This week I drew the Four of Hearts so that led me to the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. This is part of the “Civil War Stories” collection.
Peyton Farquhar is an Alabama plantation owner. The story starts with his hanging at the Owl Creek Bridge by the Federal Army. Oddly, this story, while only 7 pages is divided into 3 sections. The first covers the set up of his hanging, the second covers his back story and how he came to be at the bridge about to be hanged, and the third covers the events “after”.
The first section sets up the situation: Peyton is on the bridge, with the hemp cord noose around his neck standing on a piece of plank with the Captain standing on the other end of the plank. The rest of the Army is off to the side of the bridge standing at ease but ready in case. Peyton looks at the river beneath him and closes his eyes and imagines his escape through the river, the woods and then home to his wife and children. The Captain then steps to the side off the plank.
Bierce takes a step back in the second section to tell us that Peyton is a plantation owner and avid secessionist and ardent supporter of the “Rebels”. He was unable to serve in the Confederate Army (the reason is never mentioned) but is willing to do whatever he can to help the cause. One evening, Peyton and his wife are sitting near the entrance to their property when a soldier on horseback stops by asking for water. While his wife is getting the water, Peyton asks what is happening and the soldier tells him that the Union Army is repairing the railroad and setting up near Owl Creek Bridge. The Union Army has issued a directive that anyone caught interfering with the progress will be hanged. It’s never mentioned what exactly Peyton does but it’s inferred he interfered in some manner. It turns out the soldier was a Federal scout.
Section three covers the hanging. I’m purposely not going into details or covering this (I think some surprises should remain) but I honestly didn’t know as I was reading this if Peyton lived or died at the end and in just a short amount of time, Bierce does a great job making the reader want to hurry through and find out what happens to Peyton. I wouldn’t consider it a nail-biter but I was certainly sitting on the edge of my seat of the couch!
Bierce is also incredibly descriptive of the surroundings and what is happening and having a vivid imagination, I was enthralled with the story in no time at all. One of my favorite passages:
“Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round – spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men – all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color – that was all he saw.” (p. 39).
If all the stories in the collection are like this one, I’m even more excited about this project than I was before (and that’s saying something)!