Editor’s Note: This amazing short story is a glimpse
of post-American Civil War influenced fiction by
one of the leading authors/journalists of his
day. It’s gentleness belies an undercurrent of
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE CIVIL WAR
1: The Review as a Form of Welcome
One summer night a man stood on a low hill overlooking a wide expanse
of forest and field. By the full moon hanging low in the west he knew
what he might not have known otherwise: that it was near the hour
A light mist lay along the earth, partly veiling the lower features of the
landscape, but above it the taller trees showed in well- defined masses
against a clear sky. Two or three farmhouses were visible through the
haze, but in none of them, naturally, was a light.
THE AUTHOR: Ambrose Bierce (born 1842) was an American editorialist,
journalist, short-story writer and satirist. Today, he is best known for his
short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satirical dictionary
“The Devil's Dictionary.” In October 1913, the septuagenarian Bierce departed
Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December
he had proceeded on through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso
into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. After a last letter to a close friend,
sent from there December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace,
becoming one of the most notable disappearances in American history.
Investigations into his fate have proved fruitless and, despite an abundance
of theories, his end remains shrouded in mystery.
Nowhere, indeed, was any sign or suggestion of life except the barking
of a distant dog, which, repeated with mechanical iteration, served
rather to accentuate than dispel the loneliness of the scene.
The man looked curiously about him on all sides, as one who among
familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part
in the scheme of things. It is so, perhaps, that we shall act when, risen
from the dead, we await the call to judgment.
A hundred yards away was a straight road, showing white in the
moonlight. Trying to orient himself, the man moved his eyes slowly
along its visible length and at a distance of a quarter-mile to the south
he saw, dim and grey in the haze, a group of horsemen riding to the
north. Behind them were men afoot, marching in column, with dimly
gleaming rifles on their shoulders. They moved slowly and in silence.
Another group of horsemen, another regiment of infantry, another and
another --all in unceasing motion toward the man's point of view,
past it, and beyond. A battery of artillery followed, the cannoneers
riding with folded arms on limber and caisson. And still the
interminable procession came out of the obscurity to south and
passed into the obscurity to north, with never a sound of voice, nor
hoof, nor wheel.
The man could not rightly understand: he thought himself deaf; said
so, and heard his own voice, although it had an unfamiliar quality that
almost alarmed him; it disappointed his ear's expectancy in the matter
of timbre and resonance. But he was not deaf, and that for the moment
Then he remembered that there are natural phenomena to which
someone has given the name 'acoustic shadows.' If you stand in an
acoustic shadow there is one direction from which you will hear nothing.
For example, at the battle of Gaines's Mill [Hanover, VA, June 27, 1862],
one of the fiercest conflicts of the Civil War, with a hundred guns in
play, spectators a mile and a half away on the opposite side of the
Chickahominy Valley heard nothing of what they clearly saw.
The bombardment of Port Royal, South Carolina [November 7, 1861]
heard and felt at St. Augustine, a 150 to the south, was inaudible two
miles to the north in a still atmosphere.
A few days before the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia (April, 9 1865)
a thunderous engagement between the commands of Union General
Phillip Sheridan and Rebel General George Pickett was unknown to
the latter commander, a mile in the rear of his own line.
These instances were not known to the man of whom we write, but
less striking ones of the same character had not escaped his observation.
He was profoundly disquieted, but for another reason than the
uncanny silence of that moonlight march.
'Good Lord! ' he said to himself--and again it was as if another had
spoken his thought--'if those people are what I take them to be we
have lost the battle and they are moving on Nashville!'
Then came a thought of self--an apprehension --a strong sense of
personal peril, such as in an- other we call fear. He stepped quickly
into the shadow of a tree. And still the silent battalions moved slowly
forward in the haze.
The chill of a sudden breeze upon the back of his neck drew his
attention to the quarter whence it came, and turning to the east he
saw a faint grey light along the horizon--the first sign of returning day.
This increased his apprehension.
'I must get away from here,' he thought, 'or I shall be discovered
He moved out of the shadow, walking rapidly toward the greying east.
From the safer seclusion of a clump of cedars he looked back. The
entire column had passed out of sight: the straight white road lay
bare and desolate in the moonlight!
Puzzled before, he was now inexpressibly astonished. So swift a
passing of so slow an army!--he could not comprehend it. Minute
after minute passed unnoted; he had lost his sense of time. He
sought with a terrible earnestness a solution of the mystery, but
sought in vain.
When at last he roused himself from his abstraction the sun's rim
was visible above the hills, but in the new conditions he found no
other light than that of day; his understanding was involved as darkly
in doubt as before.
On every side lay cultivated fields showing no sign of war and war's
ravages. From the chimneys of the farmhouses thin ascensions of
blue smoke signalled preparations for a day's peaceful toil. Having
stilled its immemorial allocution to the moon, the watch-dog was
assisting a negro who, prefixing a team of mules to the plough, was
flatting and sharping contentedly at his task.
The hero of this tale stared stupidly at the pastoral picture as if he
had never seen such a thing in all his life; then he put his hand to his
head, passed it through his hair and, withdrawing it, attentively
considered the palm--a singular thing to do. Apparently reassured
by the act, he walked confidently toward the road.
2: When You have Lost Your Life Consult a Physician
Dr. Stilling Malson, of Murfreesboro, TN having visited a patient six or seven
miles away, on the Nashville road, had remained with him all night.
At daybreak he set out for home on horseback, as was the custom of
doctors of the time and region. He had passed into the neighbourhood
of Stone's River battlefield when a man approached him from the roadside
and saluted in the military fashion, with a movement of the righthand to
But the hat was not a military hat, the man was not in a soldier’s uniform
and had not a martial bearing. The doctor nodded civilly, half thinking
that the stranger's uncommon greeting was perhaps in deference to the
historic surroundings of the bitter battle that took place on December 31,
1862. As the stranger evidently desired speech with him the doctor
courteously reined in his horse and waited.
'Sir,' said the stranger, 'although a civilian, you are perhaps an
'I am a physician,' was the non-committal reply.
'Thank you,' said the other. 'I am a lieutenant, of the staff of
General Hazen.' He paused a moment and looked sharply at the
person whom he was addressing, then added, 'Of the Federal army.'
The physician merely nodded.
'Kindly tell me,' continued the other, 'what has happened here.
Where are the armies? Which has won the battle?'
The physician regarded his questioner curiously with half-shut eyes.
After a professional scrutiny, prolonged to the limit of politeness,
'Pardon me,' he said; 'one asking information should be willing to
impart it. Are you wounded?' he added, smiling.
'Not seriously--it seems.'
The man removed the unmilitary hat, put his hand to his head,
passed it through his hair and, withdrawing it, attentively
considered the palm.
'I was struck by a bullet and have been unconscious. It must have
been a light, glancing blow: I find no blood and feel no pain. I will
not trouble you for treatment, but will you kindly direct me to my
command--to any part of the Federal army--if you know?'
Again the doctor did not immediately reply: he was recalling much
that is recorded in the books of his profession--something about
lost identity and the effect of familiar scenes in restoring it.
At length he looked the man in the face, smiled, and said:
'Lieutenant, you are not wearing the uniform of your rank and
At this the man glanced down at his civilian attire, lifted his
eyes, and said with hesitation:'That is true. I--I don't quite
understand.' Still regarding him sharply but not unsympathetically,
the man of science bluntly inquired: 'How old are you?'
'Twenty-three--if that has anything to do with it.'
'You don't look it; I should hardly have guessed you to be just
The man was growing impatient. 'We need not discuss that,' he
said: 'I want to know about the army. Not two hours ago I saw a
column of troops moving northward on this road. You must have
met them. Be good enough to tell me the color of their clothing,
which I was unable to make out, and I'll trouble you no more.'
'You are quite sure that you saw them?'
'Sure? My God, sir, I could have counted them!'
'Why, really,' said the physician, with an amusing consciousness
of his own resemblance to the loquacious barber of the Arabian
Nights, 'this is very in- teresting. I met no troops.'
The man looked at him coldly, as if he had himself observed the
likeness to the barber. 'It is plain,' he said, 'that you do not care to
assist me. Sir, you may go to the devil!'
He turned and strode away, very much at random, across the dewy
fields, his half-penitent tormentor quietly watching him from
his point of vantage in the saddle till he disappeared beyond a copse
3: The Danger of Looking into a Pool of Water
After leaving the road the man slackened his pace, and now went
forward, rather deviously, with a distinct feeling of fatigue. He
could not account for this, though truly the interminable loquacity of
that country doctor offered itself in explanation.
Seating himself upon a rock, he laid one hand upon his knee, back
upward, and casually looked at it. It was lean and withered. He lifted
both hands to his face. It was seamed and furrowed; he could trace
the lines with the tips of his fingers. How strange!--a mere
bullet-stroke and a brief unconsciousness should not make one
a physical wreck.
'I must have been a long time in hospital,' he said aloud. 'Why,
what a fool I am! The battle was in December, and it is now
summer!' He laughed. 'No wonder the doctor thought me an
escaped lunatic. He was wrong: I am only an escaped patient.'
At a little distance a small plot of ground enclosed by a stone wall
caught his attention. With no very definite intent he rose and went
to it. In the centre was a square, solid monument of hewn stone.
It was brown with age, weather-worn at the angles, spotted with
moss and lichen. Between the massive blocks were strips of grass
the leverage of whose roots had pushed them apart. In answer to
the challenge of this ambitious structure Time had laid his destroying
hand upon it, and it would soon be 'one with Nineveh and Tyre.'
In an inscription on one side his eye caught a familiar name.
Shaking with excitement, he craned his body across the wall and read:
toThe Memory of Its Soldiers
who fell at Stone River, Dec. 31, 1862.
The man fell back from the wall, faint and sick. Almost within an
arm's length was a little depression in the earth; it had been filled
by a recent rain--a pool of clear water. He crept to it to revive himself,
lifted the upper part of his body on his trembling arms, thrust forward
his head and saw the reflection of his face, as in a mirror.
He uttered a terrible cry. His ancient arms gave way; he fell, face
downward, into the pool and yielded up the life that had spanned