Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce

Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce

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by Ambrose Bierce

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Ambrose Bierce didn't just write about the Civil War, he lived through it--on the battlefields and over the graves--and in doing so gave birth to a literary chronicle of men at war previously unseen in the American literary canon. The fact that some of these stories verged on the supernatural, others on factual reporting, and others on the fine line between humor

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Ambrose Bierce didn't just write about the Civil War, he lived through it--on the battlefields and over the graves--and in doing so gave birth to a literary chronicle of men at war previously unseen in the American literary canon. The fact that some of these stories verged on the supernatural, others on factual reporting, and others on the fine line between humor and morbidity in no way detracts from their resonance to both the history of the war between the states and the imaginative historical literature in the tradition of Washington Irving.

Shadows of Blue&Gray collects all of Bierce's Civil War stories (twenty-seven in total) with six of his memoir pieces on his own experiences on the front lines.

This collection includes such classics as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "A Horseman in the Sky," "Parker Addison, Philosopher", and "A Bivouac of the Dead"; as well as lesser known stories and sketches such as "The Mockingbird" and "Two Military Executions" and memoirs of his experiences at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Franklin.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Thomsen is also the editor of Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, which collects 27 stories along with some memoirs and reportage by the journalist, writer, literary critic and former Union Army soldier. Famous for their unflinching look at the brutality of the war, the pieces include "Two Military Executions," about the execution and revenge of a young soldier sentenced to death for striking an officer; "Bivouac of the Dead," the classic plea for the recognition of unknown Confederate soldiers in a West Virginia hillside; and "Four Days in Dixie," Bierce's account of his own imprisonment and escape from Confederates in Alabama. ( Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In calling Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman our poets of the American Civil War, we unfairly neglect the Ohio-born Bierce, who, unlike the first two authors, actually fought for the Union army, at Chicamauga, Missionary Ridge, Bloody Shiloh, and elsewhere. If the average reader is at all aware of Bierce, it is probably from a few choice definitions from The Devil's Dictionary, the phantasmagoric story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and the author's mysterious disappearance in Mexico in 1913. However, Bierce, whose nastiness toward contemporary writers and critics came home to roost when his own reputation had to be decided, deserves to be better known. His war experience gives the 27 brief war stories in Shadows of Blue & Gray the ring of authenticity. In a sometimes turgid writing style (slaves are once described, for example, as "sons and daughters of Ham"), Bierce depicts a war that is at once horrifying, pointless, and supernatural the stuff of The Twilight Zone. The nine pieces in "Memoirs and Chronicles" and "Reminiscence and Memoria," with which editor Thomsen fittingly rounds out this volume, are as artful as the fictions. Recommended for all libraries. Despite the strengths of Thomsen's collection, Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period is a superior work, for it includes not only all of Bierce's short fiction and nonfiction about the Civil War but a detailed 25-page introduction that is invaluable in placing Bierce in historical context and thus helping to explain his stance as a realist about the war and a satirist about post-Civil War American self-congratulation and heroic myth-making. Duncan (American history, Univ. of Copenhagen) and Klooster (English, Hope Coll.) wisely organize Bierce's myriad stories, memoirs, letters, newspaper columns, and even war poems around the war's five-year duration. Instead of a curmudgeon who happened to write war stories, this volume portrays a man who joined the Union army at age 20, fought in the bloodiest battles until a Confederate bullet in the head took him out of combat, and revisited the battlefields and retrieved the experience in memory until his disappearance. Highly recommended for all libraries. Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tidy and well-ordered volume that collects nearly 40 Civil War short stories, memoirs, and reminiscences by the celebrated 19th-century writer. Known today primarily as a satirist (on the strength of his Devil's Dictionary), Bierce (1842-1914?) wrote some of the earliest and best realist fiction in the US. The product of a stern and God-fearing Ohio home, he enlisted with the Indiana Volunteers in 1861 and saw action in some of the fiercest battles of the war. Afterwards he settled into life as a journalist and editor and made a considerable success at both. (He was also a well-regarded poet whose work is much neglected today.) Although some of the pieces here (especially "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge") have retained their popularity down the years, most are long-forgotten resurrections, and some (like "A Sole Survivor," about the fates of several of Bierce's army comrades, all of whom died) were literally discovered in the corner of a library basement, uncatalogued and unknown. The war was perfect material for Bierce, who describes scenes of action with a reporter's sharp sense of circumstance and an O. Henry-like weakness for the climactic twist: "A Horseman in the Sky," for example, describes in great detail a sniper's shooting of an enemy officer, revealing only at the end that the target was the rifleman's father. Ironically, "Owl Creek," the best-known of all Bierce's works, stands out here as the least typical: The elaborate fantasy of a condemned man who dreams his escape in the final seconds before his hanging, the story has little of the stark, unvarnished bluntness ("The object at his feet resolved itself into a dead horse, and at a right angle across the animal's necklay a dead man, face upward in the moonlight") that makes so many of the stories read like dispatches from the field. A rich collection of fine writing saved from obscurity: Commendable rescue work.

