Ambrose Bierce was a young man during the American Civil War, and enlisted in fighting for the Federal forces, with whom he participated in many bloody battles. These experiences likely went a large way to forming the cynical and jaded views he carried through the rest of his life, and he came to be known by the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce’.
The 16 stories in this collection are mostly of the sort that occupy a middle ground between truth and fiction – they’re based on the author’s first-hand experience, but shaped and fleshed-out to fit the needs and duties of art.
Thoughts on some of the stories: “What I saw at Shiloh” begins the collection off with a very vivid description of troops maneuvering and engaging the enemy on the battlefield. “Four Days in Dixie” follows the story of some northern soldiers who sneak over to the other side to spy, and then have trouble making their way back. “A Horseman in the Sky” not only contains the vivid imagery of the title, but introduces a theme that gets repeated in many of the other stories, where a soldier finds himself fighting and killing his closest relatives. The famous “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” is here too, which touches on the slightly fantastic, a world that Bierce would explore in some of his stories collected elsewhere. The last story, “The Mocking-bird”, ends things off with some very poetic imagery of dreams and nature.
Bierce is an excellent prose writer, bringing the reader into the story by relating things in a matter-of-fact tone. The main weakness of this collection is that some of the plots and events do repeat themselves from story to story. Also, occasionally I felt hindered by my lack of knowledge of both Civil War history and military terminology. On the whole, I think I prefer Bierce’s supernatural stories.