Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga” possesses classic Biercean features, including the violence of war and a bizarre version of reality. The chief difference in this story, however, is that the bizarre reality, for all its appearance as such, is no dream; it is all too real.
The story tells of a small boy, who, with toy wooden sword in hand, wanders off into the woods to fight invisible foes, just as his ancestors have battled real ones. The boy strays too far and becomes lost. Finally, he lies down to rest and sleeps for several hours. Soon after he awakes, he is joined by hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers making their way in macabre fashion through the twilight near where the boy lies. Rather than being frightened by them, he is entertained. He even tries to play with them and eventually, sword in hand, takes a position in front of the group and “leads” them.
Soon he and the soldiers come upon a fire. He then recognizes the buildings of his own plantation and runs in search of his mother, whom he finds, herwhite face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.
The child attempts to scream, but it is...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
There is actually only one character in this story—the six-year-old boy who wanders away from his home and gets lost in the forest—and even he is not individualized but rather is presented simply as “the child.” When he encounters defeated soldiers in retreat from the Civil War battle of Chickamauga, his response to them is one only of childish curiosity. Although the soldiers are grotesquely wounded, maimed, and bleeding, the boy sees them as circus animals and clowns, and instead of being horrified, as the reader is, he is delighted at having someone with whom to play. He uses his toy sword to lead the men back whence he has come, leaving many of them dying in a river as he makes his way home. When he reaches his home, he discovers that it is burning and his mother is dead, her brains blown out by an artillery shell. The story ends with the boy making inarticulate cries—“a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil.” The reader’s final shocking realization is that the child is a deaf-mute.
This climactic discovery “explains” the most striking aspect of the story—the disengaged and almost autistic response that the boy makes to the horrors of war. It is the gap between the boy’s indifferent response and the reader’s shock that gives the story the powerful impact that it has. Ambrose Bierce’s most basic purpose here is to create an antiwar story; he does this by setting up a tension between an innocent, childish...
(The entire section is 600 words.)