Ambrose Bierce Chickamauga Essay Topics
Perhaps the most rewarding way to approach Ambrose Bierce’s writing is to note that it was in many respects the product of two intertwined biographical factors, inseparable for purposes of analysis. The first of these reflects Bierce’s thorny and irascible personality which made him, on the one hand, quarrel with practically everyone he ever knew, and on the other, follow romantic and often impossible causes, the last of which led to his death. The second reflects his lifelong employment as a journalist, more specifically as a writer of short columns, generally aphoristic in nature, for various newspapers. The interaction of these two often contradictory strands explains, as well as any single factor can, both the strengths and weaknesses of Bierce’s writing.
Philosophically, Bierce’s work is almost completely uncompromising in its iconoclasm; his view of existence is despairing, revealing only the bitterness of life within a totally fallen world promising neither present happiness nor future redemption. This “bitterness,” which almost every critic has remarked in Bierce’s work, is not completely fortunate. It can, and in Bierce’s case often does, lead to that kind of adolescent cynicism which delights in discovering clouds in every silver lining. Too many of the insights which once seemed sterling are now fairly obviously only tinfoil. The definition of “economy” in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) is a case in point: “Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford”—an arresting idea, certainly, succinctly expressed, but by no means a profound one. In fact, it is precisely the kind of item one would expect to find on the editorial page of the morning newspaper and perhaps remember long enough to repeat at the office. Indeed, this particular aphorism did first appear in a newspaper, with most of the other contents of The Devil’s Dictionary and, predictably, did not really survive the transformation into book form. The Devil’s Dictionary, like much of Bierce’s work, is now much more generally read about than actually read.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
At its best, however, Bierce’s cynicism is transformed into often-passionate statements of the tragedy of existence in a world in which present joys are unreal and future hopes vain, as a glance at one of Bierce’s best-known stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” will show.
This story, for all its apparent simplicity, has attracted uniform critical admiration and has been complimented not only by being extensively anthologized but also by having been made into an award-winning film. Purporting to be an incident from the American Civil War, the story opens with the execution by hanging of a Confederate civilian. His name, Peyton Farquhar, is revealed later, as is his apparent crime: He was apprehended by Union soldiers in an attempt to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek, from which he is about to be hanged. The hangman’s rope breaks, however, precipitating Farquhar into the current below. He frees his bound hands and, by swimming, manages to escape both the fire of the Union riflemen who have been assembled to witness the execution and, more miraculously, the fire of their cannon. Reaching shore, Farquhar sets out for home along an unfamiliar road, and after a night-long journey in a semidelirious condition arrives at his plantation some thirty miles away. His wife greets him at the entrance, but as he reaches to clasp her in his arms he suffers what is apparently a stroke and loses his senses. He has not, it develops, suffered a stroke; the last sentence of the story tells us what has really happened. The rope had not broken at all: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” sounds, in summary, contrived. What is it, after all, more than a tired descant on the familiar theme of the dying man whose life passes before his eyes, coupled with the familiar trick of the unexpected happy ending put in negative terms? The answer, from the perspective of one who has read the story rather than its summary, is that it is much more. For one thing, the careful reader is not left totally unprepared for the final revelation; he has been alerted to the fact that something may be amiss by Bierce’s remark that Farquhar had, before his apparent death, fixed “his last thoughts upon his wife and children.” Moreover, Farquhar’s journey home is described in terms which become constantly less real. The unreality of the details of his homeward journey not only expresses Farquhar’s growing estrangement from the world of reality, his “doom,” perhaps, or—for those more at home in modern Freudianism—his “death wish,” but also subtly indicates that what seems to be happening in the story may not in fact actually be happening, at least in the real world. In any event, Bierce’s point is clear and reinforced within the story by a consistent movement in grammatical usage from the actual, “he was still sinking” (speaking of Farquhar’s fall from the bridge into the water), toward the hypothetical, such as...
