By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Chickamauga’ is an 1891 short story by the American author Ambrose Bierce, who is also remembered for his witty The Devil’s Dictionary and for his mysterious disappearance in around 1914. ‘Chickamauga’ is a war story, but is unusual in focusing on a young child who is a bystander to the carnage that unfolds.
The story’s title is derived from the Battle of Chickamauga, which was fought in September 1863 between U.S. and Confederate forces in the American Civil War. Bierce was a Civil War veteran.You can read ‘Chickamauga’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Bierce’s story below.
‘Chickamauga’: plot summary
A deaf-mute boy who around six years old strays from home one sunny autumn afternoon. His father, who is a planter, has an interest in all things military, and inspired by this the boy has fashioned a wooden sword which he takes with him when he departs.
The boy crosses a river and encounters a rabbit, but grows scared and runs away and hides. He cries himself to sleep, and when he wakes up, he sees injured men crawling on their hands and knees through the woods. Not fully understanding the sight, the boy decides to mount one of the crawling men, climbing on his back, only to be thrown to the ground. The man whose back he had climbed on turns to glower at the boy, and the boy realises the man’s lower jaw is completely missing. Terrified, he runs off.
Forging ahead to the front of the long line of men, he helps to direct the men forwards through the woods, using his wooden sword to gesture and feeling like a mighty military leader. The narrator tells us that, a few hours earlier, these men had marched in their battalions into the forest to conduct a military attack, and had passed the boy as he slept. The footprints reveal as much, but the boy is too young to pick up on this. Many of the soldiers following the boy die as they attempt to cross the river, injured and exhausted.
The boy comes upon a large building on fire, and the sight excites him. He throws his sword into the blazing building, signalling an end to his ‘military career’. He then realises where he is and that the blazing dwelling is his house. He finds a dead woman lying on the ground, her forehead cut open and her brains visible. It is revealed that the boy is a deaf mute for the first time; we are also invited to assume that the dead woman is the boy’s mother. He makes a series of inarticulate noises and surveys the wreck of the house, his lips quivering.
‘Chickamauga’ can be described or defined as a ‘war story’, and war is clearly one of the story’s main themes, but it is unusual in having as its protagonist a young boy who witnesses the devastation and tragedy of war but without fully understanding it. As a child of around six years of age, he is too young to comprehend what is going on around him, and he is rendered even more of an outsider by being deaf and mute.
The child’s eye view clearly lends a greater poignancy to events. Although Bierce’s narrator occasionally steps in to provide further details or clarify what is being witnessed, our main focaliser in the story is the young boy. And for much of ‘Chickamauga’, Bierce keeps the narrative perspective quite tightly focused on the boy.
He arguably does this for a couple of reasons. First, it allows us to witness the devastation of war but from a surprising and defamiliarising perspective. If Bierce had structured the narrative differently, by beginning with an account of the battalions marching into the forest on their military campaign, we would have been better prepared for the horrific injuries the men sustain when they crawl, defeated, out of the woods hours later. As things stand, when the boy falls asleep, so do our ‘eyes’, our window onto the events taking place.
This is close to a technique which the literary critic Ian Watt has called delayed decoding, applied specifically to the fiction of Joseph Conrad. In Conrad’s narratives we are often introduced to bewildering and odd details which only make sense when more details emerge: so, for instance, when, in Heart of Darkness, the narrator sees the helmsman of the boat he is travelling on clutch a spear at an odd angle and then he (the narrator) feels a warm sensation in his shoes, it is only then that these two pieces of information come together and we realise that the helmsman has been speared and the warm feeling in the narrator’s shoes is the man’s blood.
We have to ‘decode’ what’s happening slowly, hence ‘delayed decoding’, because our ‘eyes’ in the story are those of a character who is himself initially confused by events.
The same is true of the soldiers emerging from the woods, who are initially described as crawling: at this stage they might be soldiers, but on some furtive military expedition, but it’s only later that we are told some of the details of their injuries – their arms not working, for instance – and, later still, that we learn of the blood on their faces. The boy is intrigued and confused by the sight, and we are invited to share his innocent child’s eye view of war.
But there is a second reason why Bierce’s narrative style in ‘Chickamauga’ is particularly effective in its depiction of war. For although the narrator occasionally takes us aside, as it were, and tells us things which the boy doesn’t know (such as the detail about the soldiers’ footprints in the mud), he is also happy to let the boy’s own thoughts take over the narrative at other points:
He placed himself in the lead, his wooden sword still in hand, and solemnly directed the march, conforming his pace to theirs and occasionally turning as if to see that his forces did not straggle. Surely such a leader never before had such a following.
That last sentence is an example of what is known in narrative terms as free indirect discourse: when the words of an impersonal third-person narrator are merged with the words (whether spoken or merely thought) of one of the story’s characters.
The (adult) narrator naturally knows that the small boy is no military leader (he became terrified even by the sight of a rabbit), and that his ‘following’ is only dubiously following him at all, but the narrator allows the boy’s confident and even proud thought to infiltrate the story’s narrative. (The word ‘surely’ is the giveaway: we know that that word is the boy’s, rather than the narrator’s.)
This technique has a curious effect when combined with the close focalising of the story’s events through the eyes of the boy: we are simultaneously invited to share the boy’s view of things while also reminding ourselves that, as a small boy, he is too young to appreciate the full horrors of what he has witnessed.
This seems to change at the end of ‘Chickamauga’ when, in another example of delayed decoding, the boy comes upon the burning building only to realise that he has arrived home and his house is ablaze.
The fire has already consumed his wooden sword, but what was thrown into the fire in one last act of defiant bravery (so the boy thinks) now comes to symbolise his loss of innocence – and of so much more. He has had a brutal initiation into the realities of war, and ‘Chickamauga’ derives its power from depicting these realities in a way that simultaneously reveals and obscures them.