An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Questions and Answers
by Ambrose Bierce

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Why was Peyton Farquhar hanged?

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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. 

 

 

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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...

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