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  • Civil War Cycloramas and Ambrose Bierce’s Interventional Realism

Abrupt, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it.

—Ambrose Bierce (1906)

Publishers want nothing from me but novels—and I’ll die first!

—Bierce to George Sterling (1903)1

In their heyday, cycloramas were a stunningly immersive art form—precursors not only to film but to IMAX—and ubiquitously praised for their verisimilitude. Invented in the late-eighteenth century, cycloramas started to peak in the U.S. with the premier of Paul Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg in Chicago on 22 October 1883. The Gettysburg Cyclorama was an instant sensation, quickly inspiring reproductions and panoramas of a half-dozen other battles around the country.2 From coast to coast, up to two hundred spectators at a time crowded together on viewing platforms in the center of elegant rotundas, encircled by immense panoramas of gruesome battle scenes. The fight was further extended into three-dimensional space through faux terrain and dioramas: cannons, rifles, dummy corpses, and shrubbery were illusionistically scaled so as to blend imperceptibly into the painting. The Washington Post proclaimed, “It is even more than a representation, it is a battle itself”;3 and the Chicago Tribune remarked, the “dead and wounded soldiers, the smoke of cannon, the bursting of shells,” and “the blood stained ground” are rendered “with a realism that is almost painful.”4 Coupling sentimental mythmaking with a mimetic approach to visual realism, Civil War cycloramas astounded their visitors, shattering the bounds of what many thought possible in artistic representation.

Michael Fried has pointed to an insurmountable “disjunction” in realist painting and writing—the perspectival discrepancy between the “vertical” plane of reality, or experience, and the “horizontal” plane of writing, drawing, or narrative—which he frames as realism’s central problem of representation.5 Yet the cyclorama complicates Fried’s argument not only by extending [End Page 127] a two-dimensional representation back into three-dimensional space but by amalgamating various moments from battles that spanned hours or even days into a single composite painting, the implications of which were not only aesthetic but ideological.6 The patrons and artists who undertook these tremendously technical and expensive projects hoped that as a mass cultural art form, the Civil War cyclorama could inspire feelings of national cohesion: works such as the Gettysburg Cyclorama sought to provide a decisively reconciliationist form of postbellum healing, superseding the ideological causes and consequences of the war with unifying myths. They concealed historical “disjunctions” by providing spectators with a deceptively immersive and reliable recreation of historical space rent from historical time.

Whereas Fried develops his reading of Stephen Crane’s realism in relation to Thomas Eakins’ two-dimensional paintings, this essay begins with cycloramas in order to shift the focus in studies of American literary realism from space and referentiality to time and affect. Recent work in the field has drawn long-neglected attention to the temporal and affective relationships between works of realism and their readers, which is indeed the crux of Ambrose Bierce’s interventional realism in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).7 The epigraphs relate Bierce’s disdain for the novel to the intersection of temporality, literary form, and trauma that underpins his theory of art. Bierce had likely seen the most combat of any veteran who went on to write Civil War fiction, a distinction which is by no means incidental to his art.8 Bessel Van der Kolk’s recent work in trauma theory has helped clarify that traumatic experience at the neurobiological level involves the dis-integration of affective experience from time, along with the breakdown in the centers of the brain responsible for language and narrative.9 I argue that Bierce imports the neurobiological dynamics of trauma into his narrative forms, creating distance among the disparate temporal modalities and timescales that comprise historical experience and memory—the second-to-second, microtemporal vicissitudes of affective experience in the midst of crisis, the arc of a battle or war, a decade, a millennium—modalities that were implicitly glossed in the composite scenes of Civil War cycloramas. Bierce’s realism prompts readers to feel the rifts between disparate temporal vantage points and register the conflicts and traumatic impacts that continue to fester beneath the glossy surface of reconciliationist myth.

Affective Time and Narrative Form

Though he has long been caricatured as “Bitter” Bierce—the prickly, pessimistic satirist whose worldview can be whittled down to “Nothing matters”—Bierce worked out a strikingly innovative theory of art in his swipes [End Page 128] at literary rivals.10 Denigrating the novel as a “short story padded” in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), Bierce compares the realist novel to the panorama for its distention of the reading experience and to the photograph for its mimetic aspirations:

As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting.11

The panorama is a spatial metaphor for what Bierce finds to be the essential temporal problem of the realist novel. He argues in his essay “The Short Story” (1897) that all arts share a common ground, “addressing the same sensibilities, quickening the same emotions and subject to the same law and limitations of human attention.”12 Because the novel stretches out and breaks up the reading process, the emotional “impressions made” fade, leaving the reader with only an intellectual understanding of the plot. “We may know” various parts of the novel relate to one another, Bierce grants, “but we do not discern and feel the coördination and interrelation.”13

Bierce’s references to photography and panoramas speak to several different understandings of realism that had become recognizable by the 1890s. In a spirited letter to the Dial published in April 1893, Hiram M. Stanley identifies three prevalent brands: 1) “illusive” realism; 2) “scientific” realism; and 3) “higher” or “selective” realism. The first aims to offer viewers a painting so realistic, they “take it for the reality,” though it is nothing but “a marvel,” and “one more fit for the dime museum than for the art gallery.”14 Bierce would classify the panorama’s mode of realism as this illusively mimetic variety. The second is concerned less with mimesis in this visual sense than with the “perfect record of facts”—it aims to become “a complete and accurate register” of the events it transcribes.15 This characterizes Bierce’s critique of the probability-driven realist novel, which he defines as “a story written by a measuring-worm.”16 The third form, the so-called “higher” realism, Stanley explains, is essentially a psychological study in the guise of fiction. Emotions are presented from a “purely intellectual” standpoint: “to incarnate not beauty but truth is its aim,” and what readers therefore experience is “a wholly unimaginative, unemotional, impersonal” work of fiction.17 In all three concepts of realism, Stanley underscores the emerging “science-born craving for reality,” a “passion for the actual,” which he fears will lead to the full-blown scientization of art.18

