In “Still Life: From the Notebooks of Ambrose Bierce, 1862,” twentieth-century poet R. T. Smith presents a sketch artist who, despite being surrounded by the sights and smells and sounds of the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, chooses to draw a still life of a peach. An “Illinois corporal” peering over his shoulder can’t believe it: “Fellow, can you see all them soldiers blown apart or in pain right here? . . . Peaches, what the hell.” The artist replies, “peaches, maybe are what I need to see, what my weary heart yearns to remember . . . . I know the bloodbath we inhabit, sir against which I can offer only a fragile moment as counterpoint.” He goes on to theorize about art and death. Bierce, the mostly silent observer in the poem, thinks, “Just a witness, I held my tongue but had no more appetite for the taste of his beautifully rendered fruit.” But the corporal puts it more bluntly: “Mister, get yourself a rifle, see if you can still puke out them jackass lies.”
Although written more than a century after Bierce died, “Still Life” offers the kind of hard-edged but slightly off-kilter vignette the legendary veteran, journalist, and cynic would have enjoyed. Bierce’s fiction typically undermines the “drums and bugles” narratives of battles that had dominated war literature during the last third of the nineteenth century. Almost all of his stories show men doing their duty against their better judgment, being manipulated by cowardly or glory seeking officers, or experiencing deep ambivalence about the war in which they found themselves. But a deeper reading of some of Bierce’s works betray a more nuanced attitude toward the men who fought the war.
In one of Bierce’s most famous stories, “The Coup de Grâce,” a young officer puts his horribly wounded friend out of his misery by plunging a sword through his breast. In the story, this act of harsh kindness propels a plot line revolving around misplaced compassion, duty, human cruelty, and hatred. But it echoed a scene he had witnessed at the actual Battle of Shiloh, when his unit was working their way through a ravaged portion of the battlefield. They came across a man, still alive, but with the top of his head sliced open by a bullet. As his brain spilled onto the ground, he “lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts.” One of Bierce’s men asked if he should end his struggles with a bayonet. “I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.”
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.