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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

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In the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," was Peyton Farquhar a good person?

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Whether you believe Peyton Farquhar was a good person or not may depend to some degree on whether you favor the cause of the Union or the cause of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. In Part II of the story, we learn Farquhar's background. He was a plantation owner, so he probably owned slaves, and he was for secession; he actively worked as a civilian toward the goals of the Confederacy. He basically believed that "all is fair in ... war." The extent of his crime is not clarified, but it seems that he intended to sneak past a "picket post" guard, overcome the sentinel guarding the bridge, and set fire to the bridge, all in an effort to hamper the advance of the Union Army into Southern territory. It also seems that he may have tried to hang, and may have successfully hanged, the sentinel guarding the bridge. This is suggested by his words to the scout, "Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging" in describing himself. We might wonder how he became a "student of hanging." Had he hanged other Union soldiers before? We know that the "gray-clad soldier" who tells Farquhar about the bridge is actually a "Federal scout" who is trying to entice Farquhar into a "sting" operation. For the Union Army to have singled Farquhar out in this way suggests that he may have been a formidable foe whom they seriously desired to eliminate.

A few details of the story may help the reader be more sympathetic toward Farquhar. He was dedicated to his side in the war and willing to take personal risks to advance the cause of his homeland. There was "no adventure too perilous for him to undertake" for the Confederacy. The fact that he was deceived and trapped by the Union Army may make some readers take Farquhar's side. During his imaginary escape, his thoughts of his wife and children as he walks toward home and his joy at being reunited with his wife when he sees his house are details that suggest he is a loving father and husband. 

Ambrose Bierce created a character in Peyton Farquhar who could be good or bad, depending on how one reads the story and how one views the Civil War. However, most readers put their feelings about Farquhar's morality behind them while reading of his miraculous, and indeed fantastical, escape. The story impresses upon the reader that life is precious and survival is dear to anyone—Union or Confederate, soldier or civilian, good or bad.

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