Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga” possesses classic Biercean features, including the violence of war and a bizarre version of reality. The chief difference in this story, however, is that the bizarre reality, for all its appearance as such, is no dream; it is all too real.
The story tells of a small boy, who, with toy wooden sword in hand, wanders off into the woods to fight invisible foes, just as his ancestors have battled real ones. The boy strays too far and becomes lost. Finally, he lies down to rest and sleeps for several hours. Soon after he awakes, he is joined by hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers making their way in macabre fashion through the twilight near where the boy lies. Rather than being frightened by them, he is entertained. He even tries to play with them and eventually, sword in hand, takes a position in front of the group and “leads” them.
Soon he and the soldiers come upon a fire. He then recognizes the buildings of his own plantation and runs in search of his mother, whom he finds, herwhite face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.
The child attempts to scream, but it is revealed that he is a deaf-mute, a fact which explains how the soldiers have managed to lay waste to his family’s plantation, fight throughout the area where he lay, and begin their retreat, all while he slept.
The most intriguing aspects of “Chickamauga” concern the bizarre world it creates and the fact that this bizarre world is not illusion but reality. Ironically, the story begins almost as a story for children, as the narrator tells of the boy’s innocent foray against make-believe enemies. When the boy does encounter a real “foe”—a rabbit—he begins to cry and flees. The innocence that pervades this section, however, is accompanied by a dark, or at least more serious, underside, as both the boy’s motivation in his play and his actions are described in military terms, if only in mock fashion. Once the boy awakens, however, the story becomes dreamlike—or more accurately put, nightmarelike—as the hundreds of wounded soldiers stumble their way through the “ghostly mist.” Even more bizarre is the playful manner with which the boy regards the soldiers. The reader is even told that the boy “laughed as he watched them. But on and ever on they crept, these maimed and bleeding men, as heedless as he of the dramatic contrast between his laughter and their own ghastly gravity.”
The chief irony in all of this is that as bizarre as the reality painted by the narrator is, it is indeed reality. This is particularly surprising to the reader familiar with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Certainly the reader of that story would expect the child to awaken or in some other way reveal that he has only dreamt the horrifying scenes described by the narrator, but the dreamlike scenes are worse than any nightmare because they are real. It is an interesting irony, and almost certainly one that Bierce, the staunch opponent of realism, appreciated, that one of his most bizarre stories, in spite of its apparent nonrealist qualities, turns out to be one of his most coldly realistic tales.
There is actually only one character in this story—the six-year-old boy who wanders away from his home and gets lost in the forest—and even he is not individualized but rather is presented simply as “the child.” When he encounters defeated soldiers in retreat from the Civil War battle of Chickamauga, his response to them is one only of childish curiosity....
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