude, inhumane wisecrack of the kind that detectives deliver over corpses in hardboiled crime fiction.
Bierce seems to cross a line here, indecency and bad taste becoming sheer meanness. Is there any possible justification for it? I think so. Looking at the passage as a whole, parsing the passage and noting the emotional swings, it’s possible to see this comment as representative of a certain kind of gallows humor common in battle conditions, the kind of thing that is said out of shock in the presence of gruesome sights. It’s a sort of coping mechanism helping to deflect the terror. Combat soldiers are certainly familiar with this kind of talk, as evidenced in the work of Heller, Mailer, O’Brien, et al. What’s interesting about Bierce’s presentation is that he doesn’t assign the crassness to someone else. He doesn’t couch it or preface it or water it down. He owns it and drops it in the text cold, raw, and unadorned—even if it doesn’t present himself in a favorable light. Readers hear it and react just as they would while standing there over the horrific sight and hearing someone nervously say something crude and in poor taste. At inopportune times we sometimes have the urge to laugh or joke; when confronted with the shock and stress of a horrific battle, Bierce’s narrator does the same. Now, granted, Bierce is writing this some twenty-nine years after the fact and could therefore be expected to refrain from spur-of-the-moment crudities; but throughout the essay he is insistently trying to get back to his feelings in 1862, the feelings he had at the spur of the moment. His presentation here conveys the young soldier’s response in the heat of battle, and it does so without any hedging or qualification. We as readers thus experience the moment more authentically.
There’s more. Hardly do we process our own shock at the image of the soldier and our dismay at the narrator’s bad joke when there’s a new development: “One of my men, whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him.” The moment of gallows humor now yields abruptly to a sobering ethical dilemma: Should the suffering soldier, for whom there is no hope, be put out of misery? It’s a question that soldiers on the battlefield are apt to face, especially during the Civil War when medical knowledge and technology were not advanced enough to help the severely wounded. Several years later, Bierce would return to this theme in a short story, “A Coup de Grace,” which appears to be set at Shiloh. In fiction, Bierce’s protagonist decides to administer a coup de grace—“blessed release, the rite of uttermost compassion”—to a fellow soldier dying in agony. In the nonfictional memoir, however, he could not countenance the thought, let alone the act. He was “inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal.” So now we have another huge emotional swing within the brief moment that the scene takes place.
Immediately, Bierce—who only seconds before had responded to the grotesque sight of the suffering soldier with a crass joke—is taken aback by the “cold-blooded” suggestion of a mercy killing. It’s a strange reversal of sensibilities, but perhaps an accurate depiction of the roiled emotions and confused—even contradictory—thought processes of soldiers under the stress of war. Perhaps it is the suggestion of using the bayonet rather than a bullet that makes the proposal seems so outrageous. In any case, Bierce, as sergeant in charge—must make a quick decision, and he decides no, a mercy killing would not be right. His reason? “It was unusual, and too many were looking.” He does not appeal to morality in rationalizing his decision, but rather to social norms and the presence of witnesses (who might testify or report). The decision is pragmatic. Once again, in the manner of Montaigne, Bierce does not shy away from presenting his thoughts and actions, however questionable, for the audience’s scrutiny. Nor does he hide his faults or try to rationalize them. Rather, he seems more interested in capturing the emotional shifts, the psychology of a complicated and fraught moment.
At some point during one of the lulls, while his regiment was out of action, Bierce decided to venture on his own “down into the valley of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity.” In the midst of so much mayhem and destruction, Bierce wanted to see for himself the very worst of it (perhaps this was the kind of curiosity and desire for first-hand experience that would lead him a few years later into journalism). At Shiloh, the worst of it was a deep ravine where on the first day of battle a regiment from Illinois “had been surrounded and refusing to surrender was destroyed.” Finding himself near this ravine, Bierce took leave of his regiment to tour the aftermath of the slaughter.
It seems like an unusual thing for someone to do in the midst of a sanguinary battle after a long night without sleep and a day without food under a constant barrage of rifle and cannon fire. Nevertheless, during this brief respite, Bierce descended into the ravine, “the valley of death.” What piqued his morbid interest was the manner of death for many of the soldiers whose corpses he encountered. Something had happened in the ravine that, Bierce tells us, happened at many battles during the Civil War: the dead leaves of the forest floor caught fire “and roasted the fallen men.” As Bierce explored the ravine, he kicked through an ankle-deep layer of ashes. There were bullet-riddled trees and charred stumps. He came upon bodies “half buried in ashes,” contorted bodies whose “postures of agony...told of the tormenting flame.” The lucky ones met with “sudden death by the bullet.” The unlucky included “scores of wounded who might have recovered” but who “perished in slow torture” as the flames advanced through the ravine. After examining the hideous corpses, Bierce turned away in disgust and with a cold, harsh, discordant comment dismissed the dead: “Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.” The abrupt switch to present tense suggests that this is the observation of the writer Ambrose Bierce recalling the scene in 1881 rather than the thoughts of Ambrose Bierce the young soldier on the scene in 1862. The older “Bitter Bierce,” renowned for his cynicism and sardonic wit, seems to say that young men who choose to become soldiers are signing on for their own deaths.
