silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

Start Free Trial

Why does the Federal scout want Farquhar to burn the bridge in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Quick answer:

The Federal scout wants Farquhar to attempt to burn the bridge so that the Federal army can catch him in the act and have an excuse to hang the planter for it. This is why the scout dresses as a Confederate soldier, someone Farquhar would trust.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Federal scout seems to be purposely trying to trap Peyton Farquhar into attempting to burn down the bridge so that the Union army will have a reason to execute him. In part 1, the narrator describes the military code as "liberal" in that it "makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded." In fact, this kind of "liberality" seems to be one of the author's many criticisms of war in general.

Though Farquhar believes that his home is "still beyond the invader's farthest advance," he is, apparently, wrong. The "gray-clad soldier" who came to his home sometime recently, an event we see depicted in part 2, was merely dressed as a Confederate soldier, though readers learn he was really a Federal scout.

The man had described how important the railroads are to the Union war effort by emphasizing the heavy penalty to be paid by any who interfered with them. He also implied that it would be easy for someone to burn the bridge down as a result of some driftwood that had accumulated nearby. As someone loyal to the Federal, or Union, army, the scout would not really want to see harm come to the railroad, or the Owl Creek bridge; so it stands to reason that he must be trying to entrap Farquhar so that the planter can be captured in the act and executed for it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge," why does Farquhar want to destroy the Owl Creek Bridge?

Peyton Farquhar, we learn at the beginning of Section II, was a "well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family."  He was a slave owner and a secessionist, "ardently devoted to the Southern cause."  In other words, he was very much in favor of the Confederacy seceding from the Union (the southern states forming their own country, distinct from the northern ones).  This story, then, we now know is set during the era of the American Civil War, deep into the war when the army from the north was making great headway in the southern states.

Farquhar, unable to join the war as a soldier, feels compelled to aid the Confederate effort as much as he possibly can.  "No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier" who believed that "all is fair in love and war."  When he learns that the Yanks have repaired the railroads, having reached Owl Creek Bridge, he ascertains that disrupting the railroad would be seriously detrimental to the Union war effort.  A man dressed as a Confederate soldier tells him that there's a great deal of driftwood pressed right up against the bridge from a recent storm, and, if set alight, it "would burn like tow."  Farquhar, in his desire to aid the Southern war effort as much as possible, makes the attempt to burn the bridge down.  (However, that soldier was actually a Federal scout, so the Union army was prepared for such an attack, caught Farquhar, and hanged him.)

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," why does the scout suggest that Farquhar burn the bridge?

This scene is a subtle one in Part II of the story, which is a flashback. When the scout, dressed like a Confederate soldier, stops at the Farquhar plantation, Peyton asks for news about the front lines of the war. The scout tells him that the Northern forces have secured Owl Creek bridge (a railroad trestle) and built a stockade, suggesting that the site will be a staging area for further invasion into Southern territory. The scout continues, giving Peyton this important information:

The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.

This is clearly a warning. It is Peyton who continues the conversation, believing that he is speaking to a friend and ally in the war. He asks about how well the bridge is guarded. Only two guards, he is told. He then asks, with a smile, what could be accomplished if one of the bridge's guards were evaded and the other overpowered; clearly, Peyton is thinking about sabotaging the bridge, despite what he has just been told about the penalty for such an action. 

At this point, the scout pauses and thinks before answering. Having made a decision, he tells Peyton the bridge would burn easily. Why does he answer in this way? He could have told Peyton at the beginning of their conversation that the bridge was well guarded, and then he could have told him that nothing could be done to destroy it. In other words, the scout could have dissuaded Peyton for taking any action; instead, his words serve to draw Peyton into the act of sabotage that results in his being caught and hanged. Again, why?

This was a time of war. Peyton was not a soldier, but as a potential saboteur, he was the enemy. By giving him information, the scout was determining whether Peyton was a danger or not. When it became clear that Peyton was a threat, the scout effectively sets him up for failure. No doubt the Northern soldiers were prepared, waiting for Peyton's attempt to burn the bridge. When he was caught, he was indeed hanged, with both military ceremony and precision. His punishment would then serve as an example to other civilians who might consider trying to commit acts of sabotage against the invading Northern forces.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," why do you think the disguised Federal Scout suggested to Peyton that he burn the bridge?

In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a short story written by Ambrose Bierce, the reader is never actually told why a disguised Federal scout encourages Peyton Farquhar to attempt to burn Owl Creek bridge.  The reader must form her own opinion based on her knowledge of those involved, the events taking place nearby, and the general attitudes prevailing throughout the area and country.

In my opinion, the treatment given Farquhar by the Federal army suggests that he responded to bait fed him by the Union army in order for them to procure an enemy to make an example of.  Farquhar was extremely loyal to the Confederate cause, despite the fact that he was unable to serve as a soldier; he "chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies...the opportunity for distinction."  Because he felt so strongly, he was willing to risk everything to undertake a mission that he believed would greatly benefit "his" troops.  The Federal army would have been aware that they were entering a particularly dangerous area, since they were nearing southern territory and were more likely to encounter Confederate sympathizers.  In addition, Union forces might have been at risk of their own members deserting or disobeying in other ways. Therefore, obtaining a prisoner whom they could use as an example to frighten those who had the potential to endanger them would have been a logical step.

In the first part of the story, the setting of Peyton Farquhar's impending hanging is described.  In addition, Bierce reveals that it is obvious that Farquhar is a civilian, which suggests that the Federal army was aware of this fact and considered Farquhar's offenses profound enough to warrant death.  The fact that "his face had not been covered or his eyes bandaged" indicates that Farquhar was given an execution devoid of any semblance of dignity or respect, as well as that his death would have been especially disturbing and unpleasant to any who witnessed it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," why do you think the disguised Federal Scout suggested to Peyton that he burn the bridge?

We can only infer what the scout's motives were for making his suggestion to Peyton Farquhar. It seems clear, however, that he is obviously looking out for sympathisers with the opposing force and his disguise is meant to find out where people's sympathies really lie. It is unlikely that the scout would have been able to gain much useful information if he had not been wearing the uniform of the Confederate soldiers, and thus his disguise allows him to win the confidence of those around him and to find out if anyone can be considered a rebel who would be willing to act against the Federal cause.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on