Idealistic Uncle and Cynical Nephew: Lucius Bierce, Ambrose Bierce, and the Civil War – Part 2

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Max Longley. See Part 1 here

Part Two: Ambrose and Uncle Lucius in the Civil War – and the war’s effects on them (mainly on Ambrose)

Ambrose served at the battlefront while his Uncle Lucius was serving at the home front.

William B. Hazen

Ambrose’s commanding officer (and later friend), General William B. Hazen (wikipedia)

Ambrose’s courage was praised by his brigade commander General William Hazen. Ambrose reciprocated Hazen’s respect and admiration, in contrast to other officers and generals, including Ulysses Grant, who earned Ambrose’s dislike. More evidence of Ambrose’s bravery came even from some fellow-soldiers who protested his promotion to Second Lieutenant in December 1862. One of these malcontents, writing to the Elkhart Review [Indiana], said promotions should come from elections from within the ranks, but even this naysayer agreed that Ambrose “knows no fear.”[1] This latter incident of anti-meritocratic griping could also have contributed to Bierce’s sour attitude to democracy.

Meanwhile, Lucius Verus Bierce was active on the Ohio home front. He organized a company of infantry and two companies of marines for battlefield service, without going to the fighting himself. Lucius was elected to the Ohio Senate where he supported the war effort. In fact, he thought the war should be fought even harder, striking at the Confederates and at slavery, but he worried about the proslavery influence wielded by Mary Lincoln, the President’s “sleeping companion”. In 1863 Lucius was appointed Assistant Adjutant General of U. S. Volunteers with the rank of major. He wore a sword which he’d picked up on the battlefield at the Battle of Windsor (see Part 1). His was mostly a desk job performed at first in the Ohio capital of Columbus, but when anti-draft riots broke out in Morrow County in the center of the state, Lucius came with eleven other troops to make arrests and stop the violence. He wrote in 1863 to his favorite nephew – not Ambrose, but L. V. “Lute” Hopkins, son of Lucius’ sister Lucinda (“Lute ” may have never served in the war). Lucius wrote “Lute” to congratulate him on the birth of a baby and to urge support for the Union (war party) ticket in the forthcoming Ohio elections in opposition to Clement Vallandigham, exiled in Canada, who was running as a Peace Democrat: “We have got the rebels in a tight place, and every man should, by his vote, help in putting their allies in a still tighter place. I should not cry if they were put in the place Milton describes as the dwelling place of their relatives…” (emphasis in original). Vallandigham lost.[2]

Clement Vallandigham

On June 8, 1864, Ambrose wrote his then-fiancée’s sister showing that, unlike his uncle, he was already developing a certain cynicism about the war. He would rather die for the sisters than for “my country – for a cause which may be right and may be wrong.” He also didn’t expect to survive the war – “[e]very day some one is struck down who is so much better than I.” Soon afterward, on June 23, during the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, a Confederate sharpshooter put a bullet through Bierce’s head, but Bierce survived. He was, however, afflicted with bad headaches and fainting throughout his life.[3]

Lucius’ only daughter, 19-year-old Ella, died in December 1864, and the effect may be seen in a letter Lucius would write his alma mater: “If God was to try again, he could not make a better child, and in taking her from me, I do not think he did right.” Whether from this tragedy or from overwork, Lucius’ health began to deteriorate, but he kept on. Transferred from Columbus to Dayton in the month of his daughter’s death, Lucius worked on clearing up some financial accounts, coming within $5 of balancing the books and making up the missing $5 from his own pocket. He commanded two mustering-out camps in Wisconsin after the fighting was over, and finally retired from the service on November 11, 1865.[4] Lucius had served honorably, but without going to the front.

Lucius continued his legal work and his historical research on the Western Reserve. His strongest friends were in the Masons and the new Grand Army of the Republic. He served a postwar term as Mayor of Akron and sponsored the Bierce Cadets, a short-lived group of young militiamen. As his final years approached, the childless Lucius left his property to local universities and the City of Akron. He did not leave the property to collateral relatives like his nephew Ambrose, or even to his favorite nephew “Lute.” He died on the 11th anniversary of his discharge from the Army – November 11, 1876.[5]

Ambrose left the Army in January 1865 to work for the U. S. Treasury Department in hostile northern Alabama. Then he rejoined the Army but, not achieving a wished-for promotion, he returned yet again to civilian status and worked a menial job at the U. S. Mint in San Francisco, reading widely to better his knowledge while beginning to publish articles  in local journals. Ambrose wrote and edited many newspapers and periodicals in San Francisco with breaks to visit England, and to try gold mining in Deadwood, South Dakota. The publications he wrote for and sometimes helped edit in San Francisco include the News Letter, Bret Harte’s Overland Monthly, the Argonaut, the Wasp, and finally William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner.

