Review: Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce is a writer I’ve intended to read for a long, long time. He’s best known for The Devil’s Dictionary, a cynical interpretation of the English language, which I’ve poked through a bit, but it’s not exactly a book you want to curl up with on the couch for a few hours of reading.

Neither is this collection of Civil War short stories and memoirs, which I’d recommend, but in small doses. Bierce’s style doesn’t make for easy commuter reading either (train time = reading time) despite the fact that most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. The language demands full, uninterrupted attention. Bierce’s cold, flat prose (he was a journalist, after all) takes you deep into the front line experience without delving too deeply into character, which makes it hard to lose yourself in any story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The writing is powerful and evokes the carnage and horror battle. Bierce fought in the Union Army, including at the Battle of Shiloh, so he knows of what he writes.

His most famous story is probably “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning short film (and judging from my junior high and high school experience, put into heavy rotation as English class filler.) You might remember it as an episode of The Twilight Zone, which absolutely fits, since many of Bierce’s stories have fantastical elements and surprise endings that knock you out.

Back to this collection. Reading one story after another takes some of the fun out of it as the Everyman soldier at the center of each tale melds from one to another and you begin to see the pattern and predict each ending. But that’s not to say I’m not glad I read it. If you’re a Civil War buff, I’d absolutely recommend you add this to your collection.

To be fair, I suppose Shadows of Blue & Gray wasn’t the best choice for kicking off my summer reading season. In fact, by the time I’d finished reading the stories which make up the first half of the book, I’d had enough and chose to return to the memoir section of the book another day. Perhaps in the deepest part of winter.

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