- "Chickamauga" as an Indian-Wars Narrative: The Relevance of Ambrose Bierce for a First-Nations-Centered Study of the Nineteenth Century
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000
- pp. 57-82
- View Citation
- Additional Information
SUSAN KALTER "Chickamauga" as an Indian-Wars Narrative: The Relevance of Ambrose Bierce for a First-Nations-Centered Study of the Nineteenth Century The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncettain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indesctibable cries—something between the chatteting of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey—a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute. Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wteck. For over one hundred years, these last lines of Ambrose Bierce's stunning short story "Chickamauga" have been taken as an ironic commentary on the ineffable carnage produced by the U.S. Civil War. This argument is wholly convincing and indisputably prominent in terms of the context of the story's composition, but it is not the only compelling argument. While Bierce was witness to the slaughter at the Battle of Chickamauga Creek in September 1 863 that left 40,000 dead and wounded (Davidson 555), and while the narrative constitutes just one of dozens of Civil War stories executed by him, not one piece of internal evidence from the text securely situates its events as occupying the 1860s period at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Not one piece, that is, connects the story to the Civil War, except for the title Arizona Quarterly Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 58Susan Kalter itself. This impossibility of locating such historically specific textual evidence is highly unusual in comparison to Bierce's other war stories. It is therefore highly significant. Underneath the powerful Civil War resonance of the text lurks a second network of gruesomely haunting associations that resound with intensity against the collective memory and imagination of the United States populace of 1889. "Chickamauga" 's melange of images—images that refuse ultimate certainty of referent—refers to Indian wars: to Indian wars at large as practiced during the long eras of squatter aggression , removal, and genocide (ca. 1540-1890); to the wars in particular with the Chickamaugan Cherokee, Creek and other nearby Indians, occurring in the same region as the Civil War battle during the colonial , revolutionary war and early national era; and to the post-Civil War conflict with the Sioux-Cheyenne-Arapaho (1865-90) which set the stage for the Ghost Dance movement that was contemporary with the story's publication. By making audible echoes of the Indian wars, we are better able to discern the richness of affect that the story carries in the long aftermath of the U.S. Civil War.1 We will see, too, why the Civil War interpretation that has prevailed in Bierce scholarship is necessary to comprehending this second level of associations. HISTORICIZING THE TERRAIN OF "CHICKAM AUG a" In "Chickamauga," Bierce's tropes exhibit a characteristic impact which that final thirty years of massive offensive against Indian nations had on the writing of the period.2 Here he blends together images of domesticity with apparitions of war in a manner that both radiates and critiques the confusion of public and private sphere effected by these late Indian wars. He then melds these tropes with characters whose relation to language rehearses the enunciation of Native American languages and signals their withdrawal and retreat out of the earshot of Americans. His is one of a series of texts that reveal the intense awareness and preoccupation of European America with Indian matters of all kinds despite the fact that its contemporary audience no longer possesses the skills to perceive that quotidian anxiety: its intensity and its contradictory terrain.5 Examining the traces of this contradictory terrain in "Chickamauga" and other writings by Bierce will allow us to consider his relationship to savagism, anti-savagism and ante-savagism: "Chickamauga" as an Indian-Wars Narrative59 the major ideologies respecting U.S.-Indian relations in the nineteenth century.4 While the Civil War must be considered a major allusion of "Chickamauga ," perhaps the major allusion, Bierce detaches the story from definite reference to the specific Civil War battle in naming it. Rather than calling it "Chickamauga Creek" or "The Battle of Chickamauga Creek," he...