Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Disappearance of “Bitter Bierce”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 23, 2013
One hundred years ago this month, the American writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce disappeared somewhere in the middle of a revolution in Mexico. Bierce produced, quite probably, the best writing on the war (both fiction and non-fiction) by anyone who was an active participant on the battlefield. At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson has a fine profile of Bierce — the soldier, the writer, the discontent. On his soldiering:
Bierce1862Bierce returned to Indiana to answer Lincoln’s call for troops in April 1861. When his three-month stint was up, he signed on for two years more. Rising steadily in rank and cited often for valor, he remained in uniform for the rest of the Civil War. Little of the experience of war escaped him: shameless retreats, hopeless charges, courage, stupidity, confusion, terror, camaraderie, and endless slaughter. He was wounded at least twice before the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, when a bullet to the left temple lodged behind his ear, cracking his head open “like a walnut,” he wrote later, in a phrase that captures his peculiar blend of detachment and precision. Eventually he was forced to return to Indiana for convalescence. He left again as soon as he could.
By then the war was effectively over, though of course he could never quite get over it. His rise from enlisted man to officer gave Bierce a vertical view of how men made decisions of life and death under the most miserable conditions. What he saw year after year only confirmed his native cynicism. Stupidity made a deeper impression on him than physical courage, perhaps because he himself had so much more of the latter than the former. The blundering of generals fed his distrust of authority.

And on his disgust with the excesses of the Gilded Age:

The best-known adventure from his newspapering was also the least typical. He and [his employer, William Randolph] Hearst had nothing in common politically except a vague revulsion for the crony capitalism of the Gilded Age and a more pointed hatred for the cronies themselves. The fattest target among the Railrogues, as Bierce called them, was Collis P. Huntington, chairman of the Southern and Central Pacific railroads, and the richest man in California. A useful percentage of Huntington’s fortune fell into the pockets of congressmen and senators in Washington, and when Congress floated a bill relieving him and his railroad of a $75 million debt to the federal government (a loan on which Huntington’s riches had been built), it was assumed that it would pass easily.
Hearst’s newspapers exploded. The publisher sent Bierce to Washington to front a relentless campaign to kill Huntington’s bill. Bierce directed a team of reporters and wrote every day himself, sometimes twice a day, always in high spirits: “Mr. Huntington is not altogether bad,” went a throwaway line in a typical column. “He says ugly things of the enemy, but he has the tenderness to be careful that they are mostly lies.” 
Incredibly, after months of daily coverage, Bierce and Hearst succeeded—an early sign that the Gilded Age had run its course. The bill was withdrawn, though not before Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol among a scrum of reporters. 
“Name your price,” Huntington demanded, insisting that Bierce call off his campaign. “Every man has a price.”
“My price,” Bierce responded cinematically, “is $75 million, handed over to the Treasury of the United States.”

Go read the whole thing. Bierce, of course, is a favorite of mine. Bierce’s disdain for shoddy historians of the war is made evident here, his views on black soldiering here, on Grant’s drinking habits here, and the most frequent invocation of God in battle, here.

[h/t to Keith Muchowski at The Strawfoot blog.]

3 Responses

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  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on December 23, 2013 at 7:33 am

    I had no idea that Bierce disappeared during the Mexican Revolution. I’ve always admired his wit and knew of his war experiences. What a fascinating individual.

  2. Foxessa said, on December 23, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I was wondering if you’d seen this when it was published last week:

    “Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War” by Jim McWilliams. It provides an outline of Bierce’s entire period of service in the Union army, which included pretty much the entire time span of the Civil War, in some of the biggest battles, and prisoner experience too. His war record is so impressive, and second to none.

  3. Foxessa said, on December 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Oops, I forgot to include the link to the NY Times Disunion series in which the Bierce piece ran: it can be found here.

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