The Coup de Grâce

by Ambrose Bierce

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Major Creede Halcrow is the commanding officer of a Union Army infantry regiment from Massachusetts that is in combat during the Civil War. Captain Downing Madwell commands one of Halcrow’s companies. Sergeant Caffal Halcrow, the major’s brother, is an enlisted man in Madwell’s company. When Madwell was a second lieutenant in the regiment, Caffal was such a close friend that he joined as an enlisted man in order to be with him. Although the two men had each risen in rank, it was hard to maintain their friendship because military protocol created a “deep and wide” gulf between them.

One day as the regiment is on outpost duty a mile ahead of its main unit, it is attacked in a forest but holds its ground. Major Halcrow approaches Captain Madwell and orders him to take his company forward to hold the head of a ravine until the company is recalled. Halcrow offensively suggests that if Madwell is apprehensive, he may order his first lieutenant to go into the dangerous area instead. Just as sarcastically, Madwell agrees to take command personally and expresses the hope that the major will go along—preferably on horseback—so as to present a “conspicuous” target. He adds, “I have long held the opinion that it would be better if you were dead.” A half an hour after their ordered advance, Madwell and his company are driven back with a third of their men dead or dying. The rest of the regiment has been forced back several miles. With his company scattered through the forest, Madwell finds himself alone until he comes on Sergeant Halcrow, who has been horribly wounded.

Madwell examines his friend, finds his abdomen torn open with part of his intestine exposed and evidence that wild swine have been gnawing on him as well. The doomed man is in unbearable pain and cannot speak, but with his eyes he silently pleads for “the blessed release, the rite of uttermost compassion, the coup de grâce.” Madwell’s tears fall on his friend’s agonized face. As Madwell walks by himself for a moment, he sees wild pigs racing out of sight. Then he sees a horse with a shell-smashed leg. Without a thought, he dispatches the wounded creature with a revolver shot. The dead beast soon has “a look of profound peace and rest.” Returning, Madwell puts his revolver to his friend’s forehead and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He has used his last cartridge on the horse. He then draws his sword and resolutely pushes its point through Caffal’s heart and deeply into the ground beneath. Just as the dying man tries instinctively to withdraw the weapon with his hand, three men approach. Two are stretcher bearers. The third is Major Halcrow.

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