Ambrose Bierce


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Chickamauga Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 20-page guide for the short story “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Phases of War and Man Versus Nature in Wartime.

“Chickamauga” is a short story by Ambrose Bierce, first published in a collection of his stories in 1887. The name refers to a Civil War battlefield in Georgia.

The story is set in the South during the Civil War. The story’s unnamed protagonist is a young boy, referred to throughout as “the child.” We are told that while the boy comes from a humble farming family, he is descended from victors and conquerors and has an avidity for battle in his blood. His father was himself once a soldier, who “fought against naked savages and followed the flag of his country into the capital of a civilized race to the far South” (Paragraph 2). Although he is now only a “poor planter” (Paragraph 2), he remains obsessed with his martial past and has schooled his son in wartime stories and strategies.

The story opens with the young boy going out to play in the fields around his house, armed with a homemade wooden sword. He chases imaginary enemies down to a brook, pursues them across the water, and is suddenly terrified by the sight of a rabbit. The rabbit causes the boy to retreat into the nearby woods, where he becomes lost. He wanders around calling for his mother and eventually falls asleep in the forest. His family has meanwhile sent “white men and black” (Paragraph 4) out looking for him; while his family is poor, it is nevertheless in possession of a plantation and slaves.

The boy wakes up in the middle of the night on the forest floor. He tries again to find his way out of the forest, and this time has better luck. He finds his way back to the brook, but the sight of mist rising off of the water makes him fearful. He crosses the brook and goes forward into another, sparser wood. Here he suddenly sees a moving shape, followed by another; he at first takes these shapes to be animals, but gradually realizes that they are wounded men. They are soldiers retreating from a battlefield, all of them hobbled and crippled in some way. Some men are able to move only with their hands, others only with their knees. The men collapse and die, in their flailing efforts to move themselves to safety.

We are told that the men are retreating from a battle that they had fought while the boy was asleep in the forest; the sounds had failed to wake him. The boy’s reaction to the wounded men is at first one of inquisitive amusement, rather than horror: “He moved among them freely, going from one to another and peering into their faces with childish curiosity” (Paragraph 6). The men remind him of clowns that he has seen in a circus, and also of his family’s slaves: “He had seen his father’s negroes creep upon their hands and knees for his amusement—had ridden them so, ‘making believe’ they were his horses” (Paragraph 6). He attempts to “ride” one wounded soldier in a similar way—a man who is missing his entire lower jaw—but the soldier throws him off and then shakes his fist at him. This angry action, and the sight of the man’s deformed face, finally scare the child away, and he runs behind a tree to observe the group from a safer vantage.

He then sees a light in the distance, which he slowly realizes comes from a distant fire. The light shines off of the soldier’s medals and buttons, and also illuminates their wounds. It reveals blood in the creek across which they are now moving, as well as the sight of several corpses, some of them headless. The “growing splendor” of the fire nevertheless causes the boy to forget his earlier fears, and he runs to the head of the procession,…

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