The 19th Century held one of the most important events in American history, the Civil
War. The Civil War was a rough, tense conflict that involved American citizens engaging “one of the most researched conflicts in modern history.” At the time, hundreds of short stories, speeches, letters, and poems were written about the era, but there is one that best exemplifies the time period. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce reflects the society of the
19th Century without holding back any of the emotions or brutal violence that resulted from the conflicts in the Civil War.
The author of this short story, Ambrose Bierce, had experienced war firsthand. He had volunteered to fight as a soldier in the Union Army since he could not find any other worthwhile occupation to take on at the time. Before he left to fight in battle, He thought about the “Civil
War with ideas of glory, honor, and a speedy end to the war.” However, he never found any glory or honor during his time at war. Instead he found only death, agony, and what he described as “confused sets of rights and wrongs” (Peers). During his military career, he engaged “in several bloody battles at Chickamauga, Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and
[Kennesaw Mountain]” (Singletary). During these battles he realized the true nature of man when in conflict. Man is cruel, brutal, and almost savage-like in its bloodlust. After receiving a severe head wound in combat, Bierce was discharged from the military. He decided to pursue a career in literature and became a writer. A common saying about writing is that “a writer can
only write what he knows” (Broda). Bierce was an expert with the concept of war, so he decided to write about the “shocking accounts and hideous events of the battlefield” it in order to inform ordinary people about what war really was in reality. It was hell (Reuben).
Bierce used his experiences from the Civil War to emphasize the messages of reality contained within his stories. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” one of his most memorable tales, is a perfect example. The plot has a realistic, although saddening ending which can suggest the possibility that a similar situation could have actually occurred during the Civil War. Bierce seems to tell his readers though the plot of the story that everyone in the world is like the main character, Farquhar. We are all affected by circumstances beyond our control with our own will having little effect on the outcomes of our lives (Marxen). His message contains some truth. In war, a soldier cannot choose their impending fate during battle; rather, their surroundings direct their destiny beyond their control. Bierce tried to teach his readers to stay away from war through the grotesque imagery he would use in his writings. Although “An Occurrence at Owl
Creek Bridge” is one of his more mild stories when it comes to violence, the story gives a detailed description of someone who is being hanged. Toward the end of Farquhar’s illusion he felt that “[his] neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he found it horribly swollen…His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst” (Bierce 464).
It was common for Bierce to use the “physical and mental anguish associated with war” as the underlying theme in his writings (Singletary). During Farquhar’s illusion, he experienced disorientation when he was being pulled around by the current of the river and became dizzy and nauseous (Bierce 462). Although this confusion and sickness resulted from him choking due to the hanging in reality, it could also represent how real soldiers felt during the Civil War. Men were fighting against their former brothers in arms and sometimes even family members who
were on the opposing side leading to confusion in their moral beliefs. The fact that many of these men were young and probably never