In the Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the main character Peyton Farquhar is about to be hanged from a railroad bridge in Alabama. But when he steps between the planks, the rope breaks and he tumbles into the river below. Or does he? We know that Farquar is a wealthy Alabama plantation owner who has attempted to set fire to the Owl Creek Bridge, but before he can do so, he is caught and tried as a spy. He is sentenced to be hanged, but it appears to the reader that Farquar has escaped and returned home to his family. Only in the last sentence of the story does the reader find that
"Peyton Farquar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."
Peyton Farquhar is a man with a strong feeling of allegiance toward the Confederate cause but, due to his "imperious nature", refuses to go through the proper route of joining the military. It is partly this trait that makes him a somewhat less likeable character, and for this reason, the reader may feel as if he is deserving of his ultimate fate.
Not knowing anything about military discipline, or about rules of engagement, Farquhar chooses to act as a vigilante by acting on his own accord. He is fooled by a Union soldier into going on their own to burn a bridge that would have blocked the northerners to get through. He got caught as a result, and processed as it is customary: death by hanging.
Perhaps it is the fact that he is a wealthy southerner that has always had things go his way what made him presume that he was above everyone else and should take matters into his own hands. Ultimately, Peyton is not meant to be neither a hero nor a villain, but another consequence of the brutal nature of war.
Farquhar was unable to participate in the war for causes that Bierce does not explain. His lack of action, along with the trick of the Federal scout goad his pride into trying to burn the bridge before the Union Army can advance further. I believe the threat of being hanged for trying this provokes his pride further to try it. It would be his chance to lay his life on the line for the cause he believes in. The scout used pride as bait to lure out any meddling southern citizens.
Remember, this story is about how individuals interpret the The mind sees what it wants to. Of all the sensory input he contorts throughout the story it first starts with the scout. He believed that he was encountering a chance to prove his worth and dedication to the cause. Instead he is duped by a spy seeking to expose partisans.
Farquhar is a loyal Southerner during the Civil War. He is tricked by a Union scout masquerading as a Confederate soldier into believing he could stop a Yankee advance into Southern territory by destroying the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. When he attempts to do this, he is captured by the Union Army and sentenced to hang.
In Section II of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the scout who is posing as a Confederate soldier tells Peyton Farquhar:
"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."
The Union officers know they are in enemy territory. There were many Southern civilians like Farquhar who were trying to help the Confederate cause by committing sabotage or even bushwhacking Union troops. That is why the order is posted everywhere. The South was a huge place and the Union forces were surrounded by hostile civilians. The commandant posted the order quoted by the scout because he had good reason to fear attacks from self-appointed guerrillas, all of whom owned rifles and hated the invaders.
Peyton Farquhar just happened to be one of the Southern activists who got caught. He was hanged from the bridge mainly to set an example. No doubt his body was left hanging for a long time, so that other Southerners would see it and be frightened. A hanging body sends an eloquent message.
In Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Peyton Farquhar is a pillar of the American South, which, during the period in question, the Civil War, can be roughly translated to mean a wealthy, upstanding citizen of the Confederacy, and an opponent of the abolitionist movement. Early in his story, Bierce provides the following description of his protagonist who, in the story's opening passages, is about to be executed by hanging:
"The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. . .Evidently this was no vulgar assassin."
Bierce goes on to expand upon his description of Peyton Farquhar, noting that this figure "was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family," and that, being "a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause." Bierce notes that Farquhar envisioned himself at one point as a soldier in the cause of the Confederacy, but one whose martial interests were impeded for reasons that are extraneous to the narrative.
In section II of his story, Bierce provides background to explain Farquhar's predicament as referenced in the narrative's opening passages, describing the main protagonist's encounter with a grey-clad soldier, presumably a Confederate soldier fighting on the same side of this conflict as that to which Farquhar's sympathies lie. It is soon revealed, however, that this grey-clad soldier is with the Union and has essentially set-up the well-to-do southerner as a presumed saboteur. The "Federal scout" does this by planting in the mind of Farquhar the suggestion of setting fire to the Owl Creek bridge, a key structure important to the movement of Union troops as they advance across the South:
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."
The answer to the question -- why was Peyton Farquhar hanged -- lies in this suggestion cynically offered by the Federal spy. Farquhar takes the bait, so to speak, and attempts to burn the bridge to prevent its exploitation by northern soldiers.