The ABP Journal
Fall 2007, Vol. 3 No. 1

ISSN 1939-4578

Brooks D. Simpson is Professor of History at Arizona State University. An expert on U.S. Grant and Reconstruction politics, he is the author or editor of numerous books. His works include Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991), The Reconstruction Presidents (1998), and Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000). He is also a co-author of the award-winning Civil War history blog, Civil Warriors.

[journal table of contents]


     
 

 

 

 

 

“It has seldom been my good fortune to meet a man who took part in a military engagement whose command did not signally distinguish itself in the action. . . . This disagreeable phenomenon of self-magnification makes nearly all personal narrative of military service practically valueless.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

marcus woodcock
General James H. Wilson during the Civil War

   

 

 

 

 

 

Bierce was
vulnerable to the very shortcomings he saw in others, something worth remembering when it comes to assessing his work as an unvarnished, realistic portrayal of what war was.

 
 

battles, leaders, stories

brooks d. simpson

grant in 1885HISTORIANS HAVE SO OFTEN quoted Walt Whitman’s remark about how the real war would “never get into the books” that simply to repeat it makes us wonder why one should try to understand how authors sought to recapture the experience of war in narrative form.  Ambrose Bierce would have agreed with the sentiment behind Whitman’s observation: he knew that inherent in crafting a narrative of battle was a literary construct, a fabrication informed by foreknowledge of what would happen and insights informed by ever-present hindsight.  Even participation in a battle gave one no more that a single eyewitness perspective: one that could not comprehend everything that happened.  “It may be said, generally, that a soldier’s knowledge of what is going on about him is conterminous with his official relation to it and his personal connection with it,” he once commented in recalling the battle of Pickett’s Mill; “what is going on in front of him he does not know at all until he learns it afterward.” [1]  Much the same can be said of the generals who recounted their experiences: after the battle they fashioned narratives in retrospect, adding to those stories as they learned what their fellow commanders on both sides reported of the action.  That Bierce had some idea of what commanders actually intended, due to his position as a staff officer, reinforced his belief that battle accounts were a badly flawed reflection of reality.

One need only attempt to construct a narrative of a battle action to see what Bierce already knew.  After-action reports, letters from the field, newspaper reports – accounts usually framed in the immediate aftermath of battles – were in themselves at best fragmentary, unreliable when it came to reporting events outside the direct observation of the writer, and open to question even when the author claimed to have witnessed what he reported.  Distortions and rationalizations multiplied in the weeks after the battle, with a few participants demonstrating an unusual inventiveness in telling their stories.  That process became even more evident in the decades after the war, when participants continued to clash with each other over who did what, what happened, and how it happened.  They did so in autobiographies, interviews, articles, after-dinner speeches, and in the pages of several journals, notably Century Magazine, which between 1884 and 1887 published numerous pieces by various participants in what became known as the “Century War Series.”  Many of the pieces were later published in the four-volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

It was to be expected that such accounts would reflect the interests as well as the perspectives of the various arguments, and more than one account would come under critical scrutiny.  None of this came as any surprise to Bierce.  “It has seldom been my good fortune to meet a man who took part in a military engagement whose command did not signally distinguish itself in the action,” he observed, adding: “This disagreeable phenomenon of self-magnification makes nearly all personal narrative of military service practically valueless.”
[2]  Yet many of the histories of the war’s major battles and campaigns would be based upon comparing these admittedly flawed narratives.  Long before deconstruction became a critical component of literary analysis, it was inherent in how writers weighed these various accounts as they framed their own tales.  One might observe that the fascination many of today’s scholars have with what are known as “memory studies” are in fact attempts to ground such deconstruction in a social and political context.

Bierce seemed especially offended by the effusion of celebratory commemoration that marked the passing of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885.  “There are signs that the brainless claque of laudatores hominum who have been proning their unwholesome carcasses to slaver the dead feet of grand old Grant, and doing their little best to affect all healthy souls with a wasting indisposition of his name and fame, have had their day.” [3]  In contrast, he praised James H. Wilson’s contribution to an ever growing number of reflections on Grant, for it was “conceived in a spirit of honest and sane admiration.”  Grant might have been a great strategist, Wilson argued, but he was a poor tactician, and he “cherished personal resentments,” anxiously waiting for the moment when he might enact suitable retaliation.  It was just the sort of realistic appraisal Bierce hungered to see.   “What a miserable business this is, this deification of the eminent,” he concluded. [4]

Unfortunately, Bierce failed to cast the same critical eye at works he embraced as with those he dismissed.  Wilson offered an ideal example.  Although Wilson had been a member of Grant’s staff and a favorite of the commanding general, after the war he became disenchanted with his chief.  By the 1880s he had embarked upon a relentless effort to assail Grant in print, to the point that Hamlin Garland (who interviewed him in the 1890s) found him unreasonable and obsessed.  Rarely deterred by information that contradicted his prejudices, Wilson nevertheless learned that he had to modify some of his sentiments to secure publication.  Thus Wilson’s public pronouncements about Grant concealed some of his bitter private dislike that he shared in correspondence.  “One can’t put down history as it really happened,” he once complained.  “People don’t want it — it would shock them.  People have formed their own ideas in regard to history and they do not want them dismembered.”[5]