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst, who employed Ambrose even when Ambrose disagreed with his boss (wikipedia)

At the end of his career he moved away from San Francisco and worked for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan. His journalistic crusades included defense of Chinese immigrants and opposition to railroad robber barons – directing his ire and cynicism against perceived injustices. Ambrose left journalism altogether in 1909 so he could compile a lengthy collected edition of his short stories and essays. His final disappearance – around 1913 – remains unsolved and the location of his body unknown, though he had announced his intention to cover a civil war in Mexico.[6]

Ambrose’s daughter Helen later said: “soldiering in the Civil War, he had seen many shattered bodies, and could not rid himself of the horror of them.”[7] On the other hand, Ambrose claimed that his war memories had been numbed or softened: “…I recall with difficulty the death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque.” This claim seems at odds with his vivid reconstruction of horrific wartime scenes in his stories, but it may indicate that he had some control over when he summoned up war memories. Or it could mean that his daughter was correct and Ambrose was “in denial.” In his later years in Washington, D. C., he was a habitué of the Army and Navy Club and spoke at the Army War College.[8]

Ambrose indicated a great deal of disillusionment with the Civil War, in contrast to  Lucius’ lifelong zeal for righteous militarism. Rejecting a postwar offer of retroactive back pay, Ambrose said that “when I hired out as an assassin for my country, that wasn’t part of the contract.” He told one of his publishers (who had been born in Virginia) that he wondered if he (Ambrose) had been on the right side in the war. In 1890, after a quarter-century of postwar politics, Bierce said that the men he commanded “loved their country and fought for it with never a thought of grabbing it for themselves; that is a trick which the survivors were taught later by gentlemen desiring their votes.” In 1903, while visiting West Virginia, he learned that a “dead rebel” had lately been dug up in the area, and wrote a friend that he would beg the dead Confederate’s “pardon.” Ambrose came to believe that, contrary to the idealism of those who fought for the Union and against slavery, “the country’s institutions ought not to be preserved, and that the slaves were not fit to be freed.”[9]

Ambrose had a particular disgust for the way peoples and nations – such as Americans – rushed into military crusades based on idealism and the desire to conquer evil, an attitude Uncle Lucius often displayed. In William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, Ambrose cast his eye on the Spanish-American War. Though there was an interval, after the sinking of the Maine, when he seemed to share his boss’s pro-war position, Ambrose relapsed into war-skepticism. He even praised a female peace activist, Jessie Schley. Schley’s aims, Bierce claimed, were “entirely commendable,” and if women became total pacifists they “would be right nine times in ten.”[10]

The Civil War, so central to his life, either created or strengthened Ambrose’s personality traits. For Lucius, although he worked tirelessly in his home-front post, the Civil War was not such a transformative experience. And it does not seem to have killed his romanticism about fighting for righteousness. There’s no indication he shared Ambrose’s transgressive regrets about the preservation of the Union and the freeing of the slaves, or for his support of freedom-fighters from the Canadian rebels to John Brown.

There are some points of similarity between the two, in that Ambrose, intentionally or not, took some of his uncle’s traits and greatly magnified them. Lucius moved away from traditional religion while retaining a belief in divine providence and a suspicion of anti-Christian “infidelity.” Ambrose also took the journey away from traditional faith, but he went to much greater lengths. He gloried in being anti-Christian, and in adopting a fatalistic philosophy. Both men displayed a remarkable work ethic, which conventional wisdom at the time would have credited to their New England ancestry. Lucius shared the conventional wisdom and reverently traced the history of New England migrants to Ohio’s Western Reserve, while Ambrose gaily mocked his Puritan heritage.[11] Lucius’ sarcastic wit was noted by contemporaries and is recorded in his youthful journal, while Ambrose took things up a notch and actually managed to make a living through writing deeply cynical prose.

Ambrose of course is a comparatively more famous figure. Lucius is mostly known today among Ambrose’s fans, and even among the latter, the interesting similarities and contrasts between uncle and nephew may not be fully appreciated.

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Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and many articles.

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[1] David M. Owens, The Devil’s Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006),, 15-18, 43-44

[2] Raymond Burnette Pease, Growing Up With the Western Reserve: A Biography of Lucius Verus Bierce (1801-1876), 1930 manuscript in Bierce Library, University of Akron, copy kindly furnished to the author by library staff, 4, 82, 110-15; “1853-Lucius V. Bierce,” https://www.freemason.com/pgm/1853-lucius-v-bierce/; “Lucius V. Hopkins,” https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/73437253/lucius-v-hopkins. For the Ohio election, see David T. Dixon, “1860’s Politics: The Ohio Election that ‘Saved the Union’,” Emerging Civil War, October 28, 2016, https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/10/28/1860s-politics-the-ohio-election-that-saved-the-union/.

[3] Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 80-83, 88-89; Owens, 115.

[4] Pease, 3, 115; “1853-Lucius V. Bierce.”

[5] Bease, 180-90.

[6] Morris, 97-118, 155, 170-73, 193-94, 247-63; Lawrence I. Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2002), 5-24, 29. For Cosmopolitan Magazine’s history, see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cosmopolitan-magazine.

[7] Helen Bierce, “Ambrose Bierce at Home,” American Mercury 30, no. 120 (December 1933), 458, quoted in Berkove, 32, 195n3.

[8] Lawrence I. Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002), 33; Owens, 14, 121

[9] Morris, 2, 4, 201; Berkove, 34, 36.

[10] Berkove, 28; Morris, 231-35, 237.

[11] Pease, 151-54; Morris, 9, 158-59.

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3 Responses to Idealistic Uncle and Cynical Nephew: Lucius Bierce, Ambrose Bierce, and the Civil War – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Idealistic Uncle and Cynical Nephew: Lucius Bierce, Ambrose Bierce, and the Civil War – Part 1 | Emerging Civil War

  2. Sean Michael Chick says:

    Thank you for both of these pieces. I wrote something on Bierce that I might polish off for the blog, one where I celebrate his cynicism.

    “What I Saw at Shiloh” is possibly the best Civil War battle account I have ever read.

  3. Patricia Tourney says:

    Thanks for the article. I have a children’s history(The Rebels) I bought at Fort Malden a few years back that mentions Bierce at the battle of Windsor. I swear I saw a plaque in Windsor that mentions him, but I haven’t re-found it.

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