Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamuaga”
Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga” accounts for the horror of war, even in the eyes of the ideal youth. The story is different from most war time works because it doesn’t propagandize any aspect of the war; Bierce, for better or worse, describes war for what it is and what it does to the person.
Reading and dissecting “Chickamauga” without taking into account Bierce’s personal history is utterly foolish. Bierce, a union soldier until the mid-1860’s, served in the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. He was 21 at the time of the battle. Looking at the story of Chickamauga with that knowledge in hand, it is hard to think the young deaf and dumb child running through the forest isn’t a young, pre-literature career, Bierce, trying to comprehend all the images he is seeing.
Bierce’s first point is to establish the mindset of the solider and he doesn’t waste any time in doing so, establishing the youth in the first paragraph. Bierce writes:
“One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. It was happy in a new sense of freedom from control, happy in the opportunity of exploration and adventure; for this child’s spirit, in bodies of its ancestors, had for thousands of years 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.” (Bierce, 125))
First, the child strays from the “Rude home,” a comment on where the boys fighting the wars of businesses were coming from; the families of plantation owners and northern captains of industry were not present on these battlefields – they came from rural farms. The other important phrases revolved around the youth’s feelings of adventure in lands they hadn’t seen. These boys from rural farms had most likely not seen anything outside of their respective states.
The next pivotal step in the progression of the boy’s character is his first altercation with the wild: the rabbit. Bierce writes:
“Advancing from the bank of the creek he suddenly found himself confronted with a new and more formidable enemy: in the path that he was following, sat, bolt upright, with ears erect and paws suspended before it, a rabbit! With a startled cry the child turned and fled, he knew not in what direction, calling with inarticulate cries for his mother, weeping, stumbling, his tender skin cruelly torn by brambles, his little heart beating hard with terror–breathless, blind with tears–lost in the forest!” (Bierce, 126)
The rabbit serves a purpose. It wouldn’t be in there if it didn’t/. Is the rabbit a symbol for the boy’s first altercation with war? Yes and no. Bierce uses the rabbit because it is something the reader can visualize. We know a rabbit. We understand a rabbit. So does the boy. The rabbit is Bierce’s symbol for what war is portrayed as by the media of the time. The boy reacts to the wild animal because he is supposed to react to the wild animal. One of the main points of Bierce’s story is we do not understand what war actual is in reality.
The beauty, or, justifiably, horror, of Bierce’s story is his description of what war was through the eyes of the little child. Bierce details the soldiers crawling through the woods, some with prominent appendages missing, striving to reach the stream to get water – equating them to animals. Bierce writes:
“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. … And so the clumsy multitude dragged itself slowly and painfully along in hideous pantomime–moved forward down the slope like a swarm of great black beetles, with never a sound of going–in silence profound, absolute.” (Bierce, 127)
This paragraph and the one previous to that are Bierce’s tour de force. The men crept on their hands and knees and dragged their feet. They were maimed, bleeding and devoid of any humane presence. The contrast of the boy’s laughter and the ghastly gravities of the men’s situation was a “dramatic contrast.” All of these intricate and dynamically phrased details set the scene for what war is and how the boy – any young youth enrolling in the war – would react to what they are seeing.
The last part to note is the revelations the boy has when the war finally reaches where his home. Bierce writes:
“For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation, and then ran with stumbling feet, making a half-circuit of the ruin…. The child was a deaf mute.” (Bierce, 129)
There are two points Bierce has in his ending. The first is Bierce’s devolution of the human: When the youth sees his mother’s corpse he has fully become one of the people he saw in the woods – a shell of his former self; an animal that reacts and cannot process things logically any longer. That is Bierce’s opinion of what the war does to the human.
A supplementary point I hadn’t thought of prior to this is focusing on when the child actually did react. He saw horrific things leading the army of crawling men to the creek. He didn’t react until he saw the reality he once knew. That is when the horror of war became real to him. It affected him because it took his mother and the people of the farm. This seems to be Bierce’s larger point among the ending. The Civil War was horrible on the American population, destroying nearly a third of the population according to a conversation we had in class.
Maybe that is why Bierce’s short story is so far reaching – because this is the first time an action in American literature was this prominent. I liken Bierce’s Chickamauga to the televised content of the Vietnam War. This was the first time something could clearly illustrate what was happening in the world without perceived bias.
Bierce, “Chickamauga.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature: Volume Two. 1st. Karen S. Henry. Boston. Bedford, 2008. 125-129. Print.