Ambrose Bierce | (2023)

Born June 24, 1842
Meigs City, Ohio
Died 1913 or 1914
Place of death unknown

Civil War veteran who authored
several short stories about the Civil War

Ambrose Bierce was one of America's best-known writers of the nineteenth century. As a Union soldier during the Civil War, Bierce witnessed the violence and horror of war firsthand. After the war ended, he drew upon those wartime experiences to write a number of popular short stories and essays. In addition, he ranked as one of the country's most famous newspaper columnists during the 1880s and 1890s.

Growing up in poverty

Ambrose Bierce was born in southeastern Ohio in 1842, but he spent most of his childhood in Indiana. He was the tenth of thirteen children born to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Bierce, poor farmers who struggled to provide food and clothing for their children. Ambrose spent a good deal of his childhood tackling farm chores under the watchful supervision of his disciplinarian mother. As a result, he received very little formal schooling. But his father loved to read books, and young Ambrose borrowed volumes from his father's modest library whenever he could. Literature thus became hisonly source of relief from a childhood that he later recalled with great bitterness.

When Bierce was fifteen years old, he left the family farm to take a job as a printer's assistant on an abolitionist (antislavery) newspaper called the Northern Indianan. Two years later, his parents scraped together enough money to enroll him in the Kentucky Military Institute. A year later he moved to Elkhart, Indiana, where he worked as a saloon bartender.

(Video) Ambrose Bierce - The Sardonic Author Affected by His War Years in West Virginia

Bierce's wartime experiences

In early 1861, America was torn in two by the Civil War. The nation's Northern and Southern states had long been angry with one another over a wide range of issues. The issue that most divided the two sides was slavery. Many Northerners felt slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish it. But the culture and economy of the South were closely linked to slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to end the practice. The two sides finally went to war when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form their own country.

When the Civil War started, Bierce immediately volunteered to join the Union Army. His enlistment was due in part to the antislavery beliefs that his family had instilled in him. But Bierce also joined the army because he wanted to escape from the rural environment in which he had always lived. He became a private in Company C of the Ninth Indiana Volunteers in April 1861 and remained in the Union Army until January 1865, when he resigned as a lieutenant. He spent much of this period under the command of General W. B. Hazen (1830–1887), a tough officer for whom Bierce developed a great admiration.

During his service in the Civil War, Bierce experienced combat many times. In fact, he took part in a number of the war's worst battles, including Shiloh in Tennessee (April 1862) and Chickamauga in northwestern Georgia (September 1863). He fought well in these and other clashes, but fellow soldiers later said that his bravery sometimes bordered on recklessness. In June 1864, Bierce received a serious bullet wound to the head during a fierce battle at Kennesaw Mountain,Georgia. He recovered from the injury and returned to active military duty, only to be captured by Confederate soldiers. Bierce managed to escape from his captors, though. He slipped into the woods and slogged back to the Union Army, keeping one step ahead of his pursuers.

Exploring and writing

In January 1865, Bierce's application for a discharge from the Union military was approved. A few months later, Northern forces secured total victory over the South, formally ending the war. In the months immediately after the war ended, Bierce worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Alabama. He helped the U.S. government confiscate (take possession of) property that previously had been owned by Confederate leaders.

Bierce's duties in Alabama made him very unpopular with local communities, and he began looking for another job. In the summer of 1866, he accepted an offer from W. B. Hazen, his old army commander, to accompany him on a small army expedition into the western territories. The four-man expedition traveled through remote wilderness all the way to San Francisco, California. Upon reaching the city, however, Bierce resigned from the military when he learned that his request to be commissioned as a captain had been denied (several years later, he received the brevet [honorary] rank of major in recognition of his Civil War service).

(Video) In einer Sommernacht - Hörbuch - Ambrose Bierce

Within months of arriving in San Francisco, Bierce began writing for area newspapers. He soon became the editor for the city's News-Letter. But he became even better known for his essays and editorials on the issues and individuals shaping California at that time. His sarcastic writing style and willingness to criticize powerful politicians and businessmen soon made him the state's most controversial writer. In fact, people often referred to him as "the best-hated and best-loved man in California."

