November 9, 2010

Jupiter Doke: I think him a fool

"It is the proudest moment of my life," wrote Jupiter Doke to the Secretary of War on November 9, 1861. "The office is one which should be neither sought nor denied... I accept the great trust confided in me." Doke was given the title Brigadier-General during the Civil War, overseeing the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Of course, Jupiter Doke is not a real person, but a fictional character created by Ambrose Bierce in the 1885 story "Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General" (also known as "Materials for History").

At first glance, the satirical story seems innocent enough. Told through letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, it follows the career of the recently-promoted Doke. Something is suspicious here, however. The Secretary of War confirms with another officer that a certain route in Kentucky is infested with Confederate troops — and sends Doke there, emphasizing he must be in full uniform. Doke, unaware of the pretense, appoints a distant relation to command a small troupe down that route; when he's not heard from again, Doke assumes the worst and asks the Secretary of War to wear "the usual band of mourning for thirty days."

Besides depictions of military incompetence (not to mention Doke's attempts at nepotistic political appointments for his family), the story is full of humorous political posturing and long-winded rhetoric. For example, Doke offers this report:

In the camp of treason opposite here there are supposed to be three thousand misguided men laying the ax at the root of the tree of liberty. They have a clear majority, many of our men having returned without leave to their constituents. We could probably not poll more than two thousand votes.

Doke's brigade is sent to a nearby town to pick up Union supplies but is fired upon by Confederate troops (who they originally assumed were fellow Union soldiers, guarding their supplies). They retreat and learn that while they were gone their camp had been ransacked. The papers refer to it as the great Battle of Distilleryville and insist that Doke's brave actions make him a good candidate for President of the United States. The major-general, however, reports to the Secretary of War, "I think him a fool."

Doke, however, goes on to further success. As a Confederate faction makes their way to attack him, they are caught in a tornado and decimated. Later, Doke is woken up in the night about troop movements and, in his excitement, scares 2,300 mules — which then overtake the approaching Confederates. Doke takes all the credit and is promoted.

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