June 5, 2013

Bierce: Storm of bullets and grape

Ambrose Bierce's short story "Killed at Resaca" was first published on June 5, 1887 in the San Francisco Examiner. The narrator describes a lieutenant character named Herman Brayle, "the best soldier of our staff." A tall man whose eyes displayed "a high order of courage," Brayle is admired and respected as a having "gentleman's manners, a scholar's head, and a lion's heart."

His courage, however, is also a concern for Brayle's fellow soldiers. Brayle was so brave that he did not take cover in battle. Whether mounted on his horse or on foot, he exposed himself openly to the "storm of bullets and grape." This was unusual, Bierce described, as most soldiers crawled low to the ground as they approached (they "hug the earth as closely as if they loved it"). Brayle did not always go without injury in this practice but it was hard not to respect his actions as heroic, as he was "always returning to duty about as good as new."

Brayle's luck, however, would not last forever. Sent to deliver a message, he casually galloped his steed onto the field of battle at Resaca, Georgia. "Stop that damned fool!" shouted the general. One stepped forward to do exactly that but he and his horse were shot dead instantly. Brayle continued on:

My attention had been for a moment drawn to the general combat, but now, glancing down the unobscured avenue between these two thunderclouds, I saw Brayle, the cause of the carnage. Invisible now from either side, and equally doomed by friend and foe, he stood in the shot-swept space, motionless, his face toward the enemy. At some little distance lay his horse. I instantly saw what had stopped him.

As topographical engineer I had, early in the day, made a hasty examination of the ground, and now remembered that at that point was a deep and sinuous gully, crossing half the field from the enemy's line, its general course at right angles to it. From where we now were it was invisible, and Brayle had evidently not known about it. Clearly, it was impassable. Its salient angles would have afforded him absolute security if he had chosen to be satisfied with the miracle already wrought in his favor and leapt into it. He could not go forward, he would not turn back; he stood awaiting death. It did not keep him long waiting.

Later examining Brayle's body, the narrator discovers the motivation behind the man's blind heroism: a love letter from a woman, warning him not to be a coward. He takes it upon himself to meet the woman in person and let her know of Brayle's death. When she asks how he died, however, he offers a very different answer from the truth...

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