Killed At Resaca by Ambrose Bierce, 1887
The magic trick:
Measured description of battle
I’ve read a ton of Civil War history, and as you go, especially through the battle histories, it gets quite numbing. You start to see the little blue and red arrows almost like a football game. Who went where? Which general called the right play? It’s interesting but gets almost gross if you’re not careful.
This is where historical fiction can be so helpful, filling in those gaps, reminding you that real people lived and died through this stuff. To have historical fiction written by someone like Bierce who was actually there in the battles? It’s invaluable.
“Killed At Resaca” features the best Civil War battle descriptions I’ve ever read. It’s easy when describing material like this to go heavy-handed in one direction or another. Maybe you want very badly for the reader to understand the horrors of war. Or maybe you want very badly to over-romanticize the war, draping every participant with glory upon glory.
Bierce does neither here. He simply describes the scene. He certainly doesn’t make it sound nice. But because he doesn’t go overboard in describing every bloody bit of carnage the description is all the more terrifying. Crucially too he employs his fearsomely dark sense of humor. The result is a measured, highly believable portrait of the violent battles behind the sanitized, big-picture histories. And that’s quite a trick on Bierce’s part.
In such circumstances the life of a staff officer of a brigade is distinctly “not a happy one,” mainly because of its precarious tenure and the unnerving alternations of emotion to which he is exposed. From a position of that comparative security from which a civilian would ascribe his escape to a “miracle,” he may be despatched with an order to some commander of a prone regiment in the front line–a person for the moment inconspicuous and not always easy to find without a deal of search among men somewhat preoccupied, and in a din in which question and answer alike must be imparted in the sign language. It is customary in such cases to duck the head and scuttle away on a keen run, an object of lively interest to some thousands of admiring marksmen. In returning –well, it is not customary to return.
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I vividly remember, as a kid, being fascinated by all the illustrations of battles with “the read and blue arrows” in books in my parents’ library. I also remember being stunned by how many different generals there were. To me at that age, a general was very rare,since they commanded an entire army (so I thought). Ah, youth… 🙂