Wartime Morality in Ambrose Bierce’s “A Horseman in the Sky”

The extant portion of the six-mile long Civil War front at Cold Harbor, Virginia is small enough to explore in an hour or less. Although the National Park commemorating the battle is tragically shrunken, its rifle pits and trenches, creeks, meadows, and woods supply the visitor’s imagination with ample atmosphere for a phantasmal reenactment of the horrors of the June 1864 defense of Richmond. Each day in the minds of the park’s visitors, ghosts of the thousands of Federals who charged into Judgment Day at the thrust of a bayonet or the impact of a bullet perform again their last act, and their Confederate counterparts maintain what can only by comparison be called the safety of their trench at the peak of a steep but unimpressive slope. The horrors of which human nature is capable are on display here, but so too are its greatest virtues.

Ambrose Bierce did not need to visit Civil War National Parks in an attempt to understand the men of that war. He was one of those men. He fought for the Union in western Virginia and other places, and later recorded his experience of the war using the medium of fiction. One of his well-known stories, “A Horseman in the Sky,” is about a young Virginian named Carter Druse, a private in the Union Army. Druse joined a Union regiment in coastal Virginia against the wishes of his father, who at their farewell had called him a traitor to Virginia for his choice. Paternal sentiment had not been utterly destroyed by this betrayal, however, and Druse’s father bade him “do whatever he conceived to be his duty,” and promised that they would discuss the matter of his son’s defection again after the war. So, although all was not well in their relationship, neither had either forgotten the love he bore the other.

During his service, Druse proved to be a capable soldier, performing acts of valor and distinguishing himself among his comrades. The story’s action occurs while he is on watch-duty in an Appalachian valley in western Virginia. Druse spots a Rebel scout who is surveilling the valley from his equine perch on a rock jutting out over the valley. The gray soldier is alone and unsuspecting, completely unaware that he is being watched by a Union guard. Druse’s orders had been to shoot any Confederate on sight, but for the first time it occurs to him that this man would be unable even to pray in his final moment. Druse’s decision is what makes this story by Bierce so memorable and thought provoking. It is more than sentiment that gives poignancy to Druse’s moral crisis; it is a certain understanding of virtue.

This is not the sort of virtue one develops by playing fourteen hours of Call of Duty a week, or by watching an equal amount of professional sports. One cannot even gain this kind of virtue from reading, although reading the right things can help. As Aristotle taught in the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics, a man can only judge well that which he knows well. Since ethics are concerned with human action, Aristotle concludes that the man with more or superior experience is better equipped to make moral judgments than the man with less or inferior experience.

This principle explains why, when I taught “A Horseman in the Sky,” my high school students were a bit puzzled and unmoved by Druse’s decision. More than half could not understand what the problem was. Why did Druse suddenly find it difficult to fulfill his duty?

“It’s his job to shoot, whether he likes it or not,” a particularly confident teenager insisted. “If one man decides to make an exception, the machine doesn’t work.”

“What machine?”

“The whole thing. The army, the government… his job is just to obey orders.”

To be fair to my students, this extreme proposition was not one most of them selected to support their conclusions. However, very few of them could see Druse’s internal struggle as anything but saccharine sentimentalism, a crisis of his own making. If he were only dutiful enough, or intelligent enough, he just would have pulled the trigger and gone on with his day. To hell with this southern Rebel, and it’s his own fault if he hasn’t made amends with God for his sins already!

Perhaps shallow and persistent adherence to an ideal one doesn’t understand is a natural mistake in youth. It was one I made many times. But I can’t help but think that the problem in these students’ generation (and in my own!) is more than just the lack of experience that necessarily accompanies the lack of years. I think the natural lack of experience that causes an inability to make good moral judgments has been widened, deepened, intensified. As we live ever more in our televisions, computers, and phones, we have fewer and fewer real experiences. If Aristotle was right, this means that we are also less and less capable of making sound moral judgments. And I think this is the root of the trouble my students had in approaching “A Horseman in the Sky.” Not having fully explained Druse’s crisis, I also refrain from sharing my own thoughts on the morality of his actions. Read the story and make your own judgment.

My point here is a more general one. It is much healthier to unplug and to go somewhere with someone, building up experiences, than it is to watch another episode of Game of Thrones. Go to a Civil War site, or, if all else fails, a place that resembles one, and meditate on the difficulties faced by the men, and especially those faced by the officers. Feel the breeze that once bore deadly bits of lead on its breath. Listen to the trickling stream, now absent bloody pollution but otherwise identical to the one the soldiers heard each night during the battle. Inhale the very air those soldiers tasted. Look at and touch the earthworks they built up for the defense of some men and for the ruin of others. Meditate on what war really means, and on what things are worth going to war for. Such an exercise helps us to understand human nature, and therefore to live a moral life. And don’t forget, while you’re there, to pray for the souls of the dead and to thank God for their willingness to undergo sacrifice.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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