Bierce’s telling of the Civil War is justifiably cynical. Although he never explicitly names the unique horrors of the Civil War, they form the background and unspoken context of the story. As exemplified by the tragedy of Carter Druse being forced to kill his own father for the sake of noble duty, the nature of the war confounded people’s compassion, ethics, sense of morality, and even ties to friends and family. Bierce eliminates any notion of lasting valor or heroism. For him, the Civil War was not adventurous or exciting, but morally and existentially crushing. In his use of supernatural imagery and portrayal of meaningless pain, he paints the war more as a strange fever dream than any sort of heroic quest.
Bierce’s story lacks any form of traditional hero or villain. Druse is the protagonist and his father is the antagonist, but neither behave or are rewarded in the tradition of the hero’s journey. Despite his heroism, it is noted that Druse would have been executed had he been found sleeping at his post. This one negative action was enough to negate all other positive ones, underscoring the horrific calculus of war. In the timeline of the story, Druse also never becomes more than a private despite gaining the respect and admiration or comrades and superiors. He is neither rewarded nor heralded; rather, Druse suffers for his heroism. Had stayed he asleep, abandoned his post, or elected to let his regiment fall under attack, he would have been able to spare the life of his father and the pain of being the one to kill him.
Even the sergeant who first realizes what Druse has done does not offer congratulations or thanks but walks away expressing shock and horror. Bierce staunchly denies any sort of karmic justice within the world of the story. While there are no traditionally evil antagonists (even Druse’s father is described as honorable despite being a Confederate officer) the good men still suffer. The evil of the story, then, is existential rather than particular. Any notions of good prevailing over evil, of justice or order or balance are noticeably absent from Bierce’s telling. There is no glamor in Bierce’s war, only morally perplexing decisions and painful realities.
Bierce uses apocalyptic imagery, as he has in other stories, to reinforce the chaos and the horror of the American Civil War, which, in many ways, may have felt as if the world itself was coming apart or ending. America itself was being rent in two. In the moments in which he is grappling with the decision to kill his own father, Druse envisions the horseman as a great black figure creating fiery circles in the sky. Where previously he had seen the horse and rider as a Grecian statue, now they are a figure of dread. Though not an explicit reference, the imagery recalls biblical scenes of judgment such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the plague of fire upon Egypt. The wandering officer who witnesses Druse’s father falling to his death perceives it as an apocalyptic event, even briefly imagining himself to be some sort of prophetic witness. Even after he hears the bodies hit the trees, he assumes that they have ridden outward into the valley, rather than straight down as a body would fall. The officer, in the chaos and banality of the war, seems to be more susceptible to the possibility that the world must be ending.
Druse’s father riding through the sky further conjures biblical images of the horsemen of the apocalypse, harbingers of doom that would bring destruction and the end of all things. Bierce’s apocalyptic motif specifically draws on biblical scenes of judgment in which God is unleashing a hellish retribution upon mankind for their destruction and consumption of each other, for placing no value on fellow human life. Bierce may have felt that the existential horror of the Civil War was a similar retribution unleashed against America for its consumption and abuse of human beings through the systems of slavery. Just as in the biblical judgments, purification of evil could only come through spilling an unimaginable amount of blood.
Bierce contradicts the tradition of the American war story both narratively and symbolically. His narrative arc and use of apocalyptic symbols communicate that entropy, not valor, is the substance of war. Even when a cause is righteous and the actors involved are noble, its experience is nothing but visceral and existential horror. But like the biblical judgments, the horror is sometimes necessary for human progress.
The Horrors of the Civil War ThemeTracker
The Horrors of the Civil War 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.
Filled with amazement and terror by this apparition of a horseman in the sky—half believing himself the chosen scribe of some new Apocalypse, the officer was overcome by the intensity of emotions; his legs failed him and he fell.
“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.