silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

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Why does the Union scout pretend to be a Confederate soldier? Why does he try to get the planter to sabotage the bridge?

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It was probably common practice for both the North and South armies to send scouts into enemy territory to look and listen. They would come back with whatever useful information they could obtain. Naturally their superiors would want to know anything they could learn about troop movements, troop encampments, artillery emplacements, supply depots, and other such information. The scouts would probably talk to civilians as much as they could, because this would be a better way of gathering information than through their own limited personal observation. The scouts would have to be disguised. They were risking execution if they were caught in the enemy's uniform, but the risk did not seem great as long as they steered clear of the enemy army itself. Communication was very limited in Civil War times. No doubt the Union scout who talks to Peyton Farquhar had some false papers and a memorized story to tell anyone who might have the authority to stop and question him.

The Union scout is not riding around in enemy territory trying to incite civilians to commit sabotage or any other hostile action against the invading Union army. He never once suggests to Farquhar that he should sabotage the Owl Creek Bridge. As a matter of fact, the scout never even states that he is with the Confederate army. He lets Farquhar ask the questions and make his own decision. Here is some of the significant conversation in Part II.

"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order."

"Suppose a man--a civilian and student of hanging--should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel," said Farquhar, smiling, "what could he accomplish?"

The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder."

Right at that point Mrs. Farquhar returns with the water and there is no further discussion of the bridge. The Union scout has apparently told Farquhar nothing but the strict truth. The scout will report to his superior officers that a man may try to set fire to the bridge that night. This will be only one piece of all the information he will bring back from his scouting expedition. The scout might not even want Farquhar to attempt to sabotage the bridge, but he has already warned him of what could happen if he got caught, and he has no particular motive to warn him again. He has to maintain his disguise as a Confederate soldier. The scouts were looking for information. It would be a waste of their time and energies to have them going around trying to get civilians into trouble. It was not even honorable military procedure. The Union army would try to maintain good relations with the civilians in the South, just as occupying armies always seem to do in most wars.

Ambrose Bierce wrote many tales about the Civil War, in which he served in the Union Army and fought in major battles such as Shiloh. "Parker Adderson, Philosopher" (1891) is about a captured Union spy who was caught while wearing a Confederate uniform and is scheduled to be hanged in the morning.


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