VISITING "A BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD"

IN THE NOVEMBER 22, 1903 edition of The New York American, Ambrose Bierce published a column entitled "A Bivouac of the Dead," a piece that is by turns part travelogue, part memoir, and part editorial. In it, Bierce describes his recent visit to the pastoral setting of one of his very earliest Civil War battlefields in West Virginia. He seems somewhat fascinated by how little has changed since 1861 at the small battlefield at Travelers' Repose, an old inn and post office on the east fork of the Greenbrier River. Bierce claims that "an hour's work by a brigade" would put the old Confederate breastworks "into serviceable shape for the next civil war." [1] If Bierce was impressed by how little change the "bivouac" site had undergone in the forty-two years since he had fought there, then he would probably be somewhat stunned by how relatively little has changed in the over one hundred that have elapsed since he wrote "A Bivouac of the Dead."

Bierce wrote two memoirs of his wartime service in West Virginia: "A Bivouac of the Dead," and "On a Mountain," first published in 1909 in Volume I of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, the last of his books that Bierce had a personal hand in publishing. These two deeply retrospective pieces serve as frames for much of The Collected Works. Bierce published "On a Mountain" as the lead piece in a section of Volume I entitled "Bits of Autobiography." "A Bivouac of the Dead" reappeared as the final piece in Volume XI. What is significant about the positioning of the West Virginia memoirs is their appearance in places of apparent privilege within the overall structure of the twelve-volume Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. For this final bit of autobiography in his penultimate book, it is as if he is coming full circle back to West Virginia where his combat service began.

It is not difficult to locate Travelers' Repose with the directions Bierce gives in the opening paragraphs of "A Bivouac of the Dead." A part of the "old Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike" is now U.S. Highway 250 and the "valley road" of the Greenbrier River is West Virginia Highway 28 in Pocahontas County (395). Travelers' Repose is now a very well-kept private dwelling occupied as recently as the late 1990s by the niece of the aged postmaster Bierce mentions in the memoir (figs. 1, 2).
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The ABP Journal
Fall 2005, Vol. 1 No. 1

David M. (Mike) Owens is Associate Professor of English at Valparaiso University in Indiana. He specializes in American literature from 1865
until 1945, and is the author of The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story, forthcoming from the University of Tennessee Press in the summer of 2006.

 
[journal table of contents]
 

Bierce would probably be
stunned by how relatively little
the site has changed in
the over one hundred years
that have elapsed since he
wrote "A Bivouac of the Dead."

     
           
 

Fig. 1. Front view of Travelers' Repose. All photographs are from the author's collection.

 

Fig. 2. Detail of the sign at the front door of Travelers' Repose.

 

The earthworks that Bierce found in relatively good condition, along with the homemade Confederate grave markers he makes much of, are probably the two aspects of the site of the Battle of Greenbrier that have changed the most. Although the general trace of the fortifications is still discernable, the works are largely filled in and could certainly not now be made ready in an hour by a brigade of Civil War-era infantrymen.

In "A Bivouac of the Dead," Bierce compares the rude Confederate graves in a farm field at Travelers' Repose to the well-tended, immaculate Federal cemetery at Grafton, a rail center about sixty miles away in north-central West Virginia. The contrast between the final resting places of the Union dead in "the beautiful national cemetery at Grafton" and the Confederate graves "among the trees and undergrowth" on a small farm is still as striking today as it was in 1903 (396). The Grafton cemetery is as Bierce describes it—indeed, with modern groundskeeping equipment, probably even more so (fig. 3). But, one can also find the Confederate graves on the hill that is part of the Travelers' Repose farm. They are still "shallow depressions" (397) in the earth and starkly contrast with those at Grafton (fig. 4).
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The contrast between the final resting places of the Union dead in "the beautiful national cemetery at Grafton" and the Confederate
graves "among the trees and undergrowth" on a small farm is
still as striking today as it was in 1903.
   

Fig. 3. Union gravestones at the Grafton Cemetery.

 

Fig. 4. Hilltop with Confederate Graves at Travelers' Repose.

 
           
 
Bierce closes the piece with characteristic barbs aimed at those politicians, writers, non-combatants, and shouting civilians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line who would preserve the old divisions.
 

In at least one respect Bierce's little essay backfired. When describing finding the Confederate graves near Travelers' Repose, Bierce writes of homemade grave markers "discoverable by removing the accumulated forest leaves. From some of them may be taken (and reverently replaced), small thin slabs of the split stone of the country, with rude and reticent inscriptions by comrades" (397). Unfortunately, according to the current landlord, the publicity afforded to Travelers' Repose by Bierce served to highlight the presence of these gravestones and irreverent war trophy hunters and vandals have stolen all but one, which was moved for safekeeping (fig. 5).

Bierce scholars, aficionados, and fans—along with Civil War historians, re-enactors, and buffs—caught in the personal excitement of discovering the largely untouched Travelers' Repose farm might easily overlook the real point of "A Bivouac of the Dead." Here Bierce highlights his personal reconciliation with his former "honest and courageous foemen" (398) and asks who, North or South, "would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves?" (397). This passage clearly reflects his respect for the fraternity of Civil War veterans. Bierce closes the piece with characteristic barbs aimed at those politicians, writers, non-combatants, and shouting "civilians" on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line who would preserve the old divisions. "A Bivouac of the Dead" therefore becomes a plea for reconciliation and unity, one small example of many such pleas still being written even four decades after the end of the republic's division into blue states and gray states.

WORKS CITED

1. Ambrose Bierce, "A Bivouac of the Dead," The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 12 vols. (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1912), Volume XI, Antepenultimata, 395. All citations hereafter cited parenthetically within the text.

 

Copyright © 2005 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.
   

Fig. 5. Homemade Confederate gravestone reading "J.T. Finny."