Ambrose Bierce: Killed At Resaca
Member of the Anti-Imperialist League
Killed At Resaca (1891)
The best soldier of our staff was Lieutenant Herman Brayle, one of the two aides-de-camp. I don’t remember where the general picked him up; from some Ohio regiment, I think; none of us had previously known him, and it would have been strange if we had, for no two of us came from the same State, nor even from adjoining States. The general seemed to think that a position on his staff was a distinction that should be so judiciously conferred as not to beget any sectional jealousies and imperil the integrity of that part of the country which was still an integer. He would not even choose officers from his own command, but by some jugglery at department headquarters obtained them from other brigades. Under such circumstances, a man’s services had to be very distinguished indeed to be heard of by his family and friends of his youth; and “the speaking trump of fame” was a trifle hoarse from loquacity, anyhow.
Lieutenant Brayle was more than six feet in height and of splendid proportions, with the light hair and gray-blue eyes which men so gifted usually find associated with a high order of courage. As he was commonly in full uniform, especially in action, when most officers are content to be less flamboyantly attired, he was a very striking and conspicuous figure. As to the rest, he had a gentleman’s manners, a scholar’s head, and a lion’s heart. His age was about thirty. We all soon came to like Brayle as much as we admired him, and it was with sincere concern that in the engagement at Stone’s River – our first action after he joined us – we observed that he had one most objectionable and unsoldierly quality: he was vain of his courage. During all the vicissitudes and mutations of that hideous encounter, whether our troops were fighting in the open cotton fields, in the cedar thickets, or behind the railway embankment, he did not once take cover, except when sternly commanded to do so by the general, who usually had other things to think of than the lives of his staff officers – or those of his men, for that matter.
In every later engagement while Brayle was with us it was the same way. He would sit his horse like an equestrian statue, in a storm of bullets and grape, in the most exposed places – wherever, in fact, duty, requiring him to go, permitted him to remain – when, without trouble and with distinct advantage to his reputation for common sense, he might have been in such security as it possible on a battlefield in the brief intervals of personal inaction.
On foot, from necessity or in deference to his dismounted commander or associates, his conduct was the same. He would stand like a rock in the open when officers and men alike had taken cover; while men older in service and years, higher in rank and of unquestionable intrepidity, were loyally preserving behind the crest of a hill lives infinitely precious to their country, this fellow would stand, equally idle, on the ridge, facing in the direction of the sharpest fire.
When battles are going on in open ground it frequently occurs that the opposing lines, confronting each other within a stone’s throw for hours, hug the earth as closely as if they loved it. The line officers in their proper places flatten themselves no less, and the field officers, their horses all killed or sent to the rear, crouch beneath the infernal canopy of hissing lead and screaming iron without a thought of personal dignity.
In such circumstances the life of a staff officer of a brigade is distinctly “not a happy one”, mainly because of its precarious tenure and the unnerving alternations of emotion to which he is exposed. From a position of that comparative security from which a civilian would ascribe his escape to a “miracle”, he may he despatched with an order to some commander of a prone regiment in the front line – a person for the moment inconspicuous and not always easy to find without a deal of search among men somewhat preoccupied, and in a din in which question and answer alike must be imparted in the sign language. It is customary in such cases to duck the head and scuttle away on a keen run, an object of lively interest to some thousands of admiring marksmen. In returning – well, it is not customary to return.
Brayle’s practice was different. He would consign his horse to the care of an orderly, – he loved his horse, – and walk quietly away on his perilous errand with never a stoop of the back, his splendid figure, accentuated by his uniform, holding the eye with a strange fascination. We watched him with suspended breath, our hearts in our mouths. On one occasion of this kind, indeed, one of our number, an impetuous stammerer, was so possessed by his emotion that he shouted at me: “I’ll b-b-bet you t-two d-d-dollars they d-drop him b-b-before he g-gets to that d-d-ditch!”
I did not accept the brutal wager; I thought they would. Let me do justice to a brave man’s memory; in all these needless exposures of life there was no visible bravado nor subsequent narration. In the few instances when some of us had ventured to remonstrate, Brayle had smiled pleasantly and made some light reply, which, however, had not encouraged a further pursuit of the subject. Once he said:
“Captain, if ever I come to grief by forgetting your advice, I hope my last moments will be cheered by the sound of your beloved voice breathing into my ear the blessed words, ‘I told you so.’” We laughed at the captain – just why we could probably not have explained – and that afternoon when he was shot to rags from an ambuscade Brayle remained by the body for some time, adjusting the limbs with needless care – there in the middle of a road swept by gusts of grape and canister! It is easy to condemn this kind of thing, and not very difficult to refrain from imitation, but it is impossible not to respect, and Brayle was liked none the less for the weakness which had so heroic an expression. We wished he were not a fool, but he went on that way to the end, sometimes hard hit, but always returning to duty about as good as new.
Of course, it came at last; he who ignores the law of probabilities challenges an adversary that is seldom beaten. It was at Resaca, in Georgia, during the movement that resulted in the taking of Atlanta. In front of our brigade the enemy’s line of earthworks ran through open fields along a slight crest. At each end of this open ground we were close up to him in the woods, but the clear ground we could not hope to occupy until night, when darkness would enable us to burrow like moles and throw up earth. At this point our line was a quarter-mile away in the edge of a wood. Roughly, we formed a semicircle, the enemy’s fortified line being the chord of the arc.
