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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

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List the chronological events of Part 2 in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and explain who visits Peyton Farquhar and what plan he conceives.

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Part 2 is a flashback where we learn about Farquhar’s background. Descended from a family of the Old South, he is a wealthy plantation and slave owner. Sadly (but for reasons not explained) unable to join the Confederate army, he feels obligated to help the cause of the South in any way he can. He wishes to experience the honor and glory of a soldier instead of settling for being a civilian who could not engage in combat.

One day, Farquhar and his wife are visited by a Confederate “gray-clad soldier” who asks them for a glass of water. Farquhar’s wife quickly and happily obliges; in the meantime, Farquhar asks the soldier about any developments on the front. The man notes that the Yankees are building a railroad to cross by Owl Creek Bridge, where they also erected a “stockade.” Any person caught obstructing the process will be hanged.

This news seems to put Farquhar’s mind in motion—he first asks the soldier how far away Owl Creek Bridge is and if anything can be done to sabotage it if a man could “get the better of the sentinel.” The soldier plants an idea in Farquhar’s head: he tells him that a lot of driftwood has accumulated around the bridge... and the driftwood is dry and burns easily.

After Farquhar's wife gives the soldier a glass of water, the man thanks them and leaves. Later that evening, he walks past Farquhar’s plantation undetected, only this time, heading North. The supposed Confederate soldier actually is a “Federal scout,” or Union spy, surveilling the area.

The exposition on Farquhar’s character provides the reader with an understanding of the motivation for Farquhar’s unspoken plan. He will proceed to obstruct the Union army at Owl Creek Bridge despite knowing the consequences if caught.

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1. Farquhar did not enlist in the Confederate army, apparently due to his "imperious nature" (in other words, he would have trouble taking orders) but "he did what he could" to assist the war effort on behalf of his beloved South.

2. One night, a soldier wearing a Confederate uniform comes to the house, asking for water. Mrs. Farquhar goes to fetch it and her husband asks for news of the front. The soldier tells him that the Yankee army is repairing the railroad and depends heavily on its functioning. He also says that there is an order to hang any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, which implies how incredibly important the railroad is, strategically, to the Northern war effort.

3. Farquhar asks the distance to the Owl Creek bridge, apparently a railroad bridge. He asks the soldier what a man could "'accomplish'" if he made it past the guards. The soldier tells him that "'a great quantity of driftwood'" had become lodged against a part of the bridge during recent bad weather. He says that "It is now dry and would burn like tinder."

4. Mrs. Farquhar returns with the water, the soldier drinks it, and then he leaves. The narrator tells us that "He was a Federal scout." In other words, the soldier is not a Confederate but a Yankee, and he is making some kind of survey of the area and its people. It appears, then, that he purposely plants the idea of burning the bridge, using that driftwood, in Farquhar's head; perhaps he was asked to do so in order to flush out any locals who might be inclined to assist the Confederate war effort in such a way. Certainly, it seems to work.

It seems likely that Farquhar assumes he could do the most damage to the Northern war effort by disrupting the railroads, an assumption he was encouraged to make by the story about the order to hang anyone who tried, and so it seems likely that this is what he attempted. Now, he is hanged for it, just as the order said to do.

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An interesting narrative technique Ambrose Bierce uses in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the flashback presented in Part II. Part I describes the setting and the preparation of the hanging, and Part III resumes with the hanging scene, bringing it to completion, ending with the main character swinging "from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge." 

Part II gives us the background of Peyton Farquhar, the main character, the man who is being hanged. We find out that his life up until now has unfolded this way:

1. Farquhar, a slave owner, advocates for secession along with other plantation owners.

2. When the war breaks out, Farquhar does not enlist in the Confederate Army, but wishes he could support the cause in a tangible way.

3. Farquhar performs various unnamed tasks on behalf of the Confederacy.

4. Farquhar is sitting on his porch when a gray-clad, presumably Confederate soldier rides up and hints that if someone wanted to burn the Owl Creek bridge to prevent the Union Army's advance, it could be easily accomplished.

5. Farquhar then plots to burn the bridge and acts on the soldier's suggestion, possibly "get[ting] the better of the sentinel," or trying to, and attempting to burn the bridge. However, he is captured by the Union Army because the soldier he had talked to had actually been a "Federal scout," and Farquhar had been caught in a sting operation.

The actual action taken by Farquhar that led to his capture by the Union Army is implied rather than explicitly stated in Part II. It may be that Farquhar planned to hang the sentinel from the bridge because Farquhar says to the scout, "Suppose a man—a civilian and a student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel?" Farquhar is obviously referring to himself. Thus the Union Army's decision to hang him from the bridge is an ironically appropriate way to carry out his execution.

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