‘Chickamauga’ by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce, Ambrose 1891

Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce, 1889

The magic trick:

Presenting the American Civil War from a childs viewpoint

Historical fiction scares me. Done well, it can provide insights into the emotional weight behind the dry facts that no straight history could ever provide. Done poorly, though, it can spread misinformation and totally skew someone’s understanding of the past. Fortunately, “Chickamauga,” as with almost all of Bierce’s remarkable oeuvre, falls firmly in the former category.

By presenting the Battle of Chickamauga from the viewpoint of an innocent, local boy, Bierce brings the history – tragic as it is – to life. That is especially important, I feel, in the world of the American Civil War, where fan boys (including myself) have a tendency to lose track of the true human toll in their excitement to study battle maps and collect memorabilia. A story like “Chickamauga” brings the torture of war back to the fore, where it belongs. And that’s quite a trick on Bierce’s part.

The selection:

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement.

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‘The Survivors’ by Elsie Singmaster

Singmaster, Elsie

 The Survivors by Elsie Singmaster, 1915

The magic trick:

Rooting the story in the real history of the American Civil War

I do not particularly care for this story. Nearly every good story offers at least two levels of narrative and meaning. Singmaster, here, shows only one: the story of two cousins estranged by the Civil War eventually coming back together after many years. The metaphor – divided family as divided country – doesn’t do much for me. What I did like was the fact that Singmaster’s story relies on a actual events for context. The story becomes a window into post-war relations and situations. And that’s quite a trick on Singmaster’s part.

The selection:

Fosterville was a border town; in it enthusiasm had run high, and many more men had enlisted than those required by the draft. All the men were on the same side but Adam Foust, who, slipping away, joined himself to the troops of his mother’s Southern State.