Bierce’s critiques of realism, like Stanley’s, frequently take one of the two tacks that Amy Kaplan identifies in criticism of the 1960s and ’70s—the [End Page 129] reduction of realism to either a set of formal characteristics or artless mimesis. However, the failures upon which he fixates inform how to understand his fiction. At the age of seventy-one, Bierce set out on the last of several tours he made of the Georgia and Tennessee battle sites he saw in combat. He wrote to George Sterling in April 1912 that Richmond, “a city whose tragic and pathetic history, of which one is reminded by everything that one sees there, always gets on my nerves with a particular dejection.” Though “the history is some fifty years old,” he continues, “it is always with me when I’m there, making solemn eyes at me.”19 What he means by “gets on my nerves” is not irritation but a deeper disturbance: he feels the shocks of the traumatic past set back into motion in the present. Théodule-Armand Ribot makes a distinction in The Psychology of the Emotions between two kinds of memory: the “false or abstract memory” of feelings, in which there is but “the representation of an occurrence, plus an affective characteristic”—“only a sign, a simulacrum, a substitute for the real occurrence, an intellectualized state added to the purely intellectual elements of the impression, and nothing more”—and “true or concrete memory of impressions,” which entail “the actual reproduction of a former state of feeling, with all its characteristics.” Bierce recognized that the difference is palpable: “an emotion which does not vibrate through the whole body is nothing but a purely intellectual state,” as Ribot argues, which is precisely how Stanley characterizes the effects of selective realism.20 It is the concrete memories—the affective memories—which Bierce sought to invoke in his shocking war tales.

In reading Bierce’s experimental fiction against the Civil War cyclorama’s approach to realism, I take up Jane Thrailkill’s project of redirecting the focus from realism to realization: “the coming to consciousness of an experience, which entails being ‘moved’ in the dual sense of emotionally engaged and repositioned with respect to the world.”21 Bierce’s assertion that not merely the basics of plot, but feeling—the moment-to-moment “impressions made” by parts of a story—must be “carried in mind” by the reader from the first word to the last anticipates Thrailkill’s understanding of realism as “affecting fiction.” However, Bierce’s criticism and fiction help draw attention more specifically to the complex relationship between the temporality of the reading experience and a story’s affective impacts upon the reader.22

The Cyclorama’s Spectacular Realism

Partisan fissures in postbellum America’s historical consciousness spurred a variety of approaches to realism, as artists aspired to restore a cohesive sense [End Page 130] of reality to a fractured nation. Miles Orvell observes that panoramas, circus shows, popular theater, and other mass spectacles exhibited a tendency in late-nineteenth-century popular culture “to enclose reality in manageable forms, to contain it within a theatrical space, an enclosed exposition or recreational space, or within the space of the picture frame”: “If the world outside the frame was beyond control,” he explains, “the world inside of it could at least offer the illusion of mastery and comprehension.”23 One of the most unique and efficacious marvels of postbellum mythmaking was indeed the Civil War cyclorama, which supplied spectators with an immersive experience in an enclosed spatial recreation of the historical past, seeking to supplant divisive memories by concealing the frame of the experience altogether.

The now-restored Boston reproduction of Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg, the only surviving canvas of an original Gettysburg cyclorama, simulates what spectators of the 1880s would have seen from the viewing platform. In the rotunda, it is 3 July 1863, the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the background rests a serene landscape of tree-lined hills painted with classical atmospheric perspective; in the foreground rages the final clash of battle in which nearly sixty thousand soldiers died. Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing’s legendary death is one of the prominent events rendered in the foreground and serves to establish the position of spectators on the viewing platform at the center of the Union line.24 Pickett’s army is attacking the Union line on Cemetery Ridge in what had been mythically re-cast as the turning point of the Civil War. (Figure 1) The deadliest battle of the Civil War was reproduced in the round in a disarmingly graphic manner and with astonishing, photorealistic attention to topographical and historical detail.

Photorealism is not a mere metaphor. In addition to interviewing veterans and collecting journals and other firsthand documentation of the battle, Philippoteaux and his team enlisted the help of photographers. Before setting brush to canvas, Philippoteaux traveled to the Gettysburg battlefield and constructed a large, raised platform from which to capture the surrounding landscape. He and his crew then drew a circle around the platform, eighty feet in diameter, and partitioned the landscape into ten sections, each of which was further divided into foreground, middle ground, and background. Photographers took pictures of each section that were later “taped together, overlain with a grid,” and finally reproduced on canvas.25 This process resembles a technique Rembrandt Peale recommends in his nineteenth-century painting manual Graphics, which Fried references to demonstrate the challenge of capturing a three-dimensional scene from life on canvas without distorting the perspective. Peale suggests that the [End Page 131] painter hold up a sheet of glass vertically, trace the real objects within view onto the glass, and then paint the traced figures on the canvas.26 Philippoteaux similarly begins by breaking up a three-dimensional scene with a grid and replicating the fragments on two-dimensional surfaces—in this case photographs. Yet as a writer for Scientific American observes, achieving a faithful perspective in the cyclorama “is a matter of special calculation,” and he commends “the technical details of [the cyclorama’s] construction and the solution in it by means of photography of the problems of cylindrical perspective.”27

