Of the many authors who wrote about the Civil War, Bierce was probably the most intensely involved; he saw the most horrific action and was influenced the most pervasively. His literary style, which was a function of these experiences, combines irony, incongruous diction, and photographic detachment.
It is ironic (that is, when one is led to expect something but is surprised by an opposite outcome) that two friends in the same military unit cannot remain close because one is an officer and the other is not. It is ironic that when a major orders his personal enemy into danger, his own brother dies. It is ironic that a man who mercifully kills a friend is likely to be court-martialed and ordered shot by the dead man’s brother. Madwell will later have occasion to ponder the irony of his expressed hope for his enemy’s demise.
Bierce’s language is deliberately unsuited to the drama that he narrates. For example, after the murderous battle, the burial squad is said to be “tidying up.” When Madwell first finds his injured friend and gently touches his face, we read that “it screamed.” Just after Madwell shoots the horse, it “grin[s]” before it dies. Bierce describes the battlefield tree trunks at twilight as “a tender gray.” Nature, as well as Bierce, seems contemptuous of the human condition.
As Bierce has his protagonist approach the hungry swine, his description resembles that of a movie script: “On the crest of a low, thinly wooded hill . . . several dark objects moving about among the fallen men—a herd of swine.” He focuses on one: “Its forefeet . . . upon a human body, its head . . . depressed and invisible”; seen closer, “the bristly ridge of its chine . . . black against the red west.”
It remains to praise the crisp structure of “The Coup de Grâce,” which is presented in three distinct parts. First, Bierce describes the scene after the gory battle—the general confusion, then specific rows of corpses, and finally Madwell’s return to the forest where he finds his friend. Second, a summary flashback sketches the background of his three central characters. Finally, Madwell undertakes well-intentioned actions—with unexpected and hideous consequences. Characteristically, Bierce breaks off his bitter tale abruptly, leaving the reader to speculate on the probable consequences.