After mustering out of the Union Army in 1865, Ambrose Bierce took a job as a US Treasury Agent charged with collecting “captured and abandoned property”.
He wrote about the experience in his autobiographical essay “‘Way Down in Alabam'”. I found this a very entertaining essay partly because I’ve done some time in the tax collecting business myself, though never with as much danger as Bierce faced, and partly because it fleshes out that time covered under the generic heading “Reconstruction” in American history books.
Bierce, as a Treasury agent, was to find cotton bales that planters had sold to the Confederate government in exchange for cotton bonds. However, due to the Union blockade during the war, most of this cotton was still around having never been shipped out of the country.
It had been decided that it now belonged to the United States. It was worth about five hundred dollars a bale — say one dollar a pound. The world agreed that was a pretty good price for cotton.
Bierce was the chief executive officer to a special Treasury agent assigned to a collection district around Selma, Alabama. It was a lawless area except for martial law “effective only within areas covered by the guns of isolated forts and the physical activities of their small garrisons”. However, there were “the immemorial laws of self-preservation and retaliation”. These “laws” carried out capital sentences on several of the revenue agents.
There was a lot of contraband cotton about. It could be openly moved to the port of Mobile, Alabama. However, that was, without the proper paperwork, a useless exercise since the United States Navy closely patrolled that port.
That paperwork could be supplied by the special agent for bribes far in excess of the 25% finder’s fee the agent got to uncover the cotton. Bierce found himself going to dinners where he would try to coax out the location of hidden cotton. His fellow diners would hint at the possibility of bribes for him.
Bierce relates the sort of “adventurers” populating the South then and the smuggling schemes he heard.
He also talks about a pair of brothers, former Confederate Army officers of an “almost extinct” type. While they were “well-educated, brave, generous, sensitive to points of honor, and, of engaging manners”, they were also renown duelists. They became friends with Bierce. His tale of them culminates with one of the brothers shooting a man in the street after they found him following them after a drunken night out. The man was only wounded, a “justice of the peace” of “no more legal authority” than Bierce pulled strings and all was forgiven after covering the medical bill to amputate the man’s wounded leg.
I suspect the story influenced one of Bierce’s horror tales, “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”. That story features a knife duel in a darkened room. The story says, “The duel with knives in a dark room was once a commoner feature of Southwestern life”. However, the duel takes place in a “Southern village”, so I think the Confederate brothers, not “over-particular about the combat taking the form of a duel — almost any form was good enough” may have inspired that idea in Bierce.
Bierce was obviously a dinner partner congenial to the brothers and that ties in with the description of Bierce’s personality in E. F. Bleiler’s introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce.
He was courtly and suave in manner, even when he was in his cups. Extremely soft-spoken, still gentler and even more urbane when he became angry, he bewildered strangers who had expected to find a roaring bully. Most people were greatly impressed with him upon first meeting, and most who remained to know him better came to dislike him intensely.
Showing his willingness to take jobs with the possibility of violence after he left the military shows up in this essay as well. Bierce concludes it by talking of the time he escorted a steamboat full of contraband cargo and fended off pirates. Several gunshots were fired. The only one to hit his target was an old Confederate soldier hired by Bierce and with an “old-fashioned horse pistol, some two feet long”. It’s a very Bierce ending to the story.
In 1866, Bierce took a job under his old patron William Hazen who undertook an inspection of U.S. Army forts in the west. In the short autobiographical bit “Across the Plains”, he talks about that period and how some of the officers they met at Fort Phil Kearney would later die in the Fetterman Massacre.
And Bierce couldn’t resist ending the piece on a macabrely humorous note. On their way to San Francisco, where Bierce expects an army commission as a captain, the party stops at place already notorious in history:
Our last bivouac was on the old camp of the Donner party, where, in the flickering lights and dancing shadows made by our camp fire, I first heard the story of that awful winter, and in the fragrance of the meat upon the coals I fancied I could detect something significantly uncanny. The meat which the Donner party had cooked at that spot was not quite like ours. Pardon: I mean it was not like that which we cooked.