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Influenced by his time as a first lieutenant in the US Civil War during the Battle of Chickamauga, Ambrose Bierce published “Chickamauga,” along with twenty-four other short stories, in 1889. “Chickamauga,” one of the more well-known stories, is noted for its skilled structure and consistent tension between fantasies of war and the reality of war. This group of war stories is often considered one of the greatest anti-war works in American literature. Much of Bierce’s work exudes a surreal quality. His interest in horror writing has led many critics to rank him alongside Edgar Allan Poe. Bierce (1842–1914) was an esteemed journalist, poet, short story writer, and critic.
Told in omniscient third-person, “Chickamauga” focuses on the themes of childhood trauma, the inexpressible horrors of war, and the destruction of innocence. The story is named after the battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863), which was fought in northwestern Georgia. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the battle had the highest number of casualties from any battle during the Civil War. The heaviest fighting occurred near Chickamauga Creek, a four-mile creek that leads to the Tennessee River. Along with giving the battle its name, Chickamauga Creek figures largely in Bierce’s story as a natural site that is poisoned with human blood.
Inspired by stories of military victories and heroic outcomes, a six-year-old, unnamed southern boy, ventures into the woods to fight whatever may come his way. He is the son of a relatively poor plantation owner. His father is a former soldier and loves to read history books. He also keeps pictures and engraved relics from his glory days that the boy admires.
The boy imagines battling dozens of enemy soldiers, killing them with his toy, wooden sword. He is so enraptured by his dream of victory that he makes the tactical mistake of going deeper and deeper into the woods. He believes that his ancestors, thousands of years before him, underwent similar training in their quest for victory over their enemies. The boy “wins” his battle.
Lost in his dream, the boy eventually becomes lost in reality. Overcome with fright, for the next hour, he searches through the woods for his house. Scared, he finally lies down to sleep for a few hours; he hopes this will restore his sense of direction. He does not know that his mother has called a search party, and she is crazy with worry over him. Black and white men from the plantation are searching through the fields to find him.
When he wakes, he sees hundreds of soldiers approaching him. On closer inspection, he sees that they are severely wounded, and some of them are already dead. They are “unfamiliarly clad” and the inference is that these troops are union soldiers; The Battle of Chickamauga was a loss for the Union.
The boy looks at them not in horror, but entertainment. Some of the soldiers are crawling on their hands and knees because they are so badly wounded, and the boy is reminded of the circus. He also thinks of his father’s slaves who would pretend to be horses so that he could ride around on them. The boy jumps onto the back of one of the soldiers and is immediately thrown off. He locks eyes with the soldier to see that the man has no lower jaw. The boy finally becomes scared, and runs to hide from the other soldiers near a tree. At this point, it becomes unclear whether the boy is imagining the war or living it.
The boy and his soldiers are suddenly fired upon. The boy sees that creek has turned red with blood. There are men who have been thrown in there or who have drowned there. He realizes that a battle took place while he was sleeping. The narrator says that someone with more experience would have noted that a horde of footprints went south then another set of footprints went north. This is a reference to the Union initial advancement, then withdrawal.
When the boy sees smoke rising from the woods, he is excited at the prospect of a fire. With his cap waving around, he signals to the wounded soldiers to follow him; they will serve as his “forces.” The boy runs out of the woods and toward the fire. He even tries bringing more fuel to the fire to increase the drama, but the canister is far too heavy for him to carry.
Out of the woods, the boy sees that it is his own home that is burning. He runs toward the house to find his mother lying dead in the grass. Her clothes are a mess, and her hair is knotted with streaks of drying blood. A large part of her forehead is torn away and the boy sees some of her brain. He screams. But ends up making only nonsensical sounds.
The narrator says that the child is a deaf-mute. This explains why he did not hear anything during the battle that occurred around his father’s plantation. The story concludes with the boy, speechless, observing the destruction of war.