Borrowing from what was seen as the objectivity of photography, the cyclorama worked by representing the fragmented and divisive remembrance of war as a cohesive, composite, and synecdochical image. Ian Finseth notes that the rise of photography during the Civil War “made the representation of ‘reality’ a matter of course,” for “the photograph, seemingly, could not lie, and it set a standard for reliability that the canons of professional journalism echoed by emphasizing ‘objectivity’ as a core principle of the reporter’s craft”—a point which speaks to Bierce’s earlier critique of the realist novel’s dedication to “the literal actuality of the photograph.”28 More recently, Finseth has argued that photographs “seem to mark the rise not only of a newly ‘realist’ approach to war but of the visual epistemology of modernity itself.”29 It is telling that the walls of the parlor adjacent to the ticket office at Gettysburg Cyclorama in Boston were covered in photographs of the battle sites, thus priming visitors for a factual, thoroughly researched depiction of war.30

Integrating photography, painting, and architectural space, the cyclorama forged new representational possibilities with beguiling effects. Its sheer scale made the cyclorama an astonishing experience: the canvas for Boston’s Gettysburg Cyclorama was a staggering 365 feet long and 42 feet high.31 Surviving pamphlets and reviews praise the dioramas in particular, which began at the edge of the platform and extended forty-five feet to the painting’s surface, creating an especially convincing illusion of depth. (Figures 2 and 3) Objects receded in size the closer they were to the canvas, with those nearest the wall scaled to blend almost imperceptibly into the painting.32 Alison Griffiths points out that as a result, there is no sense of a frame; while the frame of a painting typically provides “a window onto an illusionistically rendered space,” the frameless battle scene in the rotunda achieved an “invocation of presence” that gave spectators “the sense of ‘being in a different time and space.’”33

Jeffry Uecker argues that cycloramas sanitized the war’s violence, glossing the grittier details of combat and romanticizing the heroism and bravery of the soldiers who fought and died in battle.34 The architectural space was [End Page 132]

Figure 1. Detail of Pickett’s Charge on Cemetery Ridge, Paul Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg for Boston, displayed at the Gettysburg National Military Park. National Park Service photograph.
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Figure 1.

Detail of Pickett’s Charge on Cemetery Ridge, Paul Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg for Boston, displayed at the Gettysburg National Military Park. National Park Service photograph.

Figure 2. Diorama recreated for The Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. The panorama, “The Battle of Atlanta,” was painted by the American Panorama Company between 1885 and 1886. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
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Figure 2.

Diorama recreated for The Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. The panorama, “The Battle of Atlanta,” was painted by the American Panorama Company between 1885 and 1886. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

[End Page 133]

Figure 3. Diorama recreated for The Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
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Figure 3.

Diorama recreated for The Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

even designed to keep spectators at a physical distance from the canvas: the brushstrokes are choppy and impressionistic, but designed to look realistic from a distance.35 Looking too closely destroyed the illusion. One critic recalls a time he was able to go “behind the scenes” of the Gettysburg panorama, whereupon he discovered that “most of the cannon in the foreground were of galvanized iron, the thickness of a sheet of tin, and so were the soldiers and wagons,” which left him more impressed with “the skill of the deception” but “thoroughly disillusioned” upon his return to the viewing platform.36 Such accounts reveal only a thin, brittle illusion of reality: parlor tricks designed to astound spectators rather than force them to grapple with the messier disunity of the nation’s collective trauma. Likewise, Yoni Appelbaum contends that the cyclorama portrays the battle with exquisite attention to historical detail, from the overall topography down to the soldiers’ uniforms, but it omits the racial and ideological roots of the war.37 In his words, Philippoteaux’s “stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember [End Page 134] the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight.” Appelbaum stresses that the cyclorama viewing experience was so immersive, it “supplanted the fading memories of the war” and “froze time itself.” For Uecker and Appelbaum, the cyclorama succeeds in its aim by replacing an irreconcilable plurality of war experiences and memories with a shared, synchronized, retrospective experience in the present.

Yet not everyone’s memories of the war had faded in the span of those two decades, and the cyclorama’s illusive approach to realism could not always sublimate the effects of trauma. Alexander Bain describes in The Senses and the Intellect how “the shock remaining in the ear and the brain after the firing of artillery must pass through the same circles, and act in the same way, as during the actual sound. . . . The rush of feeling has gone on the old tracks, and seizes the same muscles, and would go the length of actually stimulating them to repetition.”38 In an 1887 column for the San Francisco Examiner, Bierce himself had confessed, “To this day I cannot look over a landscape without noting the advantages of the ground for attack or defense . . . I never hear a rifle-shot without a thrill in my veins. I never catch the peculiar odor of gunpowder without having visions of the dead and the dying.”39 Using new neuroimaging technology, Van der Kolk’s recent trauma research has clarified that traumatic experiences led to a breakdown in the brain’s integrative processing, resulting in intense, fragmented affects decontextualized from place and time. In situations when we fear for our lives, the amygdala, which trigger the fight-or-flight response, go into overdrive. Concomitantly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, responsible for contextualizing experiences in time and determining their meaning, shuts down. If one cannot escape from a threat and the fight-or-flight response is prolonged, “sights, sounds, smells, and touch are encoded as isolated, dissociated fragments, and normal memory processing disintegrates”; as a result, “time freezes, so that the present danger feels like it will last forever.”40 Because the original experience involves dissociated sensations—and a breakdown in the “higher” brain’s ability to integrate experiences within a narrative and situate them in time—victims of trauma cannot place the experience safely in the past. Post-traumatic triggers can provoke affective responses identical to those experienced during the original event; the trauma is repeatedly re-lived as intensely as it was lived the first time. Trauma’s dis-integration of time and affect “keeps you back there,” Van der Kolk explains, “and you are the victim of an incomplete experience.”41

