On an autumn afternoon in 1861, next to a small road in western Virginia, a young soldier is asleep in a bush. He is lying flat on his stomach, stretched out, with a rifle loosely grasped in his right hand. Had “the criminal” been discovered asleep at his post, his punishment would have been death.
The soldier is referred to as “the criminal” by the author, but only in this instance.He is later praised as a “courageous gentleman” and described as the paragon of virtue. Bierce highlights the absurdity of military hierarchy by noting that such an excellent soldier could be wasted for the mere crime of succumbing to exhaustion.
The bush that the soldier is concealed in sits next to a road that leads downward into a forested valley. Near the point where the road descends into the valley is a large flat rock, the edge of a cliff, that juts into the air. From the cliff’s edge to the trees below is a thousand-foot drop. The valley and surrounding cliffs create a natural bowl with a meadow at its base. It is well-protected and concealed, but there seems to be only one narrow passage into it. From the sleeping soldier’s position, he has a vantage of both the road and the entire valley.
Bierce’s experience as a topographical engineer is on display here. Where most writers might note that there is a cliff and a valley or describe the trees, Bierce explains how the ridges intersect, at what angles, and features the topography as a device of the story with uncommon precision.
Five Union army regiments have taken shelter in the valley. They are concealed and planning to launch a surprise attack against a nearby enemy encampment the following night. The valley is a risky position to be in—it allows for a surprise attack, but should they be discovered there is no way of escaping up such a narrow road and they would be easily conquered.