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Shadows of Blue & Gray

The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce

By Ambrose Bierce, Brian M. Thomsen

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2002 Brian M. Thomsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5680-2



* One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. It was happy in a new sense of freedom from control, happy in the opportunity of exploration and adventure; for this child's spirit, in bodies of its ancestors, had for thousands of years been trained to memorable feats of discovery and conquest — victories in battles whose critical moments were centuries, whose victors' camps were cities of hewn stone. From the cradle of its race it had conquered its way through two continents and passing a great sea had penetrated a third, there to be born to war and dominion as a heritage.

The child was a boy aged about six years, the son of a poor planter. In his younger manhood the father had been a soldier, had fought against naked savages and followed the flag of his country into the capital of a civilized race to the far South. In the peaceful life of a planter the warrior-fire survived; once kindled, it is never extinguished. The man loved military books and pictures and the boy had understood enough to make himself a wooden sword, though even the eye of his father would hardly have known it for what it was. This weapon he now bore bravely, as became the son of an heroic race, and pausing now and again in the sunny space of the forest assumed, with some exaggeration, the postures of aggression and defense that he had been taught by the engraver's art. Made reckless by the ease with which he overcame invisible foes attempting to stay his advance, he committed the common enough military error of pushing the pursuit to a dangerous extreme, until he found himself upon the margin of a wide but shallow brook, whose rapid waters barred his direct advance against the flying foe that had crossed with illogical ease. But the intrepid victor was not to be baffled; the spirit of the race which had passed the great sea burned unconquerable in that small breast and would not be denied. Finding a place where some bowlders in the bed of the stream lay but a step or a leap apart, he made his way across and fell again upon the rear-guard of his imaginary foe, putting all to the sword.

Now that the battle had been won, prudence required that he withdraw to his base of operations. Alas; like many a mightier conqueror, and like one, the mightiest, he could not

curb the lust for war,

Nor learn that tempted Fate will leave the loftiest star.

Advancing from the bank of the creek he suddenly found himself confronted with a new and more formidable enemy: in the path that he was following, sat, bolt upright, with ears erect and paws suspended before it, a rabbit! With a startled cry the child turned and fled, he knew not in what direction, calling with inarticulate cries for his mother, weeping, stumbling, his tender skin cruelly torn by brambles, his little heart beating hard with terror — breathless, blind with tears — lost in the forest! Then, for more than an hour, he wandered with erring feet through the tangled undergrowth, till at last, overcome by fatigue, he lay down in a narrow space between two rocks, within a few yards of the stream and still grasping his toy sword, no longer a weapon but a companion, sobbed himself to sleep. The wood birds sang merrily above his head; the squirrels, whisking their bravery of tail, ran barking from tree to tree, unconscious of the pity of it, and somewhere far away was a strange, muffled thunder, as if the partridges were drumming in celebration of nature's victory over the son of her immemorial enslavers. And back at the little plantation, where white men and black were hastily searching the fields and hedges in alarm, a mother's heart was breaking for her missing child.

