A Horseman in the Sky by Ambrose Bierce
“A Horseman in the Sky” is one of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous stories. It was published in 1889. Bierce used his Civil War experiences for the story. Bierce volunteered for the Union Army early in the Civil War. The story takes place near his home town where he was serving as a nineteen year old. He went on to fight in several battles, including Shiloh and Chickamauga. Bierce was hit in the head by a Minie ball at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He became an author after the war.
A sentry is on duty on a hill above a valley where his unit is encamped. It’s a dangerous position because the camp is surrounded by hills. It is crucial that the sentries be on the lookout for an ambush. Unfortunately, this sentry is sound asleep. After reminding the reader that sleeping on guard duty is a capital offense, Bierce calls the young man a “criminal”. One of the things that fascinates me about the military is the lack of sleep soldiers often have to deal with. To be threatened with death for something beyond your control is disturbing to me. I can see myself as that sentry. Anyway, he awakens for some unknown reason, which is something we can all relate to. Upon regaining consciousness, he perceives a horseman silhouetted against the sky on a nearby cliff. He describes the enemy scout as statuesque as he sits looking into the valley. The duty of the sentry is clear – he must stop that scout from reporting back the location of the Yankee force. Still, it is difficult to shoot another human being. The sentry hesitates and eventually decides to shoot the horse. At this point the story shifts perspective to a Union officer who is scouting in the valley. He witnesses the result of the sentry’s shot. What he sees is so amazing that he decides his sanity will be questioned so he keeps quiet. The story ends by shifting back to the sentry who is interrogated by his sergeant about the gunshot he heard.
I don’t want to give away the ending. It is Biercian. The writing style is also recognizable. I did not know who the author was when I first read it, but when I found out it was Bierce it was no surprise. He tends to be verbose. In this case, he is very detailed in his description of the natural surroundings. It’s a beautiful setting, but “no setting is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war…” He paints a word picture of what the sentry is seeing. This was Bierce’s forte as he was a topographical officer during the war. Bierce is also wonderful at little details in the sentry and scout. However, there is little character development in the story. Besides the descriptive scenery, the story features Bierce’s use of flashback and foreshadowing. As the soldier sleeps, we learn that he had left his family to join the Union Army. His father takes this decision calmly, but calls his son a traitor to his state of Virginia. He tells his son they will discuss it after the war! His fatherly advice to his son is to do his duty. Duty over family turns out to be a major theme of the story. There is foreshadowing in this flashback scene.
I am a Bierce fan. I earlier reviewed his super famous “An Encounter at Owl Creek Bridge”. This story is not in league with that one. I found it to be the twist ending to be trite. He tends to be flowery. “By conscience and courage, by deeds of devotion and daring, he soon commended himself to his fellows and officers…” He could have just said that his bravery earned him the respect of his comrades. But heck, he was writing in the 1880s, so what do you expect? The story is entertaining and the picture of a horseman sailing through the sky is alone worth the read. It is certainly a must-read for war short story fans.
GRADE = B
You can read it at: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=h...rseman_Sky.pdf