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“The world is my country, to hate rascals is my religion” he once said, and for more than forty years—before he mysteriously vanished—he blasted away at the delusions, pretentions, posturings, hopes, dreams, foibles, and institutions of all mankind. His name was Ambrose Bierce …
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
As it has for so many purposeless teenagers throughout history, war offered Ambrose an escape from the bewilderment and boredom of his life. He enlisted as a private on April 19, 1861, in Company C, Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and seven weeks later tasted his first fire in Virginia. He liked it so well that when the “rebs” had not been whipped by the end of his ninety-day enlistment, Ambrose re-enlisted at the rank of sergeant major.
Despite some later disclaimers, Ambrose loved the thrill of fighting and took part in many of the most terrible battles of the war, from bloody Shiloh to Chickamauga to Kenesaw Mountain, where he was badly wounded in the head by a musket ball. But from its inception his military career delighted him, except when his thoughts turned to Bernie and her many flirtations, whereupon he became justifiably worried and jealous.
Like the horse in Job , Ambrose lusted for battle, which quality was not lost upon his superiors. He was repeatedly cited for bravery and gallantry under fire and on December 1, 1862, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field.
In less than three months he was again promoted, to first lieutenant, and began his service as topographical officer on the staff of General William B. Hazen, who became his surrogate father. The same fiercely observant blue eyes that would so enliven Ambrose’ writing served (along with his brief training at military school) to make him an excellent map maker.
After his wounding on June 23, 1864, Bierce was sent to a hospital and then home to Warsaw to recuperate. There Bernie Wright added to his shattering headaches by breaking off their engagement. The rejected lover returned to the war for comfort and when it ended in the spring of 1865 the temporary captain must have regretted it.
Breveted a major (a title he cherished and often insisted upon long after he had left the army), he resigned his commission and went to work for the Treasury in Selma, Alabama, confiscating “enemy property.” But Bierce was no good at this shabby work that was based on a system of corruption and bribery. Cynic though he was, he stubbornly lived all his life by a code of such rigid honesty that his life as a Treasury agent was in constant danger from both Southerners and Northerners, briber and bribee, whose operations were upset by such unreasonable rectitude.
Luckily, before a shotgun blast in the dark could end this peevish probity, Bierce received an offer to accompany his hero, General Hazen, surveying and mapping the unexplored country between Nebraska and California. He accepted immediately, both for the pleasure of serving again with Hazen and in the belief that the general would secure him a captaincy in the regular army.
Bierce and Hazen began their journey west from Omaha in July, 1866. The spectacular landscapes of Utah and Nevada so impressed the boy from the flatlands of Ohio and Indiana that he always spoke of them with awe, and he was favorably impressed by the Mormons in Salt Lake City at a time when they were as hated as the Chinese. He characterized the brutal persecutions and lynchings of the Mormons in their westward migration as “one of the most hateful and sneaking aggressions that ever disgraced the generally straightforward and forthright course of religious persecution.”
Bierce developed into a bitter, cynical, quirky man, but he never indulged in the prevalent prejudices against Jews, blacks, Chinese, or indeed any individual race or religion—saving his savage contempt for all religions. The one exception to this, not surprisingly, was his rage against the Christianity that had made his childhood so miserable.
When Hazen’s party finally reached the Presidio, Bierce received one of the major disappointments of his life—the War Department offered him not a captaincy but only a commission as a second lieutenant, which offer he haughtily refused even to answer. He was thereafter occasionally bitter about the army, as when he refused a substantial sum in back pay: “When I hired out as an assassin for my country, that wasn’t part of the contract.” But he remembered and usually referred to his military career as the happiest time of his life.
In San Francisco he took the first job he could get, night watchman at the United States Mint, but he soon saw that journalism offered him a more likely path to fame. Bierce was hired by James Watkins of the News-Letter to supply lively and, if possible, scandalous items for that journal’s “‘Town Crier” columns. By the end of 1868 he had become the paper’s managing editor, and his outrageous attacks that appeared on its “Town Crier” page soon made him one of San Francisco’s celebrities. In those days when caning or killing newspaper editors was in fashion, Bierce’s victims nevertheless gave him a wide berth, because it was known that he carried a loaded revolver and longed for an opportunity to defend himself.