Hours passed, and then the little sleeper rose to his feet. Thechill of the evening was in his limbs, the fear of the gloom in his heart. But he had rested, and he no longer wept. With some blind instinct which impelled to action he struggled through the undergrowth about him and came to a more open ground — on his right the brook, to the left a gentle acclivity studded with infrequent trees; over all, the gathering gloom of twilight. A thin, ghostly mist rose along the water. It frightened and repelled him; instead of recrossing, in the direction whence he had come, he turned his back upon it, and went forward toward the dark inclosing wood. Suddenly he saw before him a strange moving object which he took to be some large animal — a dog, a pig — he could not name it; perhaps it was a bear. He had seen pictures of bears, but knew of nothing to their discredit and had vaguely wished to meet one. But something in form or movement of this object — something in the awkwardness of its approach — told him that it was not a bear, and curiosity was stayed by fear. He stood still and as it came slowly on gained courage every moment, for he saw that at least it had not the long menacing ears of the rabbit. Possibly his impressionable mind was half conscious of something familiar in its shambling, awkward gait. Before it had approached near enough to resolve his doubts he saw that it was followed by another and another. To right and to left were many more; the whole open space about him were alive with them — all moving toward the brook.

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

Not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an elder observer; he saw little but that these were men, yet crept like babes. Being men, they were not terrible, though unfamiliarly clad. He moved among them freely, going from one to another and peering into their faces with childish curiosity. All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and gouted with red. Something in this — something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements — reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them. But on and ever on they crept, these maimed and bleeding men, as heedless as he of the dramatic contrast between his laughter and their own ghastly gravity. To him it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father's negroes creep upon their hands and knees for his amusement — had ridden them so, "making believe" they were his horses. He now approached one of these crawling figures from behind and with an agile movement mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw — from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry. The man rose to his knees, the child to his feet. The man shook his fist at the child; the child, terrified at last, ran to a tree near by, got upon the farther side of it and took a more serious view of the situation. And so the clumsy multitude dragged itself slowly and painfully along in hideous pantomime — moved forward down the slope like a swarm of great black beetles, with never a sound of going — in silence profound, absolute.

Instead of darkening, the haunted landscape began to brighten. Through the belt of trees beyond the brook shone a strange red light, the trunks and branches of the trees making a black lacework against it. It struck the creeping figures and gave them monstrous shadows, which caricatured their movements on the lit grass. It fell upon their faces, touching their whiteness with a ruddy tinge, accentuating the stains with which so many of them were freaked and maculated. It sparkled on buttons and bits of metal in their clothing. Instinctively the child turned toward the growing splendor and moved down the slope with his horrible companions; in a few moments had passed the foremost of the throng — not much of a feat, considering his advantages. He placed himself in the lead, his wooden sword still in hand, and solemnly directed the march, conforming his pace to theirs and occasionally turning as if to see that his forces did not straggle. Surely such a leader never before had such a following.

Scattered about upon the ground now slowly narrowing by the encroachment of this awful march to water, were certain articles to which, in the leader's mind, were coupled no significant associations: an occasional blanket tightly rolled lengthwise, doubled and the ends bound together with a string; a heavy knapsack here, and there a broken rifle — such things, in short, as are found in the rear of retreating troops, the "spoor" of men flying from their hunters. Everywhere near the creek, which here had a margin of lowland, the earth was trodden into mud by the feet of men and horses. An observer of better experience in the use of his eyes would have noticed that these footprints pointed in both directions; the ground had been twice passed over — In advance and in retreat. A few hours before, these desperate, stricken men, with their more fortunate and now distant comrades, had penetrated the forest in thousands. Their successive battalions, breaking into swarms and reforming in lines, had passed the child on every side — had almost trodden on him as he slept. The rustle and murmur of their march had not awakened him. Almost within a stone's throw of where he lay they had fought a battle; but all unheard by him were the roar of the musketry, the shock of the cannon, "the thunder of the captains and the shouting." He had slept through it all, grasping his little wooden sword with perhaps a tighter clutch in unconscious sympathy with his martial environment, but as heedless of the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory.

