The Affair at Coulter's Notch

by Ambrose Bierce

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"The Affair at Coulter's Notch" Summary

The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” is an 1899 short story set in Virginia during the American Civil War.

  • At the command of his general, a Union colonel orders Captain Coulter, a Southern Unionist, to open cannon fire on a plantation house from which Confederate soldiers are retreating.
  • An adjutant-general reveals to the colonel that the general previously came into conflict with Captain Coulter and his wife, a secessionist.
  • After winning the battle, the Union soldiers shelter in the plantation house and learn it belongs to Captain Coulter, whom they find cradling the bodies of his wife and child.


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Last Updated on December 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

Two outfits of Union and Confederate soldiers are positioned across each other in the hills of Virginia during the American Civil War. The Union infantry is under orders to hold fire. In a surprise move, the commander of the Union division, a general, suggests to his next-in-command colonel that a cannon gun be positioned at a “notch,” or depression, on the peak of the hill on which they are stationed.

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The general wants the cannon to be specifically manned by Captain Coulter, a young officer who has earned fame for his courage in battle. Since the notch can hold only one cannon at a time and is clearly visible to the enemy, the colonel assumes the general’s suggestion is meant as a joke, mocking the colonel’s admiration of Captain Coulter. However, the colonel learns that even though the suggestion arises from irony, the general wants it carried out. Captain Coulter would be facing twelve Confederate artillery guns planted on the grounds of a large plantation house down the hill. Though the colonel knows the move is unnecessary, as the Confederate troops are already in retreat, he cannot contradict the general.

When the colonel instructs the twenty-three-year-old Captain Coulter to engage the twelve Confederate guns, Coulter responds with hesitation, briefly questioning the move. Reading the captain’s “husky and broken” voice and pale manner as signs of cowardice, the colonel is mortified, while the general walks off in displeasure. However, before the colonel can arrest Coulter for insubordination, the younger man signals his bugler to call up a cannon to the notch. The narrative ominously reveals that this depression will come to be known as “Coulter’s Notch” from this day on. Soon, a manned gun arrives at the crest in a caisson drawn by six horses, and “with a deafening report the affair at Coulter's Notch had begun.”

Captain Coulter’s gunfire is immediately followed by twelve reports from the Confederate side, and the battle heats up. Unable to stop the almost certain slaughter of his soldiers, the colonel moves away to the side, observing the battle with resignation. The colonel notes that Coulter’s company’s fire is directed mainly at the one Confederate cannon which is clearly visible in the lawn of the plantation house and that the house itself is taking many hits. He asks his adjutant-general not to report to anyone Captain Coulter’s earlier reluctance to take orders.

Another officer approaches the colonel, seeking permission for the rest of the union troops, apart from Captain Coulter’s company, to open fire on the enemy. The colonel refuses, as the general’s orders for the infantry to hold their fire are still in force. Meanwhile, the visibly disturbed adjutant-general confesses to the colonel that “there is something wrong” with the general’s order for Captain Coulter to man the notch. Much to the colonel’s surprise, the adjutant-general reveals that Captain Coulter’s wife had an unpleasant encounter with the general the previous year, when the general’s last division was encamped near the Coulter home. Captain Coulter is in the unusual position of being a Unionist from the South, while his wife is a “red-hot secessionist” whose views may have clashed with those of the general.

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Though the general was transferred to the colonel’s division after a complaint on behalf of the Coulters, the adjutant-general finds it extremely puzzling that Coulter’s company was later assigned to that very division.

As the sound of a horrendous explosion fills the air, the colonel, disturbed by his junior officer’s revelations, shouts for Lieutenant Williams to stop the cannon fire immediately. However, he learns Williams is already dead. The colonel rides on horseback to the notch to instruct Captain Coulter to cease fire. There he finds that several men of Coulter’s company are dead, and the rest are “in ruins.” Bleeding and covered in black soot, the surviving soldiers are lost in the arduous task of loading and firing the heavy cannon gun. An unrecognizable “fiend seven times damned” emerges from the smoke. It is Captain Coulter, whom the colonel signals to stop the fire. Coulter bows and obeys him.

The colonel notes that the Confederate fire, too, has ceased completely. The reason becomes clear when his company descends the hill toward the plantation house where the enemy was positioned: signs show the Confederate soldiers have died or retreated. The ground is littered with dead horses, but the fallen men have been carried away, as “their torn and broken bodies would have given too great satisfaction” to the Union soldiers.

The Union company enters the house, where the colonel establishes himself and his men. The house has been shattered by the gunfire, and the air is filled with powder smoke. Relieved to be indoors, the soldiers settle in for the night, discussing the almost total loss of Captain Coulter’s company. The interlude is interrupted at supper when an orderly informs the colonel about mysterious shuffling sounds emerging from the basement of the house.

The orderly, the colonel, and a staff officer descend the dark cellar stairs to investigate the matter. The candle the orderly is holding reveals a seated human figure against a wall, its head bowed and knees bent. Appearing to be that of a man, the face has a long beard. However, as the three Union soldiers draw closer, they can make out that the beard is actually a dead woman’s long hair, spread against the man’s chest. The man is holding the corpse of a woman, which in turn is gripping an infant’s dead body. The colonel dryly observes that the cellar was not bomb-proof after all, the Union fire having killed the inhabitants of the house.

Standing in silence, the men are already thinking of retreating upstairs when the male figure jerks up his head and gazes at them calmly. He is alive, his face completely blackened by soot and bloodied. The orderly and the staff officer step back, while the colonel calmly asks the man what he is doing there.

With great civility, the man replies that the house belongs to him. The colonel wants to know to whom the woman and infant belonged. The man replies that they are his wife and child. The man himself, whom the colonel has still not recognized, is Captain Coulter. The colonel finally understands the real reason behind Captain Coulter’s reluctance in opening fire on the plantation house.

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