These recent neurobiological accounts of trauma help explain why many veterans who visited cycloramas experienced terrifying memories of battle. Numerous sources describe soldiers weeping on the viewing platform. One soldier reportedly found it so overwhelming to re-experience the violence that [End Page 135] he forced himself to ignore the battle and focus instead on the landscape in the background.42 A writer for the Washington Post related the experience of a Gettysburg veteran who, upon entering the rotunda, “forgot everything,” suddenly believing he “was out in the fight again,” and pointed to a spot where he claimed to have lost a canteen decades earlier.43 And perhaps most suggestively, John Gibbon wrote in a letter to Henry Hunt, “I never before had an idea that the eye could be so deceived. . . . I say nothing more than the truth when I tell you it was difficult to disabuse my mind of the impression that I was actually on the ground.”44 Though Gibbon was obviously not speaking in neurobiological terms, he hits upon the disturbance in the relationship between temporal and affective experience in trauma. These accounts expose a very different experience than what Uecker and Appelbaum suggest: not controlled deference for a glorious past, but rather intense and often painful re-living. In transfiguring war into spectacle and attempting to resynchronize Americans within a faux-historical space decontextualized from historical time, the cyclorama failed to account for the unmanageable psychobiological impacts of traumatic experience.

The “Merry Spectacle” of Chickamauga

Bierce’s war stories in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians intervene in reconciliationist approaches to realism by reproducing the effects of traumatic experience, dis-integrating the various temporal modalities and attendant feelings that comprise the reader’s experience. In many of Bierce’s stories, as Cathy N. Davidson notes, protagonists suffer a traumatic crisis that destabilizes their once-assured powers of perception, whereupon they experience “an almost infantile regression,” revel in “repressed aspects of [their] being as if for the first time,” and discover “a childish delight in the unstructured play of senses simply taking in a new world,” eventually experiencing sensations and perspectives “beyond the ken of their previously shackled imaginations.”45 Yet while Bierce almost always traces an adult man’s crisis-induced relapse into a more flexible, childlike empiricism, “Chickamauga” begins with an impressionable child’s uninhibited sense of violence and culminates with a traumatic reorientation to his environment.

Thrailkill has argued that childhood is a key metaphor for the pragmatic method. In contrast with romantic tropes of either purity or lost innocence, “childhood seen from an evolutionary perspective is itself temporal and unfolding: a risky but immensely fruitful time of dependence, learning, and culture acquisition.”46 William James suggests that in childhood, perceptual processes are more open to experimentation and interrogation, while for adults, sense impressions are most often instantly and habitually filtered [End Page 136] through cultural and social systems of classification, evaluation, and language.47 Again and again, the narrator of “Chickamauga” slows down to narrate the child protagonist’s rapidly shifting perceptual processes so as to reproduce the transitions between sensation and perception before abruptly interjecting with his own savvy explanations. This begins playfully before becoming one of the most disturbing dynamics of the reading experience, a tactic which not only dramatizes the rift between a child’s immediate experience and narrative representation, but forces the reader to acknowledge her own presence and participation as a spectator of past violence.

In the opening paragraph of “Chickamauga,” the narrator introduces the boy with an indefinite article and subsequently refers to him as “it.” This depersonalization is then extended through the invocation of an unexpectedly vast evolutionary timescale. The boy’s excitement to venture alone into the woods is indebted to the “thousands of years” throughout which he “had been trained to memorable feats of discovery and conquest—victories in battles whose critical moments were centuries, whose victors’ camps were cities of hewn stone” (20). This strikingly naturalistic passage sets this individual child’s night of discovery against the backdrop of deep time, a scale on which it is possible for the narrator to collapse centuries into a series of “critical moments.” Bierce begins his account by compressing time, accelerating through the history of humanity and its repeated resorts to bloodshed so as to recontextualize this boy’s evolutionarily inborn delight in imperial violence. It is perhaps with some irony, then, that the narrator remarks upon its—the child’s—“new sense of freedom from control” upon setting out into the forest (20). By opening with the evolutionary features of the boy’s experience, the story establishes a rift: the narrator lays out a seemingly impersonal, deterministic thrust to the narrative while acknowledging the boy’s immediate experience as a “sense of freedom.” Whereas the cyclorama offered an immersive experience through the seeming absence of a pictorial or narrative frame, Bierce begins by magnifying the gulf between the microdynamics of second-to-second experience in the boy’s present and narrative attempts to represent—and unavoidably frame—such experience retrospectively.

