Tales of Soldiers and Civilians

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Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.jpg
First edition title page
Author Ambrose Bierce
Country United States
Language English
Publisher E. L. G. Steele
Publication date

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians is a collection of short stories written by Ambrose Bierce. Published in 1891, the 26 stories detail the lives of soldiers and civilians during the American Civil War.[1] His famous story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is included in this collection.


In the preface to the first edition, Bierce maintained that the book had been "denied existence by the chief publishing houses of the country."[2] He credited the eventual publication of the book to his friend, Mr. E. L. G. Steele, a merchant from San Francisco, who was listed with the 1891 copyright.[3]

In 1898, Tales was republished along with other stories by G.P. Putnam's Sons under the title In the Midst of Life.[1] George Sterling, in the introduction to a later (1927) edition, noted that as a result of "obtuse critics and a benighted public", the book failed to become the sensation Bierce had expected.[1]

The original publication contained nineteen stories, while those in later publications increased in number; 1898 to 22, and 1909 to 26.[4] The original nineteen stories were retained in the 1898 publication, but were not entirely collectively retained in the 1909 edition.[4] Four of these were transferred by Bierce into his collection Collected Works, Can Such Things Be?[4] In a similar fashion, Bierce moved eight stories into the 1909 version of In the Midst of Life from the 1893 edition of Can Such Things Be?[4] Sixteen of the original stories were initially published in the San Francisco Examiner.[4]

Comparisons and inspiration[edit]

Near publication, the New York Tribune wrote that "These tales are so original as to defy comparison... weird and curious... There's nothing like it in fiction."[5] However, because Bierce's Tales of Soldiers and Civilians occur during the Civil War, it is often compared with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Contemporary reviews suggested that Bierce's writing had comparatively more value, evidenced by such reviews as by the Rochester Post-Express, which stated: "Bierce's pictures of the Civil War are vastly more valuable than Crane’s 'Red Badge of Courage'", and by the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune: "Bierce's work shows far more imagination and a better grasp of thought and events than Crane's."[5]

Bierce served as a union soldier during the Civil War[1] and his experiences as a soldier served as an inspiration for his writing,[4] particularly for the Soldiers section.[6] In this way, Bierce's war treatments anticipate and parallel Ernest Hemingway's later arrival, whereas the civilian tales later influence horror writers.[6]


Since the book is a compilation of short stories, there is not an overarching plot. However, there are literary elements, or plot devices, that are shared throughout. Bierce's stories often begin mid-plot, with relevant details withheld until the end, where the dramatic resolution unfolds unexpectedly, to a degree where most are considered twist endings. His characters were described by George Sterling as: "His heroes, or rather victims, are lonely men, passing to unpredictable dooms, and hearing, from inaccessible crypts of space, the voices of unseen malevolencies."[1]

The book is divided into two segments—Soldiers and Civilians. Within these short stories, Bierce's uses Roman numerals to demarcate segments. For example, A Horseman in the Sky is eleven pages long, yet has four parts.[1]

Soldiers Civilians
"A Horseman in the Sky"
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
"A Son of the Gods"
"One of the Missing"
"Killed at Resaca"
"The Affair at Coulter’s Notch"
"A Tough Tussle"
"The Coup de Grâce"
"Parker Adderson, Philosopher"
"A Watcher by the Dead"
"The Man and the Snake"
"A Holy Terror"
"The Suitable Surroundings"
"An Inhabitant of Carcosa"
"The Boarded Window"
"The Middle Toe of the Right Foot"
"Häita, the Shepherd"
"An Heiress from Redhorse"

In 1892 and 1898, Bierce gradually expanded Tales by adding new stories (e.g., "The Eyes of the Panther"). In his Collected Works, several stories with supernatural elements (e.g., "A Tough Tussle") were relocated from Tales to another section, Can Such Things Be?

Literary significance[edit]

Many critics have noted the collection's heavy irony, particularly in its depictions of heroism and war.[7] Those soldiers who aspire to "manly" virtues on the battlefield often only add to the horrors of the war around them, such as Lieutenant Brayle of "Incident of Resaca", whose brave sacrifice inspires a hundred men to charge needlessly into certain death, or "An Affair at Coulter's Notch", in which an officer's sense of duty causes him to knowingly shell his own home, killing his family.[8] Bierce's stories can thus be read as evoking a "crisis of masculine identity"[9] in which exaggeratedly "masculine" behavior paradoxically stems from a "feminine" insecurity and desire to impress one's fellows.[10]

The war stories are also notable for their frank portrayal of wounds not only to soldiers, but also to women (in "Chickamauga") and children (in "An Affair at Coulter’s Notch"), an approach which was very rare in Bierce's day. This gruesome physical cost of war is then juxtaposed, often explicitly, with the idealized portrait of war presented by some of the collection’s officers and politicians.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bierce (1927).
  2. ^ Bierce (1891a) p. 4.
  3. ^ Bierce (1891b), p. 5.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Blume (2004), pp. xiii–xxii.
  5. ^ a b The Bookman (1897), p. 12.
  6. ^ a b Magill (1996), p. 6404.
  7. ^ Tritt (2004), pp. 44–47.
  8. ^ Yost (2007), p. 150.
  9. ^ Talley (2006), p. 161.
  10. ^ Hunter (2002), p. 286.
  11. ^ Yost (2007), p. 249.


  • Bierce, Ambrose. (1891a). Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. New York: Lovell Coryell & Company.
  • Bierce, Ambrose. (1891b). Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. New York: Lovell Coryell & Company.
  • Bierce, Ambrose. (1927). "In the Midst of Life". Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. New York: George Sterling.
  • Blume, Donald. (2004). Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. ISBN 0873387902.
  • The Bookman. Volume 5. New York: Dodd Mead and Company, 1897.
  • Hunter, Adrian. (2002). "Obscured Hurts: The Civil War Writing of Henry James and Ambrose Bierce". War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, 14(1-2).
  • Magill, Frank, Dayton Kohler and Laurence W. Mazzeno, eds. Masterplots: 1,801 Plot Stories and Critical Evaluations of the World's Finest Literature. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1996.
  • Talley, Sharon. (2006). "Anxious Representations of Uncertain Masculinity: The Failed Journey to Self-Understanding in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Death of Halpin Frayser'". Journal of Men's Studies, 14(2).
  • Tritt, Michael. (2004). "Ambrose Bierce's Deluded Soldier: Parker Adderson as 'Poor Player'". ANQ, 17(3), 44–47.
  • Yost, David. (2007). "Skins Before Reputations: Subversions of Masculinity in Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane". War, Literature and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, 18(1-2), 247–260.

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