The writer respected his cause and believed that it was just for a person to get actively involved in fighting for freedom. However, his experiences made him realize that there was much more to warfare than he initially thought. He probably realized that the war was caused by a conflict of interests and that it was essentially meant to settle a difference between northerners and southerners, as it was not necessarily intended to assist African-Americans. He acknowledged the conceit present in American individuals and realized that he had a particularly small role in the Civil War environment.
Bierce's sarcasm is supported by the absurdness concerning the battle of Shiloh and he emphasizes this through relating to the reason for which this conflict holds this name. While most people are likely to express lack of support concerning an individual who associates concepts such as humor and warfare, Bierce appears to want to mock them through his story. He apparently believes that only someone who experiences a conflict from a first-hand point-of-view should be capable of relating to it. Readers are provided with explicit imagery as Bierce describes conditions on the battle field. However, the writer cannot help to intervene at times and to sarcastically relate to horrible events as if he is simply listing a series of monotonous events that a group of people went through. "Their clothing was half burnt away -- their hair and beard entirely; the rain had come too late to save their nails" (Bierce 14).
Bierce speaks about the suffering that these people endured as if they were not actually hurt in the process and emphasizes the importance of their nails in an attempt to put across his apparent indifference regarding the scene. Although he rarely discuses this, Bierce is aware that everyone involved in the conflict knew what to expect from such a war and he is himself able to understand that death is not a stranger in such an environment. He feels sorry for the individuals who did not live to see the end of the war but also feels that he needs to criticize them for their actions. "I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for" (Bierce 14).
Bierce virtually uses sarcasm in order to have his readers understand the actual gravity of the events that he endured. While it might seem that he deals with things irresponsibly, he is aware that readers are going to understand his actual intention and that they are eventually going to receive the exact message that he wanted to send: war is very absurd and anyone who attempts to relate to it by employing a serious attitude is insane.
The reality of the war is emphasized throughout Bierce's writing and it seems that he was dedicated to provide readers with a shocking account with the purpose of having them understand the magnitude of the conflict. The American writer was not only inclined to overstate his experience, as he apparently felt that words were not enough to describe his feelings at the time of the battle of Shiloh. Surely, it is difficult to determine whether or not one can transcribe the actual feelings that he or she endures upon seeing hundreds of people dying before him or her. Bierce was acquainted with the harsh nature of warfare and considered that it was very important for him to attempt to instill the same feelings that he felt in the persons reading his story. The events that he went through influenced him in developing a pessimistic character, as he most probably considered that all is lost when considering humanity's chances to redeem itself. He was disgusted to the point where sarcasm was all that he could use in his stories regarding his war experiences.
The writer combined realist principles with the intensity of his emotions and produced a narrative meant to inspire shock in anyone who comes across it. It is probable that sarcasm was used as a tool to captivate the reader's attention, considering that most individuals would be disturbed consequent to becoming familiar with the suffering present on battlefields during the Civil War. Similar to how he felt, Bierce wants readers to feel the innocence present in individuals previous to engaging in battle and the horrible feeling of disgust that he felt consequent to witnessing the aftermath of the battle of Shiloh.
One can initially interpret Bierce's sarcasm as a form of cruel perspective regarding the Civil War. However, his approach is more complex, as he intends to demonstrate that the experience shaped his character and that it is impossible for him to forget the events that he endured and the people who he interacted with. "What I Saw of Shiloh" mockingly depicts the most shocking event in Bierce's life with the purpose of putting across the disgust with which he regards this experience. This occurrence destroyed his innocence and made it impossible for him to look at the world and at people similar to how he did before he experienced it. One does not necessarily need to feel sorry for the writer, as he simply wants people to learn from his suffering and he apparently feels that it is very important for him to put this event as far as possible from him (from a psychological point-of-view). Bierce acknowledged his trauma and knew that he was the best medicine to treat his condition. Therefore, he employed sarcasm while examining things as he hoped that this would make him feel less shock.
Bierce's participation in the Civil War left a severe mark on his personality, considering the dark elements present in "What I Saw of Shiloh." The writer used explicit imagery and related to some of the most gruesome experiences that he went through in an attempt to explain his sarcasm. Considering his sarcastic attitude, it appears that he provides readers with tools that they can use in trying to interpret his writing. He is practically hiding behind a wall of sarcasm because he is reluctant to think about the exact feelings that he experienced at the time of the conflict. If one were to consider his character, his sarcasm, and the gravity of the events that he went through, the respective person would understand his pessimism and his reluctance to hope that humanity is going to change its behavior.
Alan Frank, Joseph and Reaves, George a. Seeing the Elephant: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh, (University of Illinois Press, 2003)
Bierce, Ambrose, Civil War stories, (Courier Dover Publications, 1994)
Fatout, Paul, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Lexicographer, 1st ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951)
Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion / (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001)
McWilliams, Carey Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1929)