A Horseman in the Sky


Ambrose Bierce

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A Horseman in the Sky Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ambrose Bierce's A Horseman in the Sky. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was born to a large family in Ohio. His parents were poor, but still appreciative of literature and passed on their love of reading and writing to their son. Bierce grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, and initially became a printer’s apprentice following his schooling. In 1861, at the age of 19, he volunteered for the 9th Indiana Infantry to fight in the Union army. He was in numerous battles, most notably the Battle of Shiloh, which marked him for the rest of his life. After his military service, Bierce settled for some time in San Francisco where he worked as a journalist and editorial writer. His contributions to several local papers gained him some fame, and it was at this time that his career as a writer truly began. He lived for three years in England, during which time he contributed to more magazines and published his first book, The Fiend’s Delight (1873). Bierce’s most notable works were his morbid fiction anthologies, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893), in which he created detailed pictures of his own Civil War experiences told through constrained viewpoints, as well as The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), a satirical and vicious lexicon of his own perspectives on society. Bierce married Mollie Day in 1871 and had three children with her. Both of his sons died before he did, and he divorced his wife in 1904. In 1914, Bierce told correspondents that he was travelling to Mexico to follow Pancho Villa’s actions in the Mexican Revolution. This was the last time anyone heard from Bierce. How, when, and where he died was never discovered.
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Historical Context of A Horseman in the Sky

The American Civil War, which Bierce fought in, began in April 1861, shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln. While many issues separated the Union and Confederate states, the practice of slavery was chief among them, giving the decision of who to fight for a starkly moralistic weight. As in the story, this often split families down the middle. Although Bierce’s stories are fictional, he filled them with details he himself had seen and grounded them in the grim reality of a nation at war with itself. “A Horseman in the Sky” takes place in Western Virginia, where Bierce had his first experiences of warfare.

Other Books Related to A Horseman in the Sky

“A Horseman in the Sky” exemplifies the way in which Bierce straddled the Realist and American Gothic movements by combining elements of both in his work, such as his use of existential horror, patricide, and apocalyptic imagery framed against unflinchingly accurate accounts of what Bierce saw in the Civil War. He is considered by many to have entered into the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe in his utilization of horror—though he is generally regarded as less skilled of a horror writer than both masters. His realistic depiction of war strongly influenced the future work of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Crane, most notably Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which is also a Civil War story about a young Union private that mixes elements of realism and impressionism.
Key Facts about A Horseman in the Sky
  • Full Title: A Horseman in the Sky
  • When Written: 1889
  • Where Written: The United States, possibly San Francisco
  • When Published: April 14, 1889 in The Examiner, a San Francisco newspaper
  • Literary Period: Realism/American Gothic
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: Near a cliff’s edge in western Virginia during the American Civil War
  • Climax: Carter Druse shoots his father
  • Antagonist: Druse’s Father
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for A Horseman in the Sky

Map Maker. Midway through his military career, Bierce was commissioned as a topographical engineer, mapping the terrain of future battlefields. This expertise is evident in the story as he pays particular attention to the topography of the cliff and valley below where Carter Druse lies as a sentry.