Chickamauga Summary

Ambrose Bierce


  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Chickamauga Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce.

Influenced by his time as a first lieutenant in the US Civil War during the Battle of Chickamauga, Ambrose Bierce published “Chickamauga,” along with twenty-four other short stories, in 1889. “Chickamauga,” one of the more well-known stories, is noted for its skilled structure and consistent tension between fantasies of war and the reality of war. This group of war stories is often considered one of the greatest anti-war works in American literature. Much of Bierce’s work exudes a surreal quality. His interest in horror writing has led many critics to rank him alongside Edgar Allan Poe. Bierce (1842–1914) was an esteemed journalist, poet, short story writer, and critic.

Told in omniscient third-person, “Chickamauga” focuses on the themes of childhood trauma, the inexpressible horrors of war, and the destruction of innocence. The story is named after the battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863), which was fought in northwestern Georgia. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the battle had the highest number of casualties from any battle during the Civil War. The heaviest fighting occurred near Chickamauga Creek, a four-mile creek that leads to the Tennessee River. Along with giving the battle its name, Chickamauga Creek figures largely in Bierce’s story as a natural site that is poisoned with human blood.

Inspired by stories of military victories and heroic outcomes, a six-year-old, unnamed southern boy, ventures into the woods to fight whatever may come his way. He is the son of a relatively poor plantation owner. His father is a former soldier and loves to read history books. He also keeps pictures and engraved relics from his glory days that the boy admires.

The boy imagines battling dozens of enemy soldiers, killing them with his toy, wooden sword. He is so enraptured by his dream of victory that he makes the tactical mistake of going deeper and deeper into the woods. He believes that his ancestors, thousands of years before him, underwent similar training in their quest for victory over their enemies. The boy “wins” his battle.

Lost in his dream, the boy eventually becomes lost in reality. Overcome with fright, for the next hour, he searches through the woods for his house. Scared, he finally lies down to sleep for a few hours; he hopes this will restore his sense of direction. He does not know that his mother has called a search party, and she is crazy with worry over him. Black and white men from the plantation are searching through the fields to find him.

When he wakes, he sees hundreds of soldiers approaching him. On closer inspection, he sees that they are severely wounded, and some of them are already dead. They are “unfamiliarly clad” and the inference is that these troops are union soldiers; The Battle of Chickamauga was a loss for the Union.

The boy looks at them not in horror, but entertainment. Some of the soldiers are crawling on their hands and knees because they are so badly wounded, and the boy is reminded of the circus. He also thinks of his father’s slaves who would pretend to be horses so that he could ride around on them. The boy jumps onto the back of one of the soldiers and is immediately thrown off. He locks eyes with the soldier to see that the man has no lower jaw. The boy finally becomes scared, and runs to hide from the other soldiers near a tree.  At this point, it becomes unclear whether the boy is imagining the war or living it.

The boy and his soldiers are suddenly fired upon. The boy sees that creek has turned red with blood. There are men who have been thrown in there or who have drowned there. He realizes that a battle took place while he was sleeping. The narrator says that someone with more experience would have noted that a horde of footprints went south then another set of footprints went north. This is a reference to the Union initial advancement, then withdrawal.

When the boy sees smoke rising from the woods, he is excited at the prospect of a fire. With his cap waving around, he signals to the wounded soldiers to follow him; they will serve as his “forces.” The boy runs out of the woods and toward the fire. He even tries bringing more fuel to the fire to increase the drama, but the canister is far too heavy for him to carry.

Out of the woods, the boy sees that it is his own home that is burning. He runs toward the house to find his mother lying dead in the grass. Her clothes are a mess, and her hair is knotted with streaks of drying blood. A large part of her forehead is torn away and the boy sees some of her brain. He screams. But ends up making only nonsensical sounds.

The narrator says that the child is a deaf-mute. This explains why he did not hear anything during the battle that occurred around his father’s plantation. The story concludes with the boy, speechless, observing the destruction of war.