In “A Horseman in the Sky,” Ambrose Bierce conceals the full scope of the story’s moral dilemma until the story’s final pages: the conflict between duty and family unique to the American Civil War. The protagonist, a young soldier in the Union Army named Carter Druse, has been posted as a sentry to protect his comrades and keep their whereabouts hidden. The horseman, an enemy officer later revealed to be Druse’s father, has discovered their location. Druse is forced to choose between letting his father escape with information that would guarantee the demise of his comrades, or killing his father in ambush. Druse ultimately decides that duty to his comrades and their cause must come before his family, a conviction that his father instilled in him. Bierce thus explores the complex nature of duty in many forms throughout his story, and ultimately seems to suggest a primacy of moral duty that overrides duty to all else—including family.
Druse’s actions throughout the story are described within the context of duty. Druse is initially introduced as being “asleep at his post of duty”—an infraction for which he would be executed, “death being the just and legal penalty of his crime.” The narrator even refers to him in this context as “the criminal.” This immediately establishes the hierarchy of military authority and imbues such command with a sense of arbitrariness that would seem to undermine that authority; death hardly seems a proportionately “just” punishment for having fallen asleep on the job. Druse is also repeatedly described by Bierce as a deeply courageous and devoted soldier—purposely contradicting the initial label of “criminal”—making such potential punishment for simply being overcome by exhaustion seem all the more absurd; blind adherence to duty, in this case, would result in the foolish loss of a valuable Union soldier. The story would thus seemingly condemn duty for duty’s sake.
Yet even as Bierce undermines rigid, unquestioning duty, he valorizes thoughtful consideration of one’s duty to higher moral concepts. Before the horseman turns his head and Druse realizes that he is aiming his rifle at his own father, he does not relish the thought of killing an unaware man. Even after he recognizes his father and is agonizing over the decision, the reader is kept in the dark. Bierce initially frames the dilemma with the ethics of killing man from a hidden vantage for the mere crime of possessing dangerous information, as opposed to killing a man in open combat or in self-defense. Druse ultimately decides that he must the man for the sake of his fellow soldiers—that is, in the name of a greater good. In this way, Bierce complicates the justice of violence for a cause before the reader is even aware of the familial connection; Druse experiences cognitive dissonance between duty to his specific troop versus duty to a broader concept of moral violence.
Notably, before the main scene of the story, Druse had chosen to place duty before family, a fact that pained his father but was also respected by him. Druse grew up in Virginia, meaning he should have fought in the Confederacy had he chosen to stay true to his family and his home. Although Bierce does not state his motivations explicitly, he describes Druse as a “courageous gentleman” and praises him, making it likely that his decision to fight for the Union was motivated more by ethical conviction than mere rebellion. Bierce cuts away from the main story to describe the moment that Druse announced his ambitions to join the Union army to his father and left his home. His father says, “Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you.” That Druse’s decision makes him a traitor in the eyes of his state and his family reveals the complicated and conflicting nature of duty. It’s worth noting that the author himself was an abolitionist who volunteered to join the Union army during the Civil War; as such, it’s possible that Bierce is suggesting that abandoning an unjust cause cannot be treason—or, if it is, it is just treason in the service of a higher moral duty.
Ironically, it is ultimately the words of his father that compel Druse to kill him. His father’s admonishment to follow his duty wherever it may lead echo in his head in the moments before he pulls the trigger. By ending his father’s life, then, he also pays reverence to him by heeding his advice, painful though it may be. Both Druse and his father, for all their political differences, thus both appear to live above all by the duty of conscience.
Duty, Morality, and Justice ThemeTracker
Duty, Morality, and Justice Quotes in A Horseman in the Sky
He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, death being the just and legal penalty of his crime.
No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war; concealed in the forest at the bottom of that military rat-trap, in which half a hundred men in possession of the exits might have starved an army to submission, lay five regiments of Federal infantry … In case of failure, their position would be perilous in the extreme; and fail they surely would should accident or vigilance apprise the enemy of the movement.
“Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty.”
The duty of the soldier was plain: the man must be shot dead from ambush—without warning, without a moment’s spiritual preparation, with never so much as an unspoken prayer, he must be sent to his account.
Druse withdrew his eyes from the valley and fixed them again upon the group of man and horse in the sky, and again it was through the sights of his rifle. But this time his aim was at the horse … Duty had conquered; the spirit said to the body: “Peace, be still.” He fired.
“Did you fire?” the sergeant whispered.
“A horse. It was standing on yonder rock—pretty far out. You see it is no longer there. It went over the cliff.”
The man’s face was white, but he showed no other sign of emotion. Having answered, he turned his eyes away and said no more. The sergeant did not understand.
“See here, Druse,” he said after a moment’s silence, it’s no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anybody on the horse?”
The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away. “Good God!” he said.