Thursday, April 19, 2012

What He Saw at Shiloh - the best piece Bierce ever wrote

Some scholars think that “What I Saw of Shiloh” is the single best piece Bierce ever wrote, and I am inclined to agree. The final paragraph brings tears to my eyes.

So says S. T. Joshi (PDF), editor of the Library of America Ambrose Bierce collection.  What is he talking about?

Bierce fought in the Battle of Shiloh on its second day, April 7, 1862.  He was an officer but lowly enough to have no idea of the purpose or logistics of the battle, no hint of why his regiment was crossing this river at night, marching through this swamp, stopping at the edge of this forest, except that the enemy was up ahead somewhere.

In the morning Bierce and his platoon found them:

Then – I can’t describe it – the forest seemed all at once to flame up and disappear with a crash like that of a great wave upon a beach – a crash that expired in hot hissing, and the sickening “spat” of lead against flesh.  A dozen of my brave fellows tumbled over like ten-pins.  Some struggled to their feet, only to go down again, and yet again.

An artillery duel followed; “there was a very pretty line of dead continually growing in our rear, and doubtless the enemy had at his back a similar encouragement.”  Much of the art of Bierce’s memoir, aside from the care with which he observes, and remembers, lies in the detached and amused tone of his narration.  Bierce is writing in 1874 (and 1881, and 1909, as he published several versions of “What I Saw at Shiloh”), a decade (or two or four) after the war ended.  How detached or amused he was at the time I will not guess.

The subject demands some detachment.  How else to write about – well, I will skip the sentence about the mortally wounded but living soldier’s injuries – this:

One of my men, whom I knew to be a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him.  Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.

What is in the last paragraph?  Writing his account, Bierce claims, brings back the sensory experiences of the battlefield, and he shudders.  He knows that the quiet field is “the visible prelude” of some “monstrous inharmony of death.”  Yet those were the days “when all the world was beautiful and strange.”  Bierce “recall[s] with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque.”  He yearns for the return of his youth or, oddly, a personified Youth who might add beauty to “the drear and somber scenes of to-day.”

This does not bring tears to my eyes but I am a cold-hearted reader.  Bierce’s lament for his lost youth is ferociously ironic.  He says he would “willingly surrender an other life” for such a moment but he knows that the offer will not be accepted.  His lament, and the editor’s tears, are for the innocence before the fall.  What Bierce saw at Shiloh cannot be unseen but only transmuted into art and shown to others.


  1. Bierce comes at us from all angles in this one: nostalgia, bitterness, sarcasm, lyricism. I don't read the last paragraph as ironic, though. As far as I know, he was indeed genuinely tired of "the ugliness of the longer and tamer life"; and he did eventually head off to Mexico, for a last battle to end the life "that I should have thrown away at Shiloh." There's an overtone of suicide note in that last bit, I think.

  2. The irony I detect is in the yearning for innocence, actually. Bierce claims that the beauty and thrills are what return to him after all these years - this at the conclusion of an article filled with death, horror, people being burned alive. The yearning is real, but he knows it not detachable from the rest of his experience.

  3. Late to the party as usual, but I just found out Robert Enrico directed a trilogy of short films on the American Civil War based on some of Bierce's stories:
    An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
    The Mockingbird.

  4. Thanks, I had no idea. I guess I had seen stills from "Owl Creek Bridge," but I had no idea about the others.