The fire beyond the belt of woods on the farther side of the creek, reflected to earth from the canopy of its own smoke, was now suffusing the whole landscape. It transformed the sinuous line of mist to the vapor of gold. The water gleamed with dashes of red, and red, too, were many of the stones protruding above the surface. But that was blood; the less desperately wounded had stained them in crossing. On them, too, the child now crossed with eager steps; he was going to the fire. As he stood upon the farther bank he turned about to look at the companions of his march. The advance was arriving at the creek. The stronger had already drawn themselves to the brink and plunged their faces into the flood. Three or four who lay without motion appeared to have no heads. At this the child's eyes expanded with wonder; even his hospitable understanding could not accept a phenomenon implying such vitality as that. After slaking their thirst these men had not had the strength to back away from the water, nor to keep their heads above it. They were drowned. In rear of these, the open spaces of the forest showed the leader as many formless figures of his grim command as at first; but not nearly so many were in motion. He waved his cap for their encouragement and smilingly pointed with his weapon in the direction of the guiding light — a pillar of fire to this strange exodus.

Confident of the fidelity of his forces, he now entered the belt of woods, passed through it easily in the red illumination, climbed a fence, ran across a field, turning now and again to coquet with his responsive shadow, and so approached the blazing ruin of a dwelling. Desolation everywhere! In all the wide glare not a living thing was visible. He cared nothing for that; the spectacle pleased, and he danced with glee in imitation of the wavering flames. He ran about, collecting fuel, but every object that he found was too heavy for him to cast in from the distance to which the heat limited his approach. In despair he flung in his sword — a surrender to the superior forces of nature. His military career was at an end.

Shifting his position, his eyes fell upon some out-buildings which had an oddly familiar appearance, as if he had dreamed of them. He stood considering them with wonder, when suddenly the entire plantation, with its inclosing forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot. His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed. He recognized the blazing building as his own home!

For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation, then ran with stumbling feet, making a half-circuit of the ruin. There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman — the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles — the work of a shell.

The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries — something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey — a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute.

Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.




One sunny afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861 a soldier lay in a clump of laurel by the side of a road in western Virginia. He lay at full length upon his stomach, his feet resting upon the toes, his head upon the left forearm. His extended right hand loosely grasped his rifle. But for the somewhat methodical disposition of his limbs and a slight rhythmic movement of the cartridge-box at the back of his belt he might have been thought to be dead. He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, death being the just and legal penalty of his crime.

The clump of laurel in which the criminal lay was in the angle of a road which after ascending southward a steep acclivity to that point turned sharply to the west, running along the summit for perhaps one hundred yards. There it turned southward again and went zigzagging downward through the forest. At the salient of that second angle was a large flat rock, jutting out northward, overlooking the deep valley from which the road ascended. The rock capped a high cliff; a stone dropped from its outer edge would have fallen sheer downward one thousand feet to the tops of the pines. The angle where the soldier lay was on another spur of the same cliff. Had he been awake he would have commanded a view, not only of the short arm of the road and the jutting rock, but of the entire profile of the cliff below it. It might well have made him giddy to look.

The country was wooded everywhere except at the bottom of the valley to the northward, where there was a small natural meadow, through which flowed a stream scarcely visible from the valley's rim. This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary door-yard, but was really several acres in extent. Its green was more vivid than that of the inclosing forest. Away beyond it rose a line of giant cliffs similar to those upon which we are supposed to stand in our survey of the savage scene, and through which the road had somehow made its climb to the summit. The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such that from this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one could but have wondered how the road which found a way out of it had found a way into it, and whence came and whither went the waters of the stream that parted the meadow more than a thousand feet below.


Excerpted from Shadows of Blue & Gray by Ambrose Bierce, Brian M. Thomsen. Copyright © 2002 Brian M. Thomsen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Shadows of Blue and Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
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