The Language of the Devil: An Analysis of Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga" - By Alaina Barnett
Updated: Mar 1
8 February 2020
“Chickamauga”, written by Ambrose Bierce, is the story of a deaf and mute 6-year-old boy, who, at first, seems to be having a harmless yet exciting adventure just outside the gates of his home. A classic story of good versus evil, the boy is so captivated with the seemingly valiant images of war and its heroes, that he acts them out courageously -- fearlessly, even -- until he is frightened by an unknown creature; a mere rabbit of tiny stature and harmless nature. Terribly frightened, he runs away, only to exhaust himself into a sob-filled sleep in the middle of the forest. He then wakes up to the overwhelming instinct to wander away from his resting place, only to stumble upon hundreds of men, so deformed they look like animals, crawling towards the lake; desperate for water to retrieve them from their humanoid state. This young child, assuming his position as their leader, has once again returned to the state of invincibility: not at all frightened by the deformed men or the flames that he also finds himself among. All too suddenly, however, he realizes that the flames that he almost seems to dance upon, are consuming his home and own flesh and blood: his mother. There is no more dancing -- for this proves to be no longer a game. This intrepid tale of bravery and joyful naiveté quickly turns into one of horror and blatant ignorance. Ambrose Bierce uses brilliant imagery demonstrated through his language and symbolism weaved in between the lines to create a landscape of morality for the readers’ minds: war is no game of quick wit and jollity, yet merely the language of the devil.
The most obvious symbols in this tale are the underlying portraits of innocence.
We see this immediately in the first descriptions of the boy and his imaginary gallantry. Bierce describes the scene: “This weapon he now bore bravely, as became the son of an heroic race, and pausing now and again in the sunny space of the forest assumed, with some exaggeration, the postures of aggression and defense that he had been taught by the engraver’s art. Made reckless by the ease with which he overcame invisible foes attempting to stay his advance, he committed the common enough military error of pushing the pursuit to a dangerous extreme…” (2). It is evident that the romanticization of war has been planted and nurtured in his head for years; probably beginning when he could first formulate thoughts and statements of imitation. Instead of being frightened of the ideas of war, he is dreaming of what it could be like to find himself mano-y-mano: taking down a man with the sheer power of the sword guided by the hand he finds attached to the hilt. Most children his age shouldn’t be concerned with matters of war and violence, but yet, neither should the thousands of 18-year-olds’ minds, who in many ways, are just as innocent. In his own article examining the subject, Salina Patterson argues, “Bierce’s juxtaposition of a six-year-old boy pretend-fighting in the woods with the young soldiers fighting in the Civil War serves not only to illustrate the ‘brutalization of innocence in wartime’ but also to further the idea that many of the soldiers, with their lack of understanding of war’s true impact, are merely playing at war, vanquishing invisible foes with reckless conviction until they experience destruction first-hand...” (4). This young boy believes that this is the image of real masculinity, but suddenly, when he sees something that he isn’t familiar with, all of the bravery drains from his fingertips and the broken images of manliness turn out to be just that: broken. The brave man the reader has just seen seconds ago, is now stripped of all illusions; he is back to the reality of his youth -- his mere infancy. We see this very clearly in this passage: “...He suddenly found himself confronted with a new and more formidable enemy: in the path that he was following, sat, bolt upright, with ears erect and paws suspended before it, a rabbit! With a startled cry the child turned and fled, he knew not in what direction, calling with inarticulate cries for his mother, weeping, stumbling, his tender skin cruelly torn by brambles, his little heart beating hard with terror…” (Bierce 4). Because he feels that he is familiar with war, he is comfortable -- invincible in his own mind, even. But the unknown is a different story entirely. The rabbit is completely harmless, yet the idea of this tiny foreign creature scares him more than the thought of murdering another human being in cold blood ever would.
Another important image that Bierce paints so beautifully, is how the boy sees all of this violence as a game of sorts: a spectacle.
This becomes evident when the young boy interacts with the men for the first time. Bierce describes this vividly in the scene: “All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and gouted with red. Something in this—something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements—reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them” (7). The entire situation is nothing but a display of violence. The boy is not only completely unafraid of these men, but instead, entertained by them, simply because they vaguely resemble a clown that his gaze once fell upon. He almost immediately commandeers his place as their leader, dancing back and forth, desperate to gain some sort of control -- some sort of approval from his family -- maybe for his own sake. He has built the idea of war up in a way that is almost indestructible; nothing could ever possibly be this grotesque. It’s almost as if his brain shuns the idea of the reality and laughs at the men: desperately trying to associate them with a joyous memory instead of the horror before him. If he didn’t, his brain could shut down, causing the boy to snap in two abstract pieces. It seems to be a textbook form of self-preservation.
The most important element to this entire story, however, is arguably the symbols of turning a deaf ear to the horrors of war and violence. Throughout this entire tale, the reader sees this child fearlessly take on anything that is thrown his way; he constantly surprises us with his careless reactions. He is completely unfazed by the horrors of war until he is affected directly by the death of his mother. Bierce seems to paint this very scene with blood: “He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries—something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey—a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute. Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck” (15).
One could almost find themselves to be surprised by his reaction, based on his other responses. Bierce uses this heartbreaking scene to demonstrate the devastating reality of war. The truth is, the child’s viewpoint is shocking in the story, but all too common in the on-going actuality. The only way to really capture anyone’s attention on the horror of war, is for them to experience something that affects them directly. If pain is every which way that one could look, how could anyone ever feel it wholly and all at once? The tendency to tune it out and pretend that it doesn’t exist at all is all too easy. Maybe, just maybe, Ambrose Bierce isn’t just trying to tell his readers a sad story to experience the feeling of empathy; but instead, is almost begging them to see themselves in the young boy’s ignorance, joy, and pain.
Bierce, Ambrose. Chickamauga . Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, 2019.
Patterson, Salina. "Blind with Superstition, Cursed with Illusions: Masculinity and War in
Bierce’s “Chickamauga”." The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English 18.1 (2016): 5.