Ambrose Bierce and Shiloh in Public History
EVERY YEAR, MILLIONS of people visit the battlegrounds of the American Civil War. Americans gravitate to these places as pilgrims do shrines. The reasons for the pilgrimages are varied, but a constant theme is the desire to see the sites where our greatest national tragedy occurred. By walking the battlefields in the footsteps of soldiers, visitors believe they will gain a deeper understanding of the Civil War and the nation that war helped create. Part of the mission of the National Park Service is to interpret each Civil War battlefield in a way that will assist visitors in their efforts to better appreciate the history and meaning of the battle. Park rangers, and documented landmarks, help guide the journey.
In many respects, a battlefield like Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee is as much a historical text as is any book about the battle. Like a good history, an interpretation of a battlefield tells a story – a nonfiction story, but a story just the same. Also like a good history, the story is built upon primary sources. These first-hand accounts, including after-action reports, soldiers’ diaries, letters, memoirs, and the research of the original park historian, serve as the building blocks for the story the battlefield tells. However, the primary sources are more than just tools. Each offers its own story, the value of which is dependent on the accuracy of the information and the literary merit of the writing. By these standards Ambrose Bierce’s twelve-part essay, “What I Saw of Shiloh,” is one of the finest accounts of soldiers in battle ever written.
The following guide to “What I Saw of Shiloh” (1881) – see the link below – is designed to lead visitors of the Shiloh National Military Park across the battlefield in the footsteps of Sergeant Bierce, as he experienced the engagement of April 6th and 7th, 1862. Unlike most historical analyses, this guide is designed for a specific practical use: readers encounter the scenes Bierce describes as they exist today.
I worked at Shiloh National Military Park during the summers of 2004 – 2006, the last two as a park ranger. The project to create this Ambrose Bierce trail guide, along with a similar guide tracing the battle experiences of Henry Morton Stanley, was accomplished in 2004 as part of an internship agreement between Shiloh National Military Park and the Public History Program at Loyola University Chicago. I selected the writings of Bierce and Stanley for the project because these memoirs provided the combined advantages of the authors’ name recognition among visitors, high quality writing, and opportunities for exploration of different aspects of the battle. Also, as an initial offering for this type of “primary source” trail guide, Bierce and Stanley provided perspectives from a Union soldier and from a Confederate soldier, plus descriptions of fighting on both days of battle. Since the two men fought in different locations, visitors who might use both guides would explore much of the terrain in the park.
The fundamental purpose of the project was to help park visitors explore Bierce’s text more deeply than had previously been possible, and to tie the text to the physical battlefield. Scholars have used “What I Saw of Shiloh,” and other memoirs of the battle, to illustrate some of the larger themes of the war. In such projects, Bierce is commonly used to paint a picture of the grim aspects of war. Small snippets of text, such as his vivid descriptions of dead soldiers, are removed from the contexts of the original essay to help make points outside the scope of what Bierce may have originally intended. The practice is common in historical analysis, and it can indeed be effective. However, great value can be derived from exposing readers to the whole memoir, in order to maintain the original context. Using this approach, the scholar plays the supporting role, reversing the typical relationship between historian and source. The historian provides illustrations while the veteran tells the story.
Like other scholars, the public historian – in this case is the park ranger – can provide visitors with a direct interpretation of the battle, or assist them in interpreting original sources themselves. Under the inspiration of the great Freeman Tilden,
 historians of the National Park Service have long excelled at the former approach – telling the stories of their parks in a manner that reveals to visitors the historical context of what they are witnessing. However, the National Parks provide unique opportunities to make use of the latter approach too, because the battlefields are themselves incomparable primary sources. The original five “National Military Parks,” furthermore, exceed other parks in primary source value because they were originally marked and interpreted by veterans of the battle themselves, in cooperation with historians. In the case of Shiloh, the historian was also a veteran of the battle. 
“What I Saw of Shiloh” provides an unsanitized look at Civil War combat. While other sources provide frank descriptions of the horrible evidence of warfare, Bierce’s descriptions are simply better than most. Moreover, Bierce’s memoir carries a trenchant undercurrent of social criticism characteristic of his other non-historical writings. He remarks on the capricious nature of luck, on soldiers’ ridiculous obsessions with honor or status, and on his own naïve pre-battle view of the world. And always he describes the most horrible scenes with a droll detachment apparently designed to offend polite sensibilities. Bierce understood that the brutality forced upon soldiers by combat estranged them from the communities that sent them to war, and he wished to force civil society to confront the results. As Brian M. Thomsen observes, Bierce does not just paint a hideous picture, but he dares the reader to look away. 
War raises the tolerance for suffering among its participants, particularly the suffering of others. On several occasions in his essay, Bierce describes wounded or dead comrades in detail, each time juxtaposing his awful imagery with studiously crass humor. As Major General Don Carlos Buell’s troops arrive at Pittsburg Landing on the evening of April 6th, the wounded men of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s army, lying in the road, are “carefully lifted to one side and abandoned.” Later a gaping head wound elicits a wry observation about the suffering soldier getting on “with so little brain.” Finally, the narrator leaves his post to “satisfy a reprehensible curiosity” by gawking into a ravine filled with the burned corpses of men “who had got what they enlisted for.” Bierce is not the only Shiloh memoirist to document insensitive behavior among the soldiers toward the dead and wounded.  However, he uses what Stephen Cushman calls “cruel sarcasm” to thrust home his point about the reality of war, and further develops the offense by making himself the source of the unfeeling remarks.  Bierce knows that the reprehensible curiosity is ours, and he happily provides the gratification.