Shortly after this incident, Bierce’s platoon found itself in the middle of the action. Many were wounded or killed—“a very pretty line of dead continually growing,” as Bierce described it, again employing his trademark sarcasm. At this point, Bierce and comrades were exposed without protection, “lying flat on our faces.” Meanwhile, the big guns of the artillery were pounding away, and the common foot soldiers were forced “to lie inglorious beneath showers of shrapnel darting divergent from the unassailable sky.” Reduced to a passive role, they could do nothing, Bierce said, but “clench our teeth and shrink helpless” while the deafening cannons did all the work. This was not the glory of war, as romanticized notions would have it; this was sheer terror, the human sublimated to the mechanistic. Hours passed before Bierce’s regiment escaped this helpless circumstance and fell back to the skirmish line. “For fifteen hours we had been wet to the skin,” Bierce recalled. His comrades were “chilled, sleepy, hungry and disappointed—profoundly disgusted with the inglorious path to which they had been condemned. ...The spirit had gone out of them.”
But there was still one more encounter to go: an enemy assault and another scene of noise and confusion, “a tempest of hissing lead that made us stagger under its very weight.” Then, suddenly, silence. Just as the battle had reached its moment of fiercest intensity—or so it seemed to Bierce—it abruptly ended. The Confederate soldiers were in retreat. Bierce looked around and saw new players on the field: stretcher-bearers, surgeons, and chaplains. Their appearance meant that “the battle was indeed at an end.”
I walked around the Shiloh site for a few hours, visiting the places where Bierce’s regiment had been, including a field near a ravine that could well have been the ravine where Bierce had come upon the holocaust scene that he so vividly described. Paths and traces of erstwhile roads took me through dense thickets and across fields. In many places the woods were particularly thick, and I broke through spider webs as I went. Now and then I had to brush off ticks. There were monuments and markers everywhere—pyramidal stacks of cannonballs with the names of commanders, obelisks honoring brigades, boards and signs indicating the locations of the various regiments, detailing where they bivouacked, where they charged, where they held a skirmish line. Some signs and granite markers indicated the sites of mass graves containing hundreds of bodies stacked several layers deep. There must be several hundred monuments scattered across the vast Shiloh site.
My walking tour took in the battleground’s principal landmarks: Bloody Pond, the Hornet’s Nest, scenes of death and devastation. Some landmarks were less ominously named—the Cloud Field, the Peach Orchard—but no less brutal and bloody during those two long days in April, 1862. The Peach Orchard was notable because it had been in full bloom—an incongruously lovely sight during the battle. Although he passed nearby, Bierce did not mention the orchard or the blossoms, perhaps because by the second day all the blossoms had fallen in the gunfire and the trees themselves were scarred and blasted.
Following the road in a roundabout loop back toward the visitor center, I stopped at the place where the Shiloh Meeting House had once stood, the log Methodist church that had given the battle its name. In his essay, Bierce commented on the irony of “a Christian church...giving name to a wholesale cutting of Christian throats by Christian hands.” Ironic, but not surprising, Bierce said, given the “the frequency of its recurrence in the history of our species.” This is the tone of voice most often associated with Bierce—caustic, acerbic, dismissive of religion, mordantly witty. This tone appears here and there in the essay—as in the crude comment on the dying soldier with “so little brain” or the scorn heaped on the “gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.” Such sarcasm is expected of Bierce, American literature’s avowed smart ass.
But, surprisingly, this trademark tone rarely appears in “What I Saw of Shiloh.” At the start of the essay, Bierce seems to distance himself from the writerly persona he had deliberately fashioned for himself in the San Francisco periodicals where his work had usually appeared. “This is a simple story of a battle,” he begins the essay, “such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer.” With this opening declaration, Bierce indicated that he was trying to recover the frame of mind he had had as a young man—long before he became a writer—when he was just learning how to be a soldier, still somewhat inexperienced and even a bit naïve. When the Shiloh campaign began, he was already battle-tested, but Shiloh was still a baptism by fire for him in that it was a battle on a scale well beyond his previous experience (and well beyond that of any of Shiloh’s participants, including the most seasoned generals). The narrative attempts to recover the mindset of the young man who could hear a call to battle as “exhilarating.” For such a young man, “The bugle’s call goes to the heart as wine and stirs the blood like the kisses of a beautiful woman. Who that has heard it calling to him above the grumble of great guns can forget the wild intoxication of its music?” The naïve excitement voiced here at the beginning of the essay dissolves bit by bit as the narrator enters the fray and observes and experiences the horrors of war. It should be said that Bierce is somewhat ahead of his time in calling attention to these horrors and foregrounding them over the trite imagery and familiar platitudes of courage, honor, and glory. Skeptical of those abstract notions, Bierce won’t allow his readers to hold onto their quaint notions about war and chivalry—this at a time when such notions were commonplace. Read this way, the essay succeeds in taking the reader through the stages of transition from innocence to experience.