Bierce's Civil War stories

Bierce spent almost thirty years as a columnist for various San Francisco newspapers, including the Argonaut, theWasp, and the San Francisco Examiner. In 1871, he married Mollie Day, with whom he had two sons. A year later he moved to London, England, where his savagely witty newspaper columns made him a celebrity. After four years in Europe, though, he returned to San Francisco, where he resumed his journalism career.

In the 1890s, Bierce expanded his literary output by publishing a number of novels and short stories. The best known of these works was Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1891. This collection of short stories about the Civil War made Bierce even more famous. It included several powerful tales about the horrors of war. The best known of these stories is probably "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which tells about a soldier who is about to be executed by enemy troops. But other selections like "Chickamauga," "One of the Missing," and "A Son of the Gods" also received significant critical and popular praise. Today, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and other Bierce stories continue to be included in many American short story anthologies [collections of stories, poems, or other writings].

Bierce freely admitted that his Civil War experiences had a big impact on his views of the world around him. The war's bloody violence and shocking casualties made him naturally suspicious of political and military leaders, and the sights and sounds of combat haunted his thoughts for the rest of his life. Years after the war had concluded, Bierce stated that "To this day I cannot look over a landscape without noting the advantages of the ground for attack or defense. I never hear a rifle-shot without [experiencing] a thrill in my veins. I never catch the peculiar odor of gunpowder without having visions of the dead and dying."

Leaves California

In the late 1890s, Bierce's reputation as one of the West's leading journalists and writers began to fade. He watched with anger and envy as other writers became more famous, even though many of them had less talent. He became particularly envious of Stephen Crane, whose 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage received a level ofpopular and critical acclaim that overshadowed Bierce's own war stories.

(Video) "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" Ambrose Bierce audio book ― Chilling Tales for Dark Nights

In 1900, Bierce left his longtime home outside San Francisco and became a political reporter in Washington, D.C. In 1906, he published a collection of sarcastic and satirical (using bitter humor to comment on human failings) definitions called The Devil's Dictionary. A multivolume collection of his essays, poetry, and other writings appeared over the following few years, too. Despite his best efforts, however, henever managed to regain the fame and influence he enjoyed in the 1880s and early 1890s.

By 1912, Bierce had grown weary of newspaper writing and life in Washington, D.C. He decided to leave his columnist position behind and travel to Mexico, where government and rebel forces were engaged in a bitter struggle for control of the country. "This fighting in Mexico interests me," Bierce told one friend. "If you should hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs."

Bierce left for Mexico in 1913. In late December of that year he sent a letter to his secretary indicating that he was traveling with an army led by Pancho Villa (1878–1923), a Mexican rebel leader fighting to topple the country's authoritarian government (a government that demands absolute obedience from its citizens). He was never heard from again. Most historians believe that he died within months of writing that last letter, but no one really knows where or when Bierce died.

Where to Learn More

Ambrose Bierce (1814–1914?). [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

(Video) The Secret of Macarger's Gulch by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce, Ambrose. Ambrose Bierce's Civil War. Edited by William McCann. Chicago: Regnery, 1956. Reprint, New York: Wings Books, 1996.

Morris, Roy. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wiggins, Robert A. Ambrose Bierce. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage

The most famous Civil War book of all time is The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (1871–1900). Crane, however, never experienced the Civil War firsthand. In fact, he was born six years after the conflict ended. Nonetheless, his realistic novel about a young soldier who over-comes his fears to fight bravely continues to be regarded as the best work of American literature about the Civil War. It also influenced the style of American writing for years to follow.

A native of Newark, New Jersey, Crane knew that he wanted to be a writer from a young age. His first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) was not popular. But The Red Badge of Courage made Crane famous all across America, as readers rushed to buy his amazingly realistic Civil War tale. Eager to make use of Crane's notoriety (fame) and writing ability, several newspaper publishers subsequently hired him as a war correspondent. Crane spent the next few years reporting on wars inCuba and Greece, even as he continued to write short stories and other fiction. In 1900, however, his life was cut short by tuberculosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and bones of its victims. A complete collection of Crane's prose and verse writings was published in 1925.

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