One might observe that Bierce knew nothing of Wilson’s own manipulation of the record, although it is interesting that he failed to submit Wilson’s narrative to the same scrutiny as the admittedly celebratory effusions that poured out upon Grant’s death.  Yet Bierce was no better than many of the people he criticized.  He willingly entered into the postwar battle of memory, determined to avenge the reputations of those generals whom he prized and to denigrate the officers he disliked.  As a member of the Army of the Ohio, he predictably entered into the debate over whether that army had saved the fortunes of the Union at Shiloh by exalting his old commanding general, Don Carlos Buell, while chipping away at the reputations of Grant and William T. Sherman, the icons of the rival Army of the Tennessee.  In observing Buell’s passing, Bierce chose to remember that “many of the old army men” judged Buell to be “the ablest soldier of the Civil War,” removed primarily because of his refusal to embrace the hard war philosophy of the Lincoln administration.  Reviewing what Grant, Sherman, and Buell had written about Shiloh merely reinforced Bierce’s belief of Buell’s “immeasurable superiority to them in clarity of mind and conscience.”  That Buell in fact had turned down Grant’s offer of a command in 1864 countered Bierce’s claim that he had been ignored after being relieved of command in 1862: the brief tribute betrayed many of the shortcomings Bierce claimed to deplore in the writing about Grant. [6]
    
Bierce reserved some his harshest prose for generals whom he held were dishonest about their incompetence.  One general who he took especially delight in skewering was Oliver O. Howard, who directed Union forces at the disastrous battle of Pickett’s Mill during the Atlanta campaign of 1864.  “General Howard’s hardihood in accentuating his connection with American history transcends the limits of human effrontery and passes into the circumcluding domain of infinite gall,” Bierce scathingly observed: Howard was a “consummate master of the art of needless defeat.” [7] In truth, Howard was obsessed with correcting what he believed to be unfair portrayals of his performance at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where his command crumbled under Confederate assault.  Eventually, in his autobiography, Howard did describe Pickett’s Mill, attributing the Union defeat there to a misappraisal of the Confederate position.  He added that the aftermath of the battle left a sad impression on his memory equal to the scenes of slaughter at Antietam and Gettysburg: “That opening in the forest, faint fires here and there revealing men wounded, armless, legless, or eyeless; some with heads bound up with cotton strips, some standing and walking nervously around, some sitting with bended forms, and some prone upon the earth — who can picture it?” [8]

In contrast, Bierce spoke highly of his own immediate superior, William B. Hazen, “a born fighter, an educated soldier,” and “the best hated man that I ever knew.”  The reason was obvious: Hazen was contentious.  “He convicted Sheridan of falsehood, Sherman of barbarism, Grant of inefficiency.  He was aggressive, arrogant, tyrannical, honorable, truthful, courageous – a skillful soldier, a faithful friend, and one of the most exasperating of men.” [9] Such praise was not all that dissimilar from the hero-worship Bierce deplored when it came to Grant.  It has been suggested that Bierce held Hazen in such high regard because he identified with him. [10]

“I should be sorry indeed to discredit any of my own private animosities by disguising them as history.” [11] 
So said Bierce in warning the reader of his antipathy for Howard, whom he held responsible for the defeat at Pickett’s Mill.  Yet Bierce’s likes and dislikes informed his efforts to remind people of what to make of generals and battles, rendering him a participant in the very process he deplored.  He would have to resort to fictional devices to offer a more biting criticism of what it was about generals that he did not like.  Of particular interest in this regard is “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General,” a story composed entirely of different documents (primarily official correspondence, supplemented by a newspaper column, testimony, and a congressional resolution) that reveal the extent to which Doke saw the war as an opportunity for personal and political advancement.  Although utterly inept, the general experiences good fortune when a tornado rips through the attacking Confederate ranks, obliterating the enemy.  

Later in life Ambrose Bierce would have cause to define history as “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves and soldiers mostly fools.” [12] 
One senses that at least some of this cynicism was rooted in his own experience of weighing narratives of the Civil War.  He was well aware of the orderliness and rationality imposed in retrospect by participants eager to bolster their claims at the expense of others as they jockeyed for position in historical memory.  He had reason to question tales of all-knowing generals whose wish was also their command as they orchestrated victory on the battlefield.  Yet Bierce was not altogether able to shed the garb of the veteran who saw things as he wanted to see them, or whose loyalties and antipathies left their imprint on his own recollections.  He thus was vulnerable to the very shortcomings he saw in others, something worth remembering when it comes to assessing his work as an unvarnished, realistic portrayal of what war was. end


NOTES

1. S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds., A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998), 38.return to text

2. Ibid., 26-27. return to text

3. Ibid., 188.return to text

4. Ibid., 189. return to text

5. William B. Styple, ed., Generals in Bronze: Interviewing the Commanders of the Civil War (Kearny, NJ: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 2005), 277.  The James H. Wilson Papers in the Library of Congress is filled with letters concerning Wilson’s unhappiness with Grant, his efforts to explain away contradictory evidence, and his struggles with publishers; the Hamlin Garland Papers at the University of Southern California contain an interview with Wilson and correspondence concerning Garland’s biography of Grant.
return to text

6. Joshi and Schultz, eds., A Sole Survivor, 25.  In Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 340-41, Stephen Engle addresses Buell’s failure to accept an offer of field command in 1864.  In Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of DeForest and Bierce (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), chapter six, Michael W. Schaefer offers a different assessment of Bierce’s treatment of Grant, accepting it at face value. return to text

7. Joshi and Schultz, eds., A Sole Survivor, 44. return to text

8. Oliver O. Howard,  Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard (New York: Baker and Taylor, 1907), 1:554-56. return to text

9. Joshi and Schultz, eds., A Sole Survivor, 39. return to text

10. David M. Owens, The Devil’s Cartographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), 16-17. return to text

11. Joshi and Schultz, eds., A Sole Survivor, 45. return to text

12. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, http://www.alcyone.com/max/lit/devils/h.html, accessed December 20, 2007. return to text


Copyright © 2007 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.