The vast timescale of the opening paragraph introduces what soon becomes a scaled-down narrative of a boy who gets lost in the woods on the first night of the Battle of Chickamauga, the second-deadliest battle of the Civil War and one Bierce experienced firsthand.48 The son of a veteran soldier sets out with a handmade wooden sword, which “he now bore bravely, as became the son of an heroic race” (20). After fighting and winning an imaginary battle, he is startled by a rabbit in his path that sends him careening deep into the forest in terror. This scene is endearing precisely because [End Page 137] of the distance between the child’s affective response to the rabbit— short of breath and “blind with tears,” he cries out for his mother inarticulately, his “little heart beating hard with terror”—and the reader’s savvy perception of the rabbit as harmless (21). What is amusing is the boy’s innocent misperception. The boy soon exhausts himself and falls asleep on the bank of a creek that readers perhaps only later realize is Chickamauga and the narrator proceeds to fill the scene with chirping birds and squirrels as harmless as the rabbit.

Yet it soon becomes clear that the real power of “Chickamauga” involves the tension Bierce creates for readers by tracing the naïve impressions of war that permit the boy’s unabashed relish for destruction. Waking up from an hours-long nap to find himself thoroughly lost at night in the woods, the child sees a vague shape in motion in the distance. Rather than disclose outright what the boy struggles to name and assess, the narrator draws out his perceptual process:

Suddenly he saw before him a strange moving object which he took to be some large animal—a dog, a pig—he could not name it; perhaps it was a bear. He had seen pictures of bears, but knew nothing to their discredit and had vaguely wished to meet one. But something in form or movement of this object—something in the awkwardness of its approach—told him that it was not a bear; and curiosity was stayed by fear. He stood still and as it came slowly on gained courage every moment, for he saw that at least it had not the long, menacing ears of the rabbit. Possibly his impressionable mind was half conscious of something familiar in its shambling, awkward gait.


The narrator takes pains to expound how this shadowy image, like a Rorschach blot, is filtered through the boy’s preconceptions, desires, and fears. While these perceptual processes often take place too quickly and habitually in adult experience to record, this protracted account of the experience, littered with syntactical interruptions, turns, and equivocations, elucidates this child’s less assured process of assimilating feeling and thought. Not only has the boy seen pictures of bears, but he has “vaguely” harbored a desire to see one, a subconscious wish that influences one of several possible ways he might identify the vague form before him. Yet his recent run-in with the rabbit and his lingering fear also mediate his perceptual process, mixing with and complicating his curiosity. Confined to what the boy can see and rationalize, readers at this point are unsettled to learn that “the whole open space about him was alive with them—all moving toward the brook” (22). Readers are suspended in the gap between narrative levels—the boy’s immediate experience and the narrator’s withheld knowledge.

Once he has thoroughly unnerved the readers with an obscure image of a landscape teeming with unidentifiable movement, the narrator abruptly [End Page 138] hits them with his understanding of the situation: what the boy sees are maimed soldiers dragging themselves along with what remaining limbs they have, crawling “by dozens and by hundreds” as far as the eye can see so that “the very ground seemed in motion toward the creek.” The historicity of the scene is now unmistakable: it is 19 September 1863, and by the end of the following day over thirty thousand soldiers will have disappeared or been captured, injured, or killed. “Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on,” for “he was dead,” the narrator casually notes, while others stopped to raise their arms up “as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.” While readers are presented with a ghastly scene of death and mutilation, the boy sees “little but that these were men, yet crept like babes” (22).

By creating distance between readers’ own sense of history and the feelings and thoughts of a child who cannot yet understand what he is seeing, this revelation momentarily divests the war of its prior associations and reorients readers to how they position these soldiers as objects of their gaze, so to speak. Gerald E. Myers notes that while William James typically argues that a pure sensation (like hot or cold) is a mere abstraction, possible, if ever, only in the earliest moments of infancy, he also accounts for exceptions.49 James has offered a version of semantic satiation as an example, explaining that if a reader stares at a single, isolated word for an extended period of time, “it ends by assuming an entirely unnatural aspect”—the word “stares at him from the paper like a glass eye, with no speculation in it. Its body is indeed there, but its soul is fled. It is reduced, by this new way of attending to it, to its sensational nudity.”50 As Myers explains, “James thought of sensations as remedies for the ill moments when reason goes astray.”51 The perceptual discrepancies registered in “Chickamauga” help produce this unsettling phenomenon while moreover desynchronizing readers from the narrative. Bierce draws attention to the distance between distinct presents: the reader’s present and the boy’s, or the reader’s and the soldiers’, who lie disfigured in anguish, dying slowly on the bank of Chickamauga.

The naïveté that had prompted the boy to flee from a rabbit twists into a disturbing misunderstanding of war as a form of play. As he wanders from bloodied soldier to soldier, peering into their grotesque, ashen faces, he is reminded of a clown he had seen at the circus and begins to laugh with delight:

But on and ever on they crept, these maimed and bleeding men, as heedless as he of the dramatic contrast between his laughter and their own ghastly gravity. To him it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father’s negroes creep upon their hands and knees for his amusement—had ridden them so, “making believe” they were his horses. He now approached one of these crawling figures [End Page 139] from behind and with an agile movement mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw—from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone.


