Ambrose Bierce fought in the Civil War with the Union Army. His service extended for the duration of the war, during which time he saw firsthand the depravity and violence associated with warfare in general. He knew the feel and smell of battle, and the vocabulary of all things military was second-nature to him. He also knew from his observations of the War Between the States of the special sadness inherent in a war dividing families, which civil conflicts tend to involve. The Civil War pitted American against American, with the righteous cause of abolition at its core. That cause, however, did not harden Bierce to the humanity that existed on the other side of the war. His 1890 short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” takes no sides in its depiction of the hanging from the bridge that gave the story its title. The Union soldiers are portrayed as coldly efficient in the performance of their mission, the execution of a Confederate saboteur, and are ascribed no redeeming qualities save for that professionalism. In perhaps the story’s most poetic line, Bierce describes the qualities these soldiers bring to the task at hand as follows:
“Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.”
At the center of Bierce’s story is Peyton Farquhar, given to be a gentleman farmer of the South. Bierce makes no effort to demonize this man, despite himself having fought against everything for which Farquhar stood. The esteemed Southerner is presented as matter-of-factly as are his presumed executioners:
“Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause.”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is divided into three parts. Parts I and III tell in intricate detail of the preparations for the hanging and of the scene in which it takes place. Part II is presented in “flashback” form. It is during Part II that the reader is introduced to the subject of the deliberative process described in such minute detail in Part I. The extent to which Southern culture was imbued in its inhabitants is inferred, as in the quote above, by Bierce’s description of Farquhar’s wife responding to a visiting soldier’s – whom they believe to be a Confederate but who is subsequently revealed to be “a Federal scout” – request for a drink of water:
“Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands.”
As Bierce describes Farquhar’s desperate effort at escaping his execution when the rope tied around his neck snaps and he plunges into the river below, he further emphasizes the humanity in this individual, with thoughts of his family alternating with the sight of the Union soldiers firing at his drifting body from the bridge above. That this effort at escape turns out to be nothing more than Farquhar’s final thought before dying at the end of the rope provides the story a powerful conclusion that makes the reader entirely sympathetic with a slave-owner who has sought to sabotage the bridge in support of Confederate efforts.
Bierce’s story is nonjudgemental. He has been shaped by his experiences in a barbaric conflict, and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is testament to the sorrows he witnessed.