Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

This story has such important autobiographical touches that it is worthwhile to outline Ambrose Bierce’s wartime activities. Bierce was born in Ohio and was living in Indiana when the Civil War began. Within days of the war’s outbreak, he volunteered as a private in an Indiana infantry company. Two months...

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This story has such important autobiographical touches that it is worthwhile to outline Ambrose Bierce’s wartime activities. Bierce was born in Ohio and was living in Indiana when the Civil War began. Within days of the war’s outbreak, he volunteered as a private in an Indiana infantry company. Two months later, he was in combat. Assigned to the brigade of General William Babcock Hazen in March, 1862, he fought in several high-casualty engagements—including Shiloh, Stone River, and elsewhere. In April, 1863, he became a topographical engineer and saw more action at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. He was shot in the head at Kenesaw Mountain. After returning to duty three months later, he participated in engagements through Georgia, including one at Resaca, which he mapped for General Hazen. Because of his courage and efficiency, he steadily rose in rank.

It is also relevant to note that Bierce was disappointed in love at least twice. While recuperating from his head wound in Indiana, he argued ruinously with his fiancé for her flirtatiousness. In 1871 he married another woman and had three children by her but later left her after finding a love letter to her from another man.

Bierce’s purpose in “Killed at Resaca” is to dramatize the meaninglessness of military heroism, the occasional valor of wartime opponents, and the folly of love. To satisfy his lover’s needs, poor Brayle makes it the business of his life to die heroically. With good looks, useful soldierly qualities, a genial nature, and a nice sense of humor all going for him, he still seeks and meets his death—deliberately and vainly. His suicidal gallop not only draws a hail of enemy bullets, it provokes the premature charge of his comrades, leading to a hundred deaths altogether.

The dirge played by Confederate fifes and drums as Brayle’s corpse is retrieved is admirable but silly. Silly, because after a momentary pause, the two sides will resume trying to tear each other to bloody shreds. Through all this, Bierce’s central aim is to satirize romantic love. Brayle apparently wants to prove that he is brave enough to merit his darling’s commendation—by risking his life until he is killed. Is another reading possible? Perhaps Brayle actually wants to wreak revenge on Miss Mendenhall by demonstrating that it is wiser for him to prefer death in combat to life with any woman who could write such a callously challenging letter.

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