The Library of America recently published a collection of the writings of Ambrose Bierce, arguably the most perceptive and incisive American writer of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Bierce labored in the shadow of the more famous Mark Twain, perhaps because Bierce's finely honed cynicism and mordant sense of humor cut more deeply than that of his contemporary. In his review of this volume for The Atlantic Monthly, the literary critic Benjamin Schwarz contends that Bierce's cynicism gave the writer a clear-eyed view of human nature that most other writers fail to achieve. Mr. Schwarz, like many biographers and literary critics, traces that cynicism at least in part to Bierce's harrowing experiences as a Union volunteer in the Civil War. Bierce fought in several major battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain, during the last of which he was severely wounded.
Mr. Schwarz sums up Bierce's opinion of the war in the following arresting passage:
Emerging from the charnel house, Bierce shunned any effort to invest the butchery with meaning - including the North's smug myth of a Battle Cry of Freedom (still cherished by many contemporary historians, as it flatters their sense of their own righteousness). For him the war was nothing more - could be nothing more - than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose.
Mr. Schwarz appears to concur in Bierce's view, denigrating historians who write about the war's freedom struggles as self-aggrandizing elitists. His invocation of "the North's smug myth" is steeped in George Fredrickson's outdated, acid interpretation of the conflict. Many contemporary historians rightly acknowledge that millions of Americans, black and white, northern and southern, slave and free, struggled to turn that war into an instrument of freedom for over three million slaves. These struggles were not a smug myth to those who labored for freedom, nor were they the invention of supercilious historians employed to demonstrate an outsized sense of their righteousness. They represented the honest efforts of individuals who worked unceasingly to give direction and purpose (often multiple purposes) to the awful crisis that enveloped them.
Even Ambrose Bierce's photo will judge you
Beyond Mr. Schwarz's disdain for historians who trumpet the war as a "Battle Cry of Freedom," one wonders if we can simply conclude that Bierce simply believed that the war truly was "devoid of virtue and purpose." While a teenager Bierce lived for a time with his uncle, an avowed abolitionist who claimed to have furnished munitions to John Brown when the latter settled in Kansas. The youngster imbibed some of his uncle's idealism, and when President Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the insurrection in South Carolina in 1861, Bierce was one of the first in his county to enlist. Looking back as an adult on his youthful enthusiasm for the adventure of war, he wrote, "At one time in my green and salad days I was sufficiently zealous for Freedom to engage in a four years' battle for its promotion. There were other issues involved, but they did not count for much with me." Unsurprisingly, hard campaigns and terrible battles left him with a far more jaundiced view of the conflict upon its conclusion. Though Bierce disavowed the naïve idealism of his callow youth, I doubt very much that he would have preferred a quick end to the war if it meant leaving slavery intact and safeguarded in the South for generations to come. War might have been an awful instrument to end slavery, but once it commenced it was the only instrument available. And despite his embittered recollections of his service later in life, he remained committed to the goal of fighting for freedom, re-enlisting and serving for nearly the duration of the war (and re-enlisting in the army again in 1866, well after the conflict had concluded).
Yet, even if we accept the notion that Bierce had concluded that the war was nothing more than a remorseless, purposeless slaughter, how much credence should we give that assessment? A brilliant and witty writer, his acerbic social critiques at times verged on self-pitying complaints against an unfeeling and hypocritical society. He shared this point of view with another contemporary writer, Henry Adams, who spilled much ink upbraiding a society that had not allowed him to ride the coattails of his illustrious political family to a life of ease and high public esteem. It is Bierce's sharper wit that saves his writing from being insufferable in the vein of Adams' tendentious autobiography. Still, our appreciation for his intelligence and prose style should not lead us to adopt his social critiques, particularly in regard to the war, like unquestioning sycophants.