Yet the gratification is not pornographic. Those visitors to Shiloh who read “What I Saw of Shiloh” often wish to see the landmarks associated with the events Bierce describes. By doing so, they feel that they can better understand both the battle and Bierce’s experiences there. The narrator’s bitter sarcasm is a coping mechanism, and our desire to see where these scenes were enacted, to “gratify a reprehensible curiosity,” can be viewed as an attempt to come to terms with the ugly scenes of history. The difference is one of degrees.
The government established Shiloh National Military Park with dual missions of commemoration and interpretation. Stone monuments celebrating the memory of courage and sacrifice share space with iron tablets that explain the fighting, and place it within the context of the landscape. The missions can complement each other, but they can also compete with each other in communicating differing historical messages. In April, 1862 the battlefield appeared wretched and broken; it is now peaceful and lovely. Emotions evoked on those two days tended toward terror and disgust; today the park evokes feelings of tranquility and introspection. And, as Timothy B. Smith points out, the commemorative mission of the park translates organized homicidal fury into optimistic reconciliation. Bringing “What I Saw of Shiloh” to Shiloh benefits the mission of the National Park Service by helping visitors to recognize the ugliness that was excised by the commemorative aspect of the government’s stewardship of the battlefield. 
But since Ambrose Bierce principally wrote in the areas of fiction and social commentary, it is tempting to ask whether these things he wrote about really happened. The short answer is yes and no. Considering the fact that he wrote his memoir of Shiloh about twenty years after the battle, and that he apparently wrote strictly from memory, his statements of history hold up well. His general description of events – a hurried march to the battlefield, a wet and miserable night, a dawn advance, a long period of tense but low-intensity combat, and a final chaotic flurry of violence – pretty well describe the service of Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade in the battle. There are times, though, when the storyteller gets the best of the historian. Bierce anticipates this criticism by telling us clearly that he is only describing what he saw from the limited point of view of a sergeant on the firing line.
Walking the battlefield with the essay in hand permits us to fact-check Bierce’s reporting. Not surprisingly, the scenes he describes in the greatest detail can be easily located on the battlefield, and also can be verified by other sources. As for his accounts of the sight of burned bodies, the feelings of helpless terror associated with the passive duty of “supporting the guns,” and the ferocity of a struggle for a battery of Confederate artillery, these can be supported by trustworthy sources. But stories that seem concocted for literary effect are more difficult to locate, and the details wrong or impossible to verify. For instance, Bierce speaks of alligators and Spanish moss in setting his scene. Neither exist in the upper South, then or now. He intimates that the civilians living on the battlefield may have been killed in the fighting. There is no evidence that any were. Bierce repeats controversial accusations against Ulysses S. Grant and his soldiers as though such claims were fact. These controversies were not resolved in his time, and they remain open to debate still today. He states that the climactic attack in his story occurred at 3:00 in the afternoon (it occurred between 11:00 a.m. and noon), and he fills the extra time with an excursion to a ravine that was either behind enemy lines or contested while the events he describes occurred. Bierce felt comfortable making these mistakes, or misrepresenting the facts, because they served a greater purpose: they told the story he wanted to tell.
Ambrose Bierce knew the value of tramping over battlefields. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, he embarked on a grand tour of the battlefields of his youth. He visited West Virginia, where he first “saw the elephant” and where he lost the first of his comrades. He visited Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, where he survived a nasty head wound, and, presumably, he returned to Pickett’s Mill, where he once witnessed the gory results of arbitrary decisions by high command. At Stones River he paid his respects at the first monument placed on any Civil War battlefield – a monument to the dead of his own brigade, built by the soldiers themselves within months of the battle. He also visited Shiloh National Military Park. In doing so, he undoubtedly moved over the same ground outlined in the trail guide below. Thanks to the memoir he published some thirty years earlier, we can imagine what ruminations weighed on the elderly Bierce as he walked along. And on the grounds of that expansive park, we can literally follow in his footsteps. 
CLICK HERE to access and print Bjorn Skaptason’s Shiloh Trail Guide, titled “What I Saw of Shiloh: In the Footsteps of Ambrose Bierce.”
The link leads to a .pdf document.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My deepest thanks go to my former colleagues at the Shiloh National Military Park for their assistance and encouragement in developing this program. The people could not ask for better stewards of their battlefield. Chief Ranger Stacy D. Allen and Dr. Timothy B. Smith deserve special credit for their guidance and help.
1. Tilden’s classic work Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), is still used as an essential handbook in creating National Park Service interpretations. The National Park Service awards for “Excellence in Interpretation” are named for him.
2. The five original National Military Parks, established during the period 1894 – 1899, are Gettysburg, Antietam, Chattanooga and Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. David W. Reed, the original Secretary and Historian of Shiloh National Military Park, fought the battle as a Union soldier in the 12th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. See Timothy B. Smith, This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004), 18, 36.
3. Ambrose Bierce, Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Brian M. Thomsen (New York: Forge, 2002), 7.
4. Cyrus Boyd of Iowa recorded a scene where he and a number of other amateur anatomists dispassionately examined the remains of eviscerated Confederates in order to learn about the human body. See Cyrus Boyd, The Civil War Diary of Cyrus F. Boyd, Fifteenth Iowa Infantry, 1861-1863, ed. Mildred Throne (Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1953), 38.
5. Stephen Cushman, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 158.
6. Smith, This Great Battlefield of Shiloh, xvi.
7. S. T. Joshi and David Schultz examined Bierce’s letters from this period and speculate that the journey was part of an attempt to put his affairs in order in anticipation of his death. See Ambrose Bierce, A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography, eds. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998), 293.
Copyright © 2007
The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights