Before the Civil War, Bierce implies that Carter Druse has led a wealthy and privileged young life under the shelter of his parents. In joining the Union army, he both physically and ideologically steps away from the domain of his father to assert his independence and discover who he truly is. Despite their diverging paths, however, Bierce describes both Druse and his father as loving and respecting each other. The tension is not born of bitterness or resentment, but the natural need for Druse to become his own man. Through this, Bierce typifies the classic generational conflict between children and their parents, and further suggests that embodied in the Civil War was the conflict between a progressive future and a traditional past.
The unspoken point of contention between Druse and his father is the ideological issue at the heart of the Civil War: slavery. Interestingly, neither slavery or the Confederacy are ever explicitly named in the story and the Union army is named only once. However, Bierce, himself an abolitionist, casts Druse as a noble defector from the Confederate ideals, a traitor to the slave state of Virginia and to his father’s principles. Although slavery is never mentioned, Druse was “the son of wealthy parents, an only child, and had known such ease and cultivation and high living as wealth and taste were able to command…” It is likely that Druse’s parents would have owned slaves, or at least been a member of slave-owning communities. In fighting for the abolition, Druse is consequently fighting for the destruction of a major piece of familial identity.
Druse is duty-bound to the Union and to abolition, fighting for a free and progressive future. Contrarily, his father is fighting for the protection of the old ways invariably tied to slavery. Son and father are thus fighting for competing ideals for the future of the country, visions of what has been and what could be. Throughout the war, sons and fathers, friends and neighbors were willing to kill each other to decide whether the country would emancipate the slaves or maintain their bondage. Bierce thus suggests the relationship between Druse and his father as a sort of microcosm of the war itself, positing their personal generational conflict as reflective of the conflict between the past and future of America.
Druse leaving his family is also notably an act of self-actualization. By leaving the shelter, comfort, and worldview of his childhood home, he is on a journey to discover who he truly is. Druse is said to be a private in the Union army, the lowest rank. Not only has he stepped out of the comfort of the privileged home, then, but he has stepped down to the level of a poor and expendable foot soldier. Most importantly, he has done it on his own terms. Rather than by privilege, Druse distinguishes himself to his comrades and superiors “by conscience and courage, by deeds of devotion and daring.” In his new life as a Union soldier, he has earned his reputation rather than inherited it.
Even so, the marks of his high-brow upbringing still remain, most notably when he first spies the horseman: “His first feeling was a keen artistic delight,” Bierce writes, describing in detail how the colors of the horseman’s uniform harmonize with the backdrop of the sky and how the stern lines make him appear to be carved from marble like some Grecian statue. This hesitation lasts only a moment, however, and his sense of duty quickly overrides his cultured appreciation of the aesthetic forms, fostered by a gentle and well-educated childhood. Even so, Bierce nods here to the way that, for all his independence, the son is still shaped by the father, and will be throughout his life. Thus, Bierce highlights the painful necessity of children to step out from under their parents’ wing, despite what love and loyalty may persist. Without leaving his childhood home, Druse would never discover what he believed about loyalty, duty, or conscience, or who he truly is.
In shooting down the horseman, Bierce resolves the conflict between the son and the father, between one generation and the next. Druse has killed the only surviving member of his family to fulfill his duty and to champion his own ideals over his father’s. Though without malice, he has erased the life, presence, and worldview of his father from the earth to be replaced by his own. This is a reflection of the broader ideological change in America; the Union, with its goal of emancipation, put to death the Confederate ideology predicated on the use of slaves. One societal ideal had to die so that another could find its footing and mature.
Sons vs. Fathers ThemeTracker
Sons vs. Fathers 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.
The sleeping sentinel in the clump of laurel was a young Virginian named Carter Druse. He was the son of wealthy parents, an only child, and had known such ease and cultivation and high living as wealth and taste were able to command in the mountain country of western Virginia. His home was but a few miles from where he now lay.
“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.