Monday, May 30, 2022

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, on Dying Civil War Soldiers Reaching for a Last Drink of Water)

“Possibly his impressionable mind was half conscious of something familiar in its [an unfamiliar form] shambling, awkward gait. Before it had approached near enough to resolve his doubts he saw that it was followed by another and another. To right and to left were many more; the whole open space about him were alive with them--all moving toward the brook.

“They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.”—Civil war soldier (and later journalist-satirist) Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), “Chickamauga,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians: And Other Stories (1891)

Memorial Day originated in the wake of the Civil War. Just how harrowing the conflict was can be glimpsed through the life and work of a Union soldier who went on to win considerable fame—and, because of his mysterious disappearance a half-century later, just as much notoriety—as a writer: Ambrose Bierce.

Bierce felt that a noncombatant simply couldn’t understand what a veteran had experienced on the battlefront. Nevertheless, whether through a sense that he ought to bridge this gulf in comprehension or as an exorcism of the torment he had experienced, he wrote a collection of stories based on what he’d seen, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.

Trained as a topographical engineer, Bierce missed few if any details about landscapes and spaces, as seen here. I have not been able to find as many photographs in the “Western theater” of the conflict (where Chickamauga—the second-bloodiest battle of the whole war—took place) as battles in the East such as Antietam and Gettysburg. Bierce’s verbal account, then, will have to stand for the images that never were visually recorded and sold, but continued to haunt survivors for the rest of their lives.

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