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SHADOWS OF BLUE & GRAY by Ambrose Bierce Kirkus Star


The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce

by Ambrose Bierce & edited by Brian M. Thomsen

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-765-30244-6
Publisher: Forge

A tidy and well-ordered volume that collects nearly 40 Civil War short stories, memoirs, and reminiscences by the celebrated 19th-century writer.

Known today primarily as a satirist (on the strength of his Devil’s Dictionary), Bierce (1842–1914?) wrote some of the earliest and best realist fiction in the US. The product of a stern and God-fearing Ohio home, he enlisted with the Indiana Volunteers in 1861 and saw action in some of the fiercest battles of the war. Afterwards he settled into life as a journalist and editor and made a considerable success at both. (He was also a well-regarded poet whose work is much neglected today.) Although some of the pieces here (especially “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) have retained their popularity down the years, most are long-forgotten resurrections, and some (like “A Sole Survivor,” about the fates of several of Bierce’s army comrades, all of whom died) were literally discovered in the corner of a library basement, uncatalogued and unknown. The war was perfect material for Bierce, who describes scenes of action with a reporter’s sharp sense of circumstance and an O. Henry–like weakness for the climactic twist: “A Horseman in the Sky,” for example, describes in great detail a sniper’s shooting of an enemy officer, revealing only at the end that the target was the rifleman’s father. Ironically, “Owl Creek,” the best-known of all Bierce’s works, stands out here as the least typical: The elaborate fantasy of a condemned man who dreams his escape in the final seconds before his hanging, the story has little of the stark, unvarnished bluntness (“The object at his feet resolved itself into a dead horse, and at a right angle across the animal’s neck lay a dead man, face upward in the moonlight”) that makes so many of the stories read like dispatches from the field.

A rich collection of fine writing saved from obscurity: Commendable rescue work.