“Lieutenant, go tell Colonel Ward to work up as close as he can get cover, and not to waste much ammunition in unnecessary firing. You may leave your horse.”
When the general gave this direction we were in the fringe of the forest, near the extremity of the arc. Colonel Ward was at the left. The suggestion to leave the horse obviously meant that Brayle was to take the longer line, through the woods and among the men. Indeed, the suggestion was needless; to go by the shout route meant absolutely certain failure to deliver the message. Before anybody could interpose, Brayle had cantered lightly into the field and the enemy’s works were in crackling conflagration.
“Stop that damned fool!” shouted the general. A private of the escort, with more ambition than brains, spurred forward to obey, and within ten yards left himself and his horse dead on the field of honor.
Brayle was beyond recall, galloping easily along, parallel to the enemy and less than two hundred yards distant. He was a picture to see! His hat had been blown or shot from his head, and his long, blond hair rose and fell with the motion of his horse. He sat erect in the saddle, holding the reins lightly in his left hand, his right hanging carelessly at his side. An occasional glimpse of his handsome profile as he turned his head one way or the other proved that the interest which he took in what was going on was natural and without affectation.
The picture was intensely dramatic, but in no degree theatrical. Successive scores of rifles spat at him viciously as he came within range, and our own line in the edge of the timber broke out in visible and audible defense. No longer regardful of themselves or their orders, our fellows sprang to their feet, and swarming into the open sent broad sheets of bullets against the blazing crest of the offending works, which poured an answering fire into their unprotected groups with deadly effect. The artillery on both sides joined the battle, punctuating the rattle and roar with deep, earth-shaking explosions and tearing the air with storms of screaming grape, which from the enemy’s side splintered the trees and spattered them with blood, and from ours defiled the smoke of his arms with banks and clouds of dust from his parapet.
My attention had been for a moment drawn to the general combat, but now, glancing down the unobscured avenue between these two thunderclouds, I saw Brayle, the cause of the carnage. Invisible now from either side, and equally doomed by friend and foe, he stood in the shot-swept space, motionless, his face toward the enemy. At some little distance lay his horse. I instantly saw what had stopped him. As topographical engineer I had, early in the day, made a hasty examination of the ground, and now remembered that at that point was a deep and sinuous gully, crossing half the field from the enemy’s line, its general course at right angles to it. From where we now were it was invisible, and Brayle had evidently not known about it. Clearly, it was impassable. Its salient angles would have afforded him absolute security if he had chosen to be satisfied with the miracle already wrought in his favor and leapt into it. He could not go forward, he would not turn back; he stood awaiting death. It did not keep him long waiting. By some mysterious coincidence, almost instantaneously as he fell, the firing ceased, a few desultory shots at long intervals serving rather to accentuate than break the silence. It was as if both sides had suddenly repented of their profitless crime. Four stretcher-bearers of ours, following a sergeant with a white flag, soon afterward moved unmolested into the field, and made straight for Brayle’s body. Several Confederate officers and men came out to meet them, and with uncovered heads assisted them to take up their sacred burden. As it was borne toward us we heard beyond the hostile works fifes and a muffled drum – a dirge. A generous enemy honored the fallen brave. Amongst the dead man’s effects was a soiled Russia-leather pocketbook. In the distribution of mementos of our friend, which the general, as administrator, decreed, this fell to me.
A year after the close of the war, on my way to California, I opened and idly inspected it. Out of an overlooked compartment fell a letter without envelope or address. It was in a woman’s handwriting, and began with words of endearment, but no name.
It had the following date line: “San Francisco, Cal, July 9, 1862.” The signature was “Darling”, in marks of quotation. Incidentally, in the body of the text, the writer’s full name was given – Marian Mendenhall.
The letter showed evidence of cultivation and good breeding, but it was an ordinary love letter, if a love letter can be ordinary. There was not much in it, but there was something. It was this:
“Mr Winters, whom I shall always hate for it, has been telling that at some battle in Virginia, where he got his hurt, you were seen crouching behind a tree. I think he wants to injure you in my regard, which he knows the story would do if I believed it. I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.”
These were the words which on that sunny afternoon, in a distant region, had slain a hundred men. Is woman weak?
One evening I called on Miss Mendenhall to return the letter to her. I intended, also, to tell her what she had done – but not that she did it. I found her in a handsome dwelling on Rincon Hill. She was beautiful, well bred – in a word, charming.
“You knew Lieutenant Herman Brayle,” I said, rather abruptly. “You know, doubtless, that he fell in battle. Among his effects was found this letter from you. My errand here is to place it in your hands.” She mechanically took the letter, glanced through it with deepening color, and then, looking at me with a smile, said:
“It is very good of you, though I am sure it was hardly worth while.” She started suddenly and changed color. “This stain,” she said, “is it – surely it is not —”
“Madam,” I said, “pardon me, but that is the blood of the truest and bravest heart that ever beat.”
She hastily flung the letter on the blazing coals. “Uh! I cannot bear the sight of blood!” she said. “How did he die?” I had involuntarily risen to rescue that scrap of paper, sacred even to me, and now stood partly behind her. As she asked the question she turned her face about and slightly upward. The light of the burning letter was reflected in her eyes and touched her cheek with tinge of crimson like the stain upon its page. I had never seen anything so beautiful as this detestable creature.
“He was bitten by a snake,” I replied.