Is Ambrose Bierce an Accurate Primary Source and Does it Matter?

Ambrose Bierce is certainly one of the most well-known authors of Civil War short stories, and his writing is compelling. Written with biting satire, twisted humor, and a type of sarcastic nostalgia, he earned his reputation as a strange writer. Despite his harsh criticism of many aspects of army life, he would strongly disagree with claims that war disillusioned him. Although he assuredly had a dark portrayal of war and suffering, it also very much made him. As much as he seemed to hate the war and the army, he almost didn’t know what to do without the army. His desire to return to war cost him his first marriage, and even in the 20th century he tried to give lectures about how orders should be given. The Civil War and the army were Bierce’s focus, and they were the focus of his most popular writings. In Shadows of Blue and Gray, an excellent collection of Bierce’s writings, his work is divided into the categories of “Tales Told & Stories Spun” and “Memoirs & Chronicles.” However, how accurate were even his more biographical works?

Literary scholar Stephen Cushman points out several historical inaccuracies within the biographical works, let alone the tales and stories section. He particularly focuses on the Chickamauga stories. As evidenced in his correspondence with Archibald Gracie, Bierce was not fully versed in the nomenclature of topography, troop positions, or even the objective importance of certain generals or actions.[1] Of course, much of this Bierce couldn’t have learned during the battle, as even he admits that the average soldier cannot know everything, but it shows that he was content to rest on his laurels of being a flesh witness, rather than enter a scholarly study of the battle, as Gracie had. Possibly his most damning inaccuracy is found when it seems that Bierce may have even mis-identified an image of himself.[2] There are certainly parallels between history and Bierce’s Chickamauga stories, both the more fictional “Chickamauga” and the more biographical “A Little of Chickamauga”, and perhaps some of the occurrences that lack historical backing were indeed witnessed by him. Yet many factual occurrences were omitted, indicating that Bierce was not trying to write a purely accurate story. Although Bierce would staunchly defend many of his statements, the opening sentence of “A Little of Chickamauga” explains that it was not really intended as a historical piece: “The history of that awful struggle is well known – I have not the intention to record it here, but only to relate some part of what I saw of it; my purpose not instruction, but entertainment.”[3]

Even if these more biographical works were inaccurate, does it matter? Yuval Harari, History professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, would certainly say it didn’t. His writings focus on the idea of being a “flesh-witness,” and Bierce certainly is one of those. Harari says that flesh-witness narratives are meant to only try to convey experiences and would ultimately fail because it is impossible to succeed.[4] Author and combat veteran Samuel Hynes makes similar statements about the absolute authority of men that were there and that the experiences cannot truly be explained. Hynes, who uses his own war experience as a credential, writes that war stories written by someone are “true because he was on the field; if you don’t know that, you don’t understand anything.”[5] Harari and Hynes both believe that war stories are inherently unable to be understood by those who did not experience it. Bierce would agree with that statement and uses his status as a flesh-witness to give his presentation of information credence.

While debating inaccuracies with Archibald Gracie IV, Bierce waved his flesh-witness credentials, writing that during the battle he had “nothing to do but look on, and, as a topographical officer, with some natural interest in, and knowledge of, the ‘lay of the land.’”[6] He was wrong about the identification of specific landmarks but was convinced that his credentials meant he was correct. He opens “What I Saw of Shiloh” with the quote “This is the simple story of a battle; such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier.”[7] Although Bierce was certainly a writer, this quote not only affirms his position as a flesh-witness, but also hints at how soldiers cannot truly explain events to those who were not there.

Ultimately, Bierce’s writings are not strictly fiction, nor are they strictly biography. However, they probably weren’t meant to entirely be either of those things. They simply are what they are. Is it enough to have simply been there? Do those credentials make what you have to say accurate? Bierce would say so and says as much to Gracie. They’re a telling of how Bierce experienced his war, and if you take the word of Harari, Hynes, or Bierce, then it doesn’t matter if they’re accurate or not, because they are what they are.

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[1] Stephen Cushman, “Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga, and Ways to Write History,” in Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 125-127.

[2] Cushman, 134.

[3] Ambrose Bierce, Shadows of Blue & Gray, edited by Brian M. Thomsen, (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2002), 220.

[4] Yuval Noah Harari, “Scholars, Eyewitnesses, and Flesh-Witnesses of War: A Tense Relationship,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume 7, Number 2 (June 2009): 221.

[5] Samuel Hynes, “The Man Who Was There,” in The Soldiers’ Tale (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 1.

[6] Cushman, 124.

[7] Bierce, 202.

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8 Responses to Is Ambrose Bierce an Accurate Primary Source and Does it Matter?

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    What’s an “accurate primary source?” EVERY source must be weighed against other sources, because everyone “leaves things out,” or shades the record for one reason or another. As regards Ambrose Bierce and his service with the Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, I would trust the accuracy of his letters home during the war. And not much else (although his writings after the war are still regarded as excellent works of fiction.)

  2. I think it matters a great deal. Bierce is used as the only source for Hess’s thesis that there is a “self imposed limit on courage…” in The Union Soldier in Battle, and his broader conclusion that there4 is a limit to a unit’s actions in combat where they simply do not respond to their leaders. As very dubious claim, and certainly not borne out by one source.

  3. Stan Killian says:

    After reading this sentence fragment several times, “that war stories are inherently unable to be understood by those who experience it.”, it appears to me that the words “ did not” have been left out. I believe that a reader who has never been in the military, and experienced the tumult and horrors off war, can hardly relate to the experiences of the participant.

  4. Chris Mackowski says:

    Bierce gets more scrutiny because his writing made him a public figure, but in essence, every vet who wrote about the war needs to be evaluated with the same kind of scrutiny. The stakes are higher for Bierce’s work because he reached/reaches a larger audience, but the temptations he faced while writing are the same every vet faced when recalling their exploits and adventures.

    I think the questions you raise about accuracy are the very same ones I’m exploring now with the Alfred Waud sketch “Advance to Spotsylvania.” There’s a distinction between truth, factualness, and accuracy–three interrelated but different things. I have no doubt that in Bierce’s case, he’s capturing truth and doing it accurately, but is he entirely factual? (And I have no doubt Waud was accurate in his depiction of events even if factually wrong on the date.)

  5. curtlocklear says:

    Excellent commentary on a great author.

  6. Mark Harnitchek says:

    this is a great question …. i guess the accuracy issue comes down to how the historian intends to use the source … for the potential author of a detailed work on Chickamauga, Bierce is probably not your “go to” primacy source … but after 3+ years of combat, his writing about violence, death and dying is as good as it gets … and if there is any doubt, just look at his picture.

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