Ambrose Bierce was an adventurous soul. As a young man, he heeded Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to bolster the Union Army. With the 9th Indiana Volunteers, he fought in numerous battles. At the Battle of Rich Mountain, Bierce’s selfless courage resulted in acclaim and promotion. And he was at Shiloh when General Ulysses S. Grant’s army rallied to victory after having suffered a nearly disastrous surprise attack.
However, while the author witnessed acts of valor and glorious victories, he also observed inhumane brutality and horrific suffering. And though the nickname Bitter Bierce, which he acquired during his later career as a writer, arose out of his biting commentary, perhaps its true origins lay deeper – in the influence traumatic war memories had on his temperament and his character. While protecting railroads in Tennesee, Bierce witnessed merciless guerilla warfare. At blood-soaked Chicamauga, among the war’s costliest battles, he helped protect the Union’s retreat. And during an ill-fated attack at Pickett’s Mill, Georgia, more than four hundred men of Bierce’s brigade were killed or wounded in a battle about which Bierce later expressed bitter misgivings. Finally, at Kennesaw Mountain, he suffered a head wound that nearly took his life and essentially ended his combat career. These harrowing events, and many others, colored his view of the world and his writing.
Bierce had just one more adventure during the Civil War. While on a lark in the Georgia countryside, he was captured by confederate forces. Fearing for his life, Bierce made a daring escape when his captors drifted off to sleep. After a torturous cross-country march and a perilous river crossing, he staggered into a Union camp. Bierce’s account of his exploit in “Four Days in Dixie” displays his sense of humor and his adventurousness while humorously highlighting the callousness of hardened veterans.
“Late that evening Colonel McConnell and his staff were chatting by a camp-fire in front of his headquarters. They were in a pleasant humor: some one had just finished a funny story about a man cut in two by a cannon-shot. Suddenly something staggered in among them from the outer darkness and fell into the fire. Somebody dragged it out by what seemed to be a leg. They turned the animal on its back and examined it—they were no cowards.
“‘What is it, Cobb?’ said the chief, who had not taken the trouble to rise.
“‘I don’t know, Colonel, but thank God it is dead!’
“It was not.”
Having narrowly survived the Civil War, Bierce rode a wave of westward migration, settling in San Francisco. There his sharp-edged criticism and black humor earned him the sobriquet “the wickedest man in San Francisco” as well as nationwide fame as a prolific and extraordinarily talented writer. Bierce also spent time in England where he wrote for London Magazines, the Dakota Territory where he struggled in placer mining, and finally in Washington D.C. where he continued his writing career. In 1913, Bierce travelled to Mexico and mysteriously disappeared in the turmoil of that country’s civil war.
Bierce once wrote, “If you want to read a perfect book there is only one way: write it.” Bierce himself wrote in a wide variety of formats as a journalist, poet and author. Today, he is remembered primarily for his cutting, and often insightful, epigrams and his shorts stories. Whether about the Civil War or macabre fantasy, Bierce’s stories often were grim and brutal.
In Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” a witness to a bizarre and bloody event addresses a skeptical coroner’s jury. The story includes elements that are common to Bierce’s supernatural fiction: a lonely (or isolated) protagonist, a mysterious and malevolent force, and, of course, a grisly death.
To learn more about the Devil’s Lexicographer, take a look at the New York Time’s review of Roy Morris Jr.’s “Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company.” Better still, read Terrence Rafferty’s , “Ambrose Bierce: The Man and his Demons,” also in the New York Times.