The boy misreads the horrors of war as theater, but what is remarkable in this passage is the way the reader’s tacit position in history becomes explicit. Against the reconciliationist modes of postbellum art which neglected to acknowledge slavery as the cause of the war and furthermore ignored the unrelenting surge of white supremacist violence in its wake, Bierce forces readers to confront their history in the figure of this young son of a Southern planter—“the son of an heroic race”—who had ridden enslaved men on his plantation as they crawled on their hands and knees at his behest, “making believe” they were his animals.

While the reader is apt to recognize the child’s tragic ignorance of the horrors before him, the transfiguration of this scene into a spectacle produced for his viewing pleasure resembles the cyclorama’s representations of Civil War battles for throngs of spectators. The boy scales a nearby tree to take “a more serious view of the situation” and beholds “the clumsy multitude dragg[ing] itself slowly and painfully along in hideous pantomime— mov[ing] forward down the slope like a swarm of great black beetles, with never a sound of going—in silence profound, absolute” (23). From this vantage point, the panoramic view reduces this military operation to beetle-scale, harkening back to the evolutionary timeframe invoked in the opening paragraph. This eerily silent, “hideous pantomime” is a kind of dark perversion of the cyclorama spectacle, which magnifies spatial scale to aggrandize rather than dwarf the plight of soldiers. Yet the boy is only just beginning to sense a greater gravity to the scene before him, which merely inspires him to lead this grotesque march. Whereas in the cyclorama viewers mistake spectacle for reality, Bierce’s protagonist mistakes reality for spectacle.

Continuing to distance the reader’s retrospective vantage point from the boy’s immediate experience, the narrator notes disparate objects strewn about the forest—blankets, rifles and the like—that for the boy “were coupled no significant associations” but which for the readers serve as traces “of retreating troops, the ‘spoor’ of men flying from their hunters” (23). I discussed previously the discarded objects that were scattered about the foreground in the Gettysburg Cyclorama and extended into the physical space of the rotunda as real, material objects in the diorama. Yet in the cyclorama, these objects create a spatial realism that seems to blur the line between a historical reality and artistic representation—so wholly that it purportedly led a veteran to point to the spot on the canvas where he lost [End Page 140] his canteen in battle. The cyclorama furthermore creates an atmosphere in which the spectators are willing to accept an object—a cannon, rock, or panoramic rendering of an individual battle—as synecdoche for the greater experience or meaning of the Civil War itself. In “Chickamauga,” however, these objects are mediated more problematically through the eyes of a child whose experience is divided from that of the soldiers he witnesses. Fluctuating as the objects of two distinct perspectives—one of the immediate experience of the child and the other of a mature narrator speaking in past tense—these objects become “things.” “Temporalized as the before and after of an object,” in Bill Brown’s words, “thingness amounts to a latency (the not yet formed or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects).”52 Bierce’s “things” work aesthetically by attuning readers to their own indeterminate position between disparate perspectives within “Chickamauga.” The realism of such moments is achieved by forcing readers to reckon with an irreducible temporal and semiotic distance between a once-mundane, everyday object such as a canteen and its recreation as a synecdoche for historical reality.

In the final, horrific moments of the narrative, the child awakens, having slept through one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and revels in the fiery destruction before him, “danc[ing] with glee in imitation of the wavering flames,” for again quite inappropriately “the spectacle pleased” (25). Yet his perspective immediately undergoes a critical change. “Shifting his position,” the boy starts to recognize some of the buildings around him until “the entire plantation, with its inclosing forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot.” The feeling of being lost and subsequently delighting in an unstructured realm of play morphs into an uncanny feeling that there is indeed something unsettlingly familiar at the heart of this unreal scene of mutilation and destruction. The boy’s “little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed,” for the boy “recognized the blazing building as his own home!” Through this geographic and aesthetic reorientation, the spectacular merges with—and becomes indistinguishable from—the real and at last the boy realizes that he is not in an imaginary world but is standing upon his own plantation with his mother lying murdered at his feet:

There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman—the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.

(25) [End Page 141]

On the one hand, the vision is rendered as though it were a painting. The “conflagration” lends chiaroscuro to the scene; the mother’s insides are vibrantly illustrated as “overflowing,” “frothy,” and “crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles,” tempting readers to imagine shades and textures of rich paint. Yet the narrative protraction dis-integrates form and meaning: readers experience the mutilated body slowly, one fragmented body part at a time, before the identity of the woman becomes clear.

Like Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, Bierce’s lurid image of the child’s dead mother concomitantly draws in and estranges the viewer, yet Bierce is more focused on the temporal experience of trauma than spatial perspective: his narrative concludes with a refusal to supplant the dis-integrating forces of traumatic experience. After discovering his mother’s body, “the child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures” and “uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries—something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey—a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil.” At last, “he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck” (25). To this point, the boy’s experience has been primarily visual, while the reader’s has been entirely verbal. Yet after producing various rifts between the narratorial perspective and the boy’s moment-to-moment perceptual processes, Bierce has managed to collapse these disparate modalities while capturing how trauma divides visceral experience from speech and thus from narrative. “All trauma is preverbal,” as Van der Kolk explains; it “drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.” Because trauma inhibits activity in the Broca’s area, one of the brain’s speech centers, people in duress “may scream obscenities, call for their mothers, howl in terror, or simply shut down”53—a phenomenon which Bierce transfigures into the frantic utterances of a deaf and mute child before cutting off sound altogether. Whereas earlier in the story the narrator repeatedly stepped in to explain the boy’s naïve impressions, in the end he leaves readers with a silent, near-still image. The child’s “quivering lips” offer a faint sense of movement as if to signal that time continues to pass, though for the boy “time freezes,” in Van der Kolk’s terms. The readers become explicit spectators, seeing the child see “the wreck” of his mother’s body and home, but without the cyclorama’s offering of a historical narrative to assimilate the gruesome and intensely personal details of this ultimately inexpressible trauma. Readers are left with the quivering and the looking—with a recalcitrantly unfixed scene that refuses to settle into a static photograph or composite panorama of war. [End Page 142]

