Ambrose Bierce and the New American Death

By Jelson Mendoza

From the very beginning of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce there is a sense of hopelessness in face of the raw strength of nature over man.

“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.” (Bierce 1)

In the same manner, the American Civil War prompted a new growth in the endless struggle of man against man in which society itself found itself in awe of its own destructive potential. Simply put, there is good reason for many historians to consider the Civil War to be the first modern war in its context of total war, new rifling techniques, ironclad ships and repeater rifles.

owl1

A relatively modern day photograph of the type of railroad bridge depicted in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” taken by David M. Owens. The support beams below the actual bridge shows complete and utter negligence, a clear parallel to the unwanted and nameless nature of death on the battlefield during the American Civil War, essentially showing that even structures such as this one cannot be given an ideal “burial” or retirement. The scars of time like any veteran who returned home after the carnage of battles such as Antietam or Vicksburg, are extremely clear by the rust and graffiti.  

One of the mainstays of discussions regarding “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is the nature of death in the story and how unceremoniously the main character, Peyton Fahrquhar’s body is left hanging on the bridge itself. This reflects other real life stories of unceremonious burials and lack of veneration towards enemy dead on both sides of the conflict. The lead up to his death also seems to indicate a level of mockery in that Bierce himself appears to hold no respect for a dead Confederate guerilla as Professor Loren P.Q Baybrook states, ” The strange “whispers” he had been hearing were, in the clinical perspective of asphyxiation, the gasps emanating from that same tongue. Farquhar is literally choking on his own tale.” (Baybrook).

“Peyton Fahrquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of Owl Creek bridge.” (Bierce 6)

However, in the same vein as the gross finality and lack of veneration towards his death, Bierce describes the motion of his corpse as “gentle” and in some ways demonstrates a desire for a simpler time when warfare was seen as a “gentleman’s game”. However by the time of the Civil War, there was no going back to romanticism of warfare as David Faust points out,

“A focus of wonder and horror, battle sites in fact became crowded with civilians immediately after the cessation of hostilities: besides relatives in search of kin, there were scavengers seeking to rob the dead, entrepreneurial coffin makers and embalmers…” (Faust 85)

Surely, previous wars going so far back as that of the Roman Empire were privy to battlefield looters and other abuses of the dead, but in the very specific scope of 19th century America, the nature of death had changed. In the end, with modern war came modern means of coping with the effects such as the Red Cross and nurses who in the stead of mothers would see to it that each soldier would have a “peaceful” death. In the end, this notion of a peaceful death even in face of trauma was a response to changing and malleable definitions of how one can die “honorably” (and in some way mockery and predatory practices such as coffin makers appearing in the aftermath of a battle) if such a condition ever existed in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Baybrook, Loren P.Q. “DANCING DRIFTWOOD IN “AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE”.” Loren P. Q. Baybrook on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. 2005. Accessed November 06, 2017. http://www.ambrosebierce.org/journal1baybrook.html.

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