The story takes place in the Deep South—Alabama—at some indeterminate point in the middle of the Civil War. Though it largely focuses on Farquhar’s experience of his own death, that death comes about as a direct result of his participation in the Confederate cause. He’s a local, for starters, and a slave owner as well. Bierce doesn’t delve deeply into the moral implications of Farquhar’s position but makes it clear that such a position automatically places him in the heart of the conflict, and that such a position is morally untenable. The resulting drama—Farquhar seemingly escaping his Union captors in an effort to return to his home—can be viewed as an embodiment of the South’s ultimately futile struggle. The world they are attempting to defend—an antebellum world of plantations overseen by white men and worked by black slaves—is ending, and Farquhar’s efforts to rejoin it are ultimately doomed.
Farquhar is unquestionably a supporter of the South. His adversaries are Union soldiers charged with executing him, which frames the entire story around the Civil War and its causes. Farquhar is described as “ardently devoted to the Southern cause,” and someone who actively regrets not being able to fight. His attempted act of sabotage comes about as a part of this regret, as well as the belief that “the opportunity for distinction” would come if he simply waited long enough.
Even were he not so devoted to the Confederacy, Farquhar is a slave owner, which Bierce claims makes him a politician “like other slave owners.” This marks a firm, if subtle, statement about the root causes of the war and the moral folly of Farquhar’s actions: grounding them in the political clash the defined the war itself. Furthermore, Farquhar himself is a civilian, who is captured committing an act of insurrection against occupying Union forces. This reflects not only the way civilians often fought in the war as partisans and guerilla fighters (as Bierce puts it, “The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded”), but that Confederate civilians are morally complicit in their side’s cause.
Owl Creek Bridge itself is located near Farquhar’s home, which itself is “is as yet outside their [Union] lines.” This demonstrates how the war was fought on U.S. soil, which meant it engulfed homes and towns (particularly in the South) which contained noncombatants such as women and children. The Union troops also demonstrate superior firepower and a kind of mechanization of their weapons and behavior. This serves as a subtle reflection of the superior industrial power of the North, which played a key role in the Union’s ultimate victory over the South. The descriptions of his Union antagonists carry militaristic qualities to them—the crisp bark of the officers’ orders, their stances of attention, and the presence of the rifles and cannon—and the soldiers themselves are almost robotic in the way they carry out their duties. That echoes the steady, relentless means by which the Union armies advanced through the South.
Similarly, the Union scout describes the Northern forces in the area as “repairing the railroads,” which emphasizes their mechanistic and industrial capacities. In contrast, Farquhar’s world entails woods, country roads, and his own estate, representing the largely agrarian economy of the secessionist South. When in the story’s final moments “he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck” and blackness descends, this suggests the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy by the Union. The life he was trying to return to—of a wealthy and loving white family waiting for him on the porch of his plantation—is gone, never to return.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the story’s view; Bierce doesn’t directly condemn Farquhar’s actions, though the reader can infer certain beliefs through the author’s tone. Bierce fought in the Union army during the Civil War and was injured in combat, so it’s no stretch to assume that he doesn’t think much of his protagonist’s politics. That lends the story a quiet sense of poetic justice: the belief that Farquhar ultimately deserves both his execution and the suffering he experiences in the moments before it is carried out. More importantly, it allows the story to reflect the realities of the war itself, both the way it was carried out and the stakes that were involved on both sides.
The Civil War ThemeTracker
The Civil War Quotes in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved.
Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
“My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance.”
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it, the captain nodded to the sergeant.
Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause.
Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands.
He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, in that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him.
As he is about to clasp her, he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon - then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.