Chickamauga 150 Countdown: Ambrose Bierce

By Ron Fritze


Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?) was a journalist, satirist, and short story writer (mostly horror and thrillers) who is best known for his Devil’s Dictionary and the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” “Owl Creek” is set in northern Alabama and may have been based on the abandoned railroad bridge a mile or two south of Elkmont. Born in Ohio, Bierce had the good fortune, like me and Abraham Lincoln, to grow up in Indiana. In 1913 he is supposed to have disappeared into Mexico during the great Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. A fictional depiction of his last days forms the plot of the film Old Gringo (1989).

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Bierce immediately joined the 9th Indiana infantry at the age of nineteen. He saw plenty of action. In February of 1862 he was commissioned a first lieutenant on the staff of William Babcock Hazen. Bierce was at the battle of Shiloh and his memoir “What I Saw of Shiloh” is blood-curdling. Other battles followed. Hazen’s brigade saved the Union line at Stone’s River on 31 December 1862 by some stubborn defensive fighting. The brigade also fought at Chickamauga and Bierce left an account of his experience, the essay “A Little of Chickamauga.”

Bierce commented that he and his comrades-in-arms knew a fight was nigh at Chickamauga because, “Bragg always retired when we wanted to fight and fought when we most desired peace.” Union and Confederate forces faced each other arrayed in two parallel north-south lines along the Lafayette Road. As Bierce put it, “Chickamauga was a fight for possession of a road.” He describes how Bragg’s goal was to cut the Union army off from withdrawing to Chattanooga. Confederate forces kept trying to get ahead of the Union army’s withdrawal while Union forces kept shifting their positions northward.

On the second day of the battle Hazen sent Bierce to get more artillery ammunition. Finding an ordnance train, he obtained the supplies but the ordnance officer expressed doubts that Bierce could get back safely the way he had come. So they went to reconnoiter. Much to Bierce’s horror, the ground where Wood’s division had been was “swarming with Confederates; the very earth seem to be moving toward us!” The ammunition wagons were lost but Bierce escaped.

Instead of retreating to Chattanooga, Bierce made his way back to where the Union left wing was making a stand under George Thomas. He trenchantly observed, “A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about the heroism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of the right, nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas. There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army. We could hear Thomas’s guns going—those of us who had ears for them—and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound. I did so myself, and never felt that it ought to make me President.” He goes on to describe how Thomas’s forces narrowly escaped being enveloped and captured as they saved the rest of the army.Looking back on his experience of the battle he concluded in 1898 that, “God’s great angels stood invisible among the heroes in blue and the heroes in gray, sleeping their last sleep in the woods of Chickamauga.”

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