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WRITING THE CIVIL WAR: AMBROSE BIERCE'S "JUPITER DOKE, BRIGADIER-GENERAL" G. Thomas Couser Hofstra University History—An account, mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary1 Among Ambrose Bierce's stories of the Civil War, "Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General" is exceptional in its satiric intent, humorous tone, and epistolary format. Economical in its method, shrewd in its implied commentary on the administration of the war, the tale is an isolated but impressive experiment. Dense and subtle in its historical allusions, it incorporates a sly but trenchant burlesque of some identifiable Civil War luminaries, most notably Ulysses S. Grant. Its most significant achievement is that it cleverly and unsparingly lampoons the process by which war is written, both as and after it is waged. A minor comic masterpiece, the tale manages to satirize at once the fighting and the writing of the Civil War, its "conduct" and its textual reconstruction.2 Unlike most of Bierce's war stories, which take the form of retrospective monologues, this one consists of eighteen "documents" that chronicle the career of the incompetent Jupiter Doke from his initial (political) appointment as a brigadier-general of Illinois volunteers in November of 1861 through numerous military blunders that result, ironically, in his promotion to the rank of major general in February of 1862. The author of several of the longer documents, Doke is a caricature of the selfseeking , politically ambitious general; through his interaction with other military and political figures, the story broadly but efficiently satirizes a whole range of targets: military bungling, cowardice, and incompetence; wartime profiteering, corruption, and nepotism; official deception, manipulation of subordinates, and verbal face-saving. In this polyphonic tale, Bierce lets the participants condemn themselves by their own written testimony. The documents, which include official military correspondence (such as orders and battle reports), Doke's diary entries, a newspaper editorial, and a congressional resolution , are carefully devised so that, taken singly, each text displays its author's hypocrisy and, taken together, the documents expose one another 's distortions and evasions. Throughout the fiction, Bierce manipulates the forms of official discourse in such a way as to disclose a kind of 88G. Thomas Couser hidden civil war, the battle among fellow officers for advancement, profit, power, and fame. The satire functions simultaneously on another, more fundamental, level that has not hitherto been fully appreciated: the incidents of the story, though exaggerated to the point of absurdity for comic effect, are loosely based on actual events. Paradoxically, the most incredible of the tale's incidents is the only one for which an historical source has been noticed. The rather intricate plot climaxes in the abrupt and entirely accidental reversal of a night attack by Confederate troops on Doke's headquarters. When an alert black servant, alarmed by the sound of Southern voices, awakens Doke, the general's panicked flight in his shirttail triggers a massive mule stampede that utterly destroys the attacking army. In his 1967 biography of Bierce, Richard O'Connor noted: "Undoubtedly the story was based on a similar victory of the vainglorious General Hooker's in which a stampede also scattered the enemy, during the Chattanooga campaign, in which Bierce participated."3 O'Connor has the right episode, but his association of the story exclusively with Hooker is misleading for two reasons. First, Doke is ultimately a composite of several high-ranking Union officers, a kind of generic general to whom Bierce attributes the worst traits of a number of individuals. Second, if any officer is to be singled out as his model, it is not Joseph Hooker but Ulysses S. Grant. The primary clue that Doke is a caricature of Grant lies not in biographical similarity but in a nominal one: the resemblance of their names, both of which combine ambitiously allusive, trisyllabic given names with prosaic, monosyllabic family names. Both names start out soaring, then plunge to earth. To an ear like Bierce's, easily offended by euphemism and grandiloquence, the name "Ulysses Grant" might have had an oxymoronic ring; the elevation of "Ulysses" to "Jupiter" and the reduction of "Grant" to "Doke...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 87-98
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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