- Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife: The Civil War and the Emergence of an American Writer by Christopher Kiernan Coleman
Ambrose Bierce has remained an enigmatic figure for generations of scholars. They have generally felt it is safe to assume that Bierce's participation in the Civil War shaped his life and writings and fueled his cynical view of the world and his biting wit. Despite this scholarly assurance, not much is known about Bierce's wartime service, and even less is known about how specific events during the war might have changed his attitude toward himself and the world. Bierce did not leave behind a rich collection of Civil War–era letters and diaries, or even a war memoir. Those attempting to understand Bierce and his relationship to the war are thus compelled to piece together a narrative from his published fiction and nonfiction writings along with whatever fragments of unpublished materials they find in the archives.
Literary scholars such as David M. Owens, in The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story (Knoxville, 2006), have used fragmentary evidence of Bierce's war service to demonstrate how it shaped his fiction. Christopher Kiernan Coleman attempts something similar in his biography of Bierce, piecing together a book resembling a war memoir that Bierce was unwilling or unable to write. Along with the writings we would expect Coleman to discuss in the book, such as "What I Saw of Shiloh" and "Killed at Resaca," he adds the reminiscences of soldiers who fought with Bierce in the Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry and the Army of the Cumberland. He also includes the remembrances of Bierce's family and friends, particularly those of his brother Albert Bierce. Blending these narratives allows Coleman to create a plausible account of Ambrose Bierce's war service and to complicate our understanding of how it affected him later in life.
The examination of Bierce's early life and the last years of his military service raises tantalizing questions for Bierce scholars. Coleman's choice to make Bierce's life part of the history of the Ninth Indiana better situates Bierce within his community. We see Bierce not as "'Bitter Bierce'" but rather as "Brose" and view his wartime experiences through the eyes of his peers rather than simply his own (p. 27). The author's decision to place Bierce's life in the context of his peers raises the question for readers of whether Bierce's oft-commented-on cynicism was a sign of the war's effect on his character or a persona he consciously designed after the war to market his writings.
Coleman also includes in an appendix a transcription of a diary Bierce kept during General William Tecumseh Sherman's Carolina campaign. This transcription not only is of great value to scholars unable to view the original but also complicates our knowledge of Bierce's demobilization. Though he supposedly mustered out in January 1865, Bierce's diary suggests that he did not [End Page 175] leave the army until March of that year. Given Bierce's obsession with details, the omission of an explanation for this discrepancy seems odd. It does, however, present a more accurate picture of the often confusing process of Civil War demobilization than the one commonly assumed by contemporary readers.
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife: The Civil War and the Emergence of an American Writer does not quite achieve the status of a posthumous war memoir for Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce to which it aspires, but it has much to offer in its portrait of the Ninth Indiana and of the Army of the Cumberland during the Civil War. It also offers some fresh glimpses into Bierce's service as a small piece in that big war.