Given this thrust to the essay, it is somewhat perplexing to read the conclusion to the essay—essentially a postscript that Bierce added to a reprinting of the essay nearly eighteen years after its original appearance. This postscript is intensely nostalgic, the nostalgia expressed in purple passages that recall “when all the world was beautiful and strange.” Bierce imagines that a “magic spell” has brought back the sights, sounds, and smells of the camps and battlefields he knew as a youth—“the dim valleys of Wonderland.” It was a time, he sighs, “when there was something new under the sun.” Bierce finds that he yearns to go back to those exhilarating days. This desire puzzles him because he knows full well that “evil,” “desolation,” and the “monstrous inharmony of death” are the true characteristics of the war. Even so, he finds it hard to recall “the danger and death and horrors of the time” and all too easy to recall “all that was gracious and picturesque.” Now writing as an old man, thirty-six years after the battle and eighteen years after his first written recollection of it, Bierce thinks of “moon-gilded magnolias” and mockingbird songs and bright-burning constellations in the midnight sky. Even the memory of rifle shots stirs his blood.
Approaching sixty, he has discovered that old age is nothing but “drear and somber scenes.” If he could, he says, he would go back to those days and willingly die in battle—as by rights he should have: “I will willingly surrender an other [sic] life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.” Thus he brings his memoir of Shiloh to a second conclusion, one that does not quite fit with the rest of the essay.
Bierce did not die at Shiloh. He went on to fight more battles for three more years in the Union Army, several times narrowly escaping death. But he survived it all, and the naïve enthusiastic youth transformed into a jaded, cynical writer who would not brook “hypocrisy, cant, and all sham” or the pretentions, stupidity, misprisions, and corruption of the powerful. For the rest of his life, he would “endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.” That transformation occurred not in “the dim valleys of Wonderland” but on the real battlefields of the Civil War, most particularly at Shiloh.
Given the importance of Shiloh to Bierce’s life and career—and given Bierce’s extraordinary account of the battle—it is perplexing that his participation goes unmentioned in the Shiloh visitor center. I asked the park ranger manning the desk about it. He knew of Bierce and his role at Shiloh, but he couldn’t say why Bierce was absent from the display. “Some sort of oversight,” he shrugged.
In fact, Bierce is strangely absent—or only faintly present—in histories of Shiloh and the Civil War. Given the power and precision of his descriptions, his witnessing of major battles (Shiloh, Chickamauga), and his psychological insights into war, his work is particularly ripe for quotation. Yet several histories of Shiloh and Chickamauga do not even mention Bierce despite quoting numerous other participants. A few histories of Shiloh (such as Winston Groom’s) mention Bierce only in passing and include a few brief quotations. Bierce does not even make an appearance in Ken Burns’s long documentary film—magisterial and comprehensive though the film appears to be. Burns uses quotations liberally throughout the film, yet does not include the American writer with the deepest experience of the war. If you wonder how Stephen Crane—author of the most celebrated Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage—compares to Bierce—well, there’s no comparison. Crane was not even born until after the Civil War was over. Red Badge is a masterful work of the imagination, but it is not based on experience. Indeed, Crane probably took inspiration (and details) from Bierce; of Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Crane said “nothing better exists.” As for his reputation among readers, Bierce is best known not for his Civil War writings (with the possible exception of “Owl Creek,” which at one time was a staple of high school English) but for his amusing and sardonic “Devil’s Dictionary.”
Before leaving Shiloh, I walked around the national cemetery established on the battleground shortly after the war. Row after row of white stones mark the resting places of the dead—nearly 4,000 graves on twenty-two acres. Most stones are nameless, identification limited to regiments or states of origin. From what I could tell, the graves all (or mostly) belong to Union soldiers. Along the walkway some markers memorialize the dead in cliché-ridden verse, the kind that Bierce would have mocked: “Rest on, embalmed and sainted dead,/ Dear as the blood ye gave/ No impious footstep her shall tread/ the herbage of your grave.” I think Bierce would have scoffed at those last two lines in particular and then proceeded to step impiously on the herbage.
The statistics for the Shiloh battle are grim. Nearly 24,000 casualties during the two-day affair, more than the total number of American casualties for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the War with Mexico combined. Shiloh accounted for more than twice the number of total casualties in the Civil War up to that point. The ferocity of the battle is hard to imagine when you visit the site today. The place is tranquil and even drowsy in the summer heat. Unlike other Civil War battlegrounds, Shiloh is isolated and the area has almost no tourist infrastructure. The military park is beautifully preserved; little has changed in the intervening years. The woods are still dense, the fields are still lush, and on a summer’s day the air hums with insect noise and birdsong—a peaceful place to sit in the shade of a tree, dozing a bit on a warm, languid afternoon, with the Tennessee River flowing past and the gravestones gleaming in the sunlight.
If you read Bierce’s essay, however, you’ll know what the superficial calm conceals.
Along with two books of travel essays—Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)—Stephen Benz has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and other journals. Two of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003, 2015). Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, he now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico.