When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Ambrose Bierce, formerly a student of Architecture, History, and Latin at the Kentucky Military Institute, had aimlessly drifted into itinerant life as a waiter and day-laborer. Out of sheer boredom he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry and for the next four years he was anything but bored as he was thrown into the maelstrom of the terrible battles of Shiloh, Picketts’s Mill, Chickamunga, and Franklin.
The experience provoked him to begin keeping a journal—and ultimately those battlefield musings became the basis for some of his greatest literary works including “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” (1888), “A Son of the Gods” (1888), “The Coup de Grâce” (1889), “Chickamauga” (1889), “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” (1889), “Parker Adderson, Philosopher and Wit” (1891), “A Horseman in the Sky” (1891), “Two Military Executions” (1906), and his hauntingly provocative short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). In 1891 his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians was published gathering all these works together in a single volume.
Bierce went on to become one of the great iconic writers of the day, standing shoulder to shoulder with Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Stephen Crane.
My friend Bing Davis recently drew my attention to a previously uncollected Bierce journal entry from his years as a soldier. His eyewitness reminiscences of the Battle of Franklin tell the story of the five bloodiest hours of the entire war on November 30, 1864. With economy, irony, and cinematic clarity the short piece, What Occurred at Franklin, already shows the young writer’s promise and affords a rare glimpse into one of the most tragic engagements in all of American history.