Bierce’s stories of trauma present experiences that overwhelm purportedly objective modes of representation such as the photograph or cyclorama, along with the mimetic approaches to realism they inspired. The quivering at the close of “Chickamauga,” though subtle, is instructive. In a letter to Gustav Adolphe Danziger in 1900, Bierce insists that “all ‘explanation’ is unspeakably tedious. . . . Far better to have nothing to explain—to show everything that occurs, in the very act of occurring.”54 Thrailkill’s call for a critical shift from realism to realization resonates with Bierce’s aesthetics, as does Finseth’s recommendation that realism be conceptualized not as a fixed genre, but as “a process of navigating the relation between experience and the world, one driven by epistemological anxiety and skepticism toward myth.”55 Illustrating experience in motion, Bierce’s fiction demands that the reader be attentive to her presence in the experience, in both a spatial and temporal sense. If, as Kai Erikson asserts, collective trauma “works its way slowly and even insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it” and thus lacks the “suddenness normally associated with ‘trauma,’” Bierce’s shocking short stories prompt readers to see through, and more importantly between, disparate temporal vantage points, and to confront the enduring fissures and traumatic impacts that were hidden from view on the cyclorama platform.56

Emily K. Bald
University of Florida


1. The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Library of America, 2011), p. 439; A Much Misunderstood Man, ed. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2003), p. 110.i

2. With the $13 million repairs to “The Battle of Gettysburg” in 2003 and the recent $35 million restoration of “The Battle of Atlanta,” Civil War cycloramas have attracted renewed attention, not only for their technical complexity and awe-inspiring magnitude but for the ideological rifts they churn up, which have been festering together with the canvases for 150 years. Incongruous accounts of the causes and consequences of the Civil War give rise to conflicting experiences in the rotunda. The Atlanta panorama, though painted in commemoration of the Union’s victory, has often been recontextualized by Southerners within narratives of “the Lost Cause” or the rise of the “New South” (Phil Gast, “How do you move history?” CNN, 9 February 2017). Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed explained in a New York Times interview that his parents had to have a serious discussion about whether to send him on a school field trip to visit the cyclorama. Dr. Gordon L. Jones, Atlanta History Center’s curator, hopes that the cyclorama’s restoration and relocation will help dispel myths of “the Old South” and illuminate “why it’s not your grandfather’s Civil War anymore” (Alan Blinder, “A Painstaking Mission to Save Atlanta’s Colossal Civil War Painting,” New York Times, 8 February 2017, online).

3. “The Battle of Gettysburg,” Washington Post, 24 April 1892, p. 10.

4. Quoted in Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008), pp. 60–61.

5. Fried, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 79.

6. Griffiths explains that in contrast with earlier panoramas, which she describes as “naturalistic” in their focus upon a still landscape from a singular vantage point, works such as Philippoteaux’s Gettysburg Cyclorama are necessarily “composite” in form, amalgamating various moments from battles that spanned hours or even days into a single, frozen painting (44). The composite cyclorama creates “a seemingly whole, though actually fragmented, vision of reality” (48). The cyclorama’s illusive tactics therefore conceal rather than engage with the representational problems Fried highlights, furthermore circumventing the complexities of time and traumatic memory as representational problems for realism.

7. This shift began with Amy Kaplan’s intervention in what she characterizes as either formal or historical approaches to American realism: the first approach aimed to identify realism’s distinguishing formal qualities yet ignored “the social context embedded in those forms,” while the second over-privileged historical periodization and reduced literary works to their degree of “mimetic accuracy,” thus quarantining literature entirely from “the arena of social history” (The Social Construction of American Realism [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988], pp. 4–5). Both approaches, Kaplan contends, inadvertently sequestered realist fiction from the real social processes it grapples with. Taking up Kaplan’s line of intervention, Jane Thrailkill has argued that studies of literary realism have been stilted by a tendency to tether “the epistemological status of realist works” to “scientific positivism”: the idea that the realist author is supposed to maintain an objective distance from the “facts and objects” she represents (Affective Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007], pp. 23, 24). Thrailkill proposes “a conceptual genealogy for a new understanding of literary realism,” advocating for greater attention “to the neurological and affective components of human experience”: rather than “mimesis, referentiality, and fixity,” she calls for the importance of “mediation, relationality, and above all motion” to the work of realism (10).

8. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2001), p. 244.

9. Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Boyd in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Viking Press, 2014).

10. In a letter dated 12 September 1903, Bierce complains about the ruthless literary marketplace, claiming, “All my life I have been hated and slandered by all manner of persons except good and intelligent ones” and he imagines literary critics must “lie awake nights to invent new lies” about him “and new means of spreading them without detection.” Yet he encourages people like him to find comfort knowing that “in a few years they’ll all be dead—just the same as if you had killed them. Better yet, you’ll be dead yourself. So—you have my entire philosophy in two words: ‘Nothing matters’” (A Much Misunderstood Man, pp. 110–11).

11. Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, pp. 567–68.

12. Bierce, “The Short Story,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories, ed. Tom Quirk (New York: Penguin, 2000), p. 253. Subsequent citations indicated parenthetically. Bierce draws from the literary criticism of Edgar Allan Poe and Brander Matthews, both of whom celebrated the “unity of effect” which they believed was unique to short fiction. It was Matthews who coined the term “short-story” in “The Philosophy of the Short-Story” (Lippincott’s, 37 [October 1885], 10), arguing that whereas the novelist can “bend his best energies to the photographic reproduction of the actual,” contenting readers with “a cross-section of real life,” the short story writer must achieve greater “originality and ingenuity.”

13. Bierce, “The Short Story,” p. 253 (my emphasis).

14. Stanley, “Communications: The Passion for Realism, and What is to Come of It,” Dial, 16 April 1893, p. 238.

15. Stanley, p. 239.

16. Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, p. 593.

17. Stanley, p. 240.

18. Stanley, pp. 239–40.

19. Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man, p. 221.

20. T. H. Ribot, The Psychology of the Emotions (New York: Scribner’s, 1900), pp. 160–62.

21. Thrailkill, “Emotive Realism,” Journal of Narrative Theory, 36 (Fall 2006), 366.

22. Lawrence Berkove’s endeavor to connect “Bierce’s concern about the use of reason to his concern for mankind” by determining “the basic elements of his thought, and by describing the operation of his literary techniques” (A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce [Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2002], pp. xiii–xiv) embodies what Thrailkill critiques as the tendency to relate literary realism to “‘cognitive value’ rather than aesthetic experience: with the rational, and rationalizing, mind instead of the feeling body” (“Emotive Realism,” p. 365). The tacit division and hierarchizing of mind and body is particularly limiting in a study of Bierce, whose stories repeatedly expose the unreliability of the rationalizing mind in crisis, highlighting instead the knowledge of the sensing body.

23. Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880– 1940 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 35.

24. “The Cyclorama,” Scientific American, 6 November 1886, p. 296.

25. Yoni Appelbaum, “The Half-Life of Illusion: On the Brief and Glorious Heyday of the Cyclorama,” Atlantic, 8 February 2012, online.

26. Fried, pp. 78–79.

27. “The Cyclorama,” p. 296.

28. Finseth, The American Civil War: An Anthology of Essential Writings (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 11.

29. Finseth, “The Civil War Dead: Realism and the Problem of Anonymity,” American Literary History, 25 (2013), 542.

30. J. L. Harris, “The Battle of Gettysburg,” Zion’s Herald, 18 March 1885, p. 86.

31. Noel G. Harrison, “Virtual Civil Wars,” America’s Civil War, 18 (July 2005), 52.

32. Appelbaum, “Half-Life.”

33. Griffiths, pp. 39, 40.

34. Jeffry Uecker, “Portland’s Gettysburg Cyclorama: A Story of Art, Entertainment, and Memory,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 113 (Winter 2012), 39.

35. Eric Felten, “The Battle of Gettysburg Painted . . . in the Round!” Humanities, 37 (Summer 2017), 27.

36. Quoted in Appelbaum, “Half-Life.”

37. Appelbaum, “The Great Illusion of Gettysburg,” Atlantic, 5 February 2012, online.

38. Quoted in “Bain on the Senses and the Intellect,” Fraser’s, 53 (February 1856), 225.

39. Quoted in Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Lexicographer (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. 159.

40. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, p. 60.

41. Van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score,” in Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 155–56.

42. Appelbaum, “Half-Life.”

43. “The Battle of Gettysburg,” Washington Post, p. 10.

44. Quoted in Harrison, p. 52.

45. Cathy N. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffible (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984), p. 28.

46. Thrailkill, “Pragmatism and the Evolutionary Child,” American Literary History, 24 (2012), 268. As Thrailkill notes, William James often celebrates childhood as a time of play—“a full-bodied, curious encounter with and manipulation of the material world” (270).

47. William James argues that although both sensations and perceptions entail cognition, sensations are “the immediate results upon consciousness of nerve-currents as they enter the brain, and before they have awakened any suggestions or associations with past experience,” while perception is “the higher consciousness about things,” wherein “‘[i]deas’ about the object mingle with the awareness of its mere sensible presence” and we begin to “name it, class it, compare it,” and so on (Psychology: Briefer Course [New York: Holt, 1900], pp. 12, 13). Rather than draw a crisp line between sensation and perception, as dualistic philosophers had done to quarantine the mind/thought from body/feeling, James situates them on the same continuum: “Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities,” he explains, “sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought” (“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in William James: The Essential Writings, ed. Bruce W. Wilshire [Albany: SUNY Press, 1984], pp. 328–29).

48. Ray Morris, Jr., has traced several parallels between the boy’s experiences and those of the Union army at Chickamauga. See “The Woods of Chickamauga,” in Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).

49. Gerald E. Myers, William James: His Life and Thought (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), p. 86.

50. James, The Principles of Psychology (1918; rpt. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), p. 726.

51. Myers, p. 86.

52. Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry, 28, i (2001), 5.

53. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, p. 43.

54. Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man, p. 71.

55. Finseth, “The Civil War Dead,” p. 538.

56. Kai Erikson, Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), p. 187.

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