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Ambrose Bierce Recalls the Battle of Pickett’s Mill

Civil War

Ambrose Bierce Recalls the Battle of Pickett’s Mill

Some raw, others heartfelt, the photographs Matthew Brady and his team took at the Battle of Antietam set milestones for battlefield photography.

As Ambrose Bierce would later recall, William T. Sherman's ill-advised attack at the Battle of Pickett's Mill brought terrible consequences to the Union Army.

As Ambrose Bierce recalls, William T. Sherman's ill-advised attack at the Battle of Pickett's Mill brought terrible consequences to the Union Army.
by Roy Morris, Jr.

Little Pumpkin Vine Creek, 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, May 27, 1864.

Peering through the thick underbrush, Ambrose Bierce had a bad feeling, but that in itself was not unusual. The cynical and sardonic young lieutenant on Brig. Gen. William Hazen’s staff in the Union Army of the Cumberland was not exactly sunny natured in the best of times. Born into a dirt-poor farming family in northern Indiana and raised by fanatically religious parents, Bierce had joined the army at the very beginning of the Civil War—as much to escape his hardscrabble past as to fight for his country’s future.

Three years on the firing line had thrown Bierce into some of the worst combat of the war, from Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River to Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Resaca. Still one month short of his 22nd birthday, Bierce was a veteran in all senses of the word. As he would recall many years later, after he had become a prominent newspaper columnist and short story writer, he had spent the war years “among hardened and impenitent man-killers, to whom death in its awfulest forms is a fact familiar to their every-day observation; who sleep on hills trembling with the thunder of great guns, dine in the midst of streaming missiles, and play cards among the dead faces of their dearest friends.”

Inured to Death

As Ambrose Bierce recalls, William T. Sherman's ill-advised attack at the Battle of Pickett's Mill brought terrible consequences to the Union Army. If not indifferent to death, Bierce and his comrades were largely inured to it. Nevertheless, something about the army’s present position did not sit well with Bierce or his fellow Midwesterners in Hazen’s brigade. “Oh, we’ll catch it today,” many of the soldiers muttered. Bierce saw nothing to cause him to disagree. In his role as a topographical engineer, it was Bierce’s job to scout and map the terrain in advance of the brigade’s movements. “My duties as topographical engineer kept me working like a beaver,” he would recall after the war. “It was hazardous work; the nearer to the enemy’s lines I could penetrate, the more valuable were my field notes and the resulting maps. It was a business in which the lives of men counted as nothing against the chance of defining a road or sketching a bridge.”

But Bierce had not had time to do much preliminary scouting of the brigade’s new position at Little Pumpkin Vine Creek. The men had just marched four miles east from New Hope Church that morning, leaving behind the trenches and breastworks they had hastily thrown up after being roughly handled by the Confederates in General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee two days earlier. Like soldiers in all wars, they did not happily leave behind a solid defensive position to go creeping through dense, shadowy woods in search of an ever elusive enemy. It made them uneasy, to say the least. The Battle of Pickett’s Mill was about to begin.

In the Aftermath

In the aftermath of the battle, an embarrassed cloak of silence, if not out-right secrecy, immediately surrounded the Union high command at Pickett’s Mill. The ordinarily loquacious Sherman casually informed General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, “We have had many sharp, severe encounters, but nothing decisive.” Beyond that vague mention, Sherman never wrote a single word about Pickett’s Mill in his official reports or his best-selling memoirs. Howard, too, fell silent—an unaccustomed state of affairs for the usually bombastic general.

It remained for 1st Lt. Ambrose Bierce alone to remember his fallen comrades at Pickett’s Mill. Settling in San Francisco after the war, Bierce became a well-known and much-feared newspaper columnist, the “wickedest man in San Francisco,” as one nickname put it. On May 27, 1888—the 24th anniversary of the Battle of Pickett’s Mill—Bierce published an account of the butchery in his newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. He titled it: “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill: A Plain Account of a Bad Half Hour with Joe Johnston.”

“The Crime at Pickett’s Mill”

It had been that, and more. Indeed, for some 700 Union soldiers in the north Georgia woods, it had been the last day of their lives. Nor did Bierce, with his hard-won cynicism, have much faith in history eventually doing justice to the dead at Pickett’s Mill. As he defined it in his tart work of lexicography The Devil’s Dictionary, history was merely “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

There were knaves aplenty at Pickett’s Mill, most of them in positions of leadership in the Union ranks. And as usual, it was the “fools”—the common soldiers under their command—who paid in blood for the mistakes made by their misbegotten commanders. Years later, Bierce was still challenging Howard to write “one line” about the fallen of Pickett’s Mill, but “the consummate master of the art of needless defeat” continued “to ignore their hopeless heroism.” It did not surprise Bierce, and it probably would not have surprised his dead comrades at Pickett’s Mill, but they were now beyond all caring.

This story was first published in the Fall 2014 edition of Civil War Quarterly. Pick up your copy today!

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