There was not, however, a captain’s commission waiting at the end of the trail, only a second lieutenant’s. Bierce would not return to the army under those circumstances.
So, in 1867, Bierce took another job with potential violence — though none, as far as I know, broke out: a night watchman at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. There he encountered the first of many literary figures he’d meet in his lifetime: Bret Harte. Later that year, he published his first piece, the poem “Basilica.” Essays followed.
In 1868, he took a job as an editor at a magazine. 1871 saw publication of “The Haunted Valley”, his first notable piece of weird fiction.
The next four years saw him marrying, moving to London and then Bristol and Bath and a summer trip in 1873 to Paris. In England, he would meet Mark Twain, who he doesn’t seem to have gotten on with, and Thomas Hood whom he did.
His autobiographical piece, “Working for an Empress”, tells a story from this time, Bierce’s unknown entanglement in political intrigue. He was hired by one James Mortimer to do all the writing for a lavishly produced satirical magazine, to appear “occasionally”, called The Lantern. Bierce’s advice to Mortimer, that not producing a periodical periodically was a recipe for failure, was ignored. Bierce also doubted such a expensive to produce magazine would be successful. Bierce also didn’t like the name, reminding Mortimer that it was too close to M. Rochefort’s radical La Lanterne.
Mortimer was adamant that the name would stay. Bierce saw the one and only issue in 1874:
It was a twelve-page paper with four pages of superb illustrations in six colors. I winced when I contemplated its artistic and mechanical excellence, for I knew at what a price that quality had been obtained. A gold mine would be required to maintain that journal, and that journal could by no means ever be itself a gold mine.
It turned out Mortimer was a front man for the widow of Napoleon III who lived in exile in England. Knowing Rochefort had escaped the French penal colony on New Caledonia and that he wanted to take up his revolutionary activities in England, she had her agents copyright the name of The Lantern and undercut Rochefort’s plan to start a journal with that name. It was the Empress who paid for The Lantern.
It was in England where he picked up the nickname “Bitter Bierce”.
1875 saw Bierce returning to San Francisco and working at the U.S. Mint again.
More literary work as an editor followed in 1877-1879. Bierce’s vituperative skills, which he took pride in, led to a confrontation in 1878 with the husband of a woman Bierce had alluded to in a piece. He packed a revolver after that.
For me, his activity in 1880 is especially interesting. He became an agent for the Black Hills Mining Company in Rockerville, Dakota Territory in July of that year.
It was another job involving violence, this time realized if Bierce’s “A Sole Survivor” is to be believed.
It’s a grab bag bit of autobiography built around Bierce talking about all the groups he has been a part of and is now the sole survivor. He starts out the piece with a bit of wry wit on his attaining “some distinction”, despite “imperfect natural aptitude” in the art of “Sole Survivorship” — but not surviving natural disasters or combat.
Being from the area, I was pleased to see he was in Deadwood. In trying to prevent robbers from waylaying gold shipments, he hired a “shotgun messenger”, Boone May. The frequency of stagecoach robberies is one of those Western movie clichés that actually is based on a lot of fact as you can see in Roger D. McGrath’s Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier. The “treasure-coaches”, essentially armored stagecoaches used to transport gold bullion, that Bierce mentions were also real. In fact, as a schoolboy, I won a prize from an historical society for an essay on the robbery of one.
May was actually in a bit of legal trouble when Bierce hired him. On the company payroll, he was listed as “Boone, May, Murderer” though he was actually just under indictment for murder. On a rainy summer night, the two made a trip from Deadwood to Rockerville in a wagon with $30,000 in currency. Bierce had a hand on a cocked revolver the whole trip.
And, yes, a road agent did show up. Bierce is very coy about what happened then:
What further occurred among the three of us there in the gloom of the forest had, I fancy, never been accurately related.
Boone May is long dead of yellow fever in Brazil, and I am the Sole Survivor.
The implication is pretty clear. Boone shot the robber dead.
The story also brings to mind a story from Bleiler that Bierce shot a man in Mexico just to gain Pancho Villa’s trust.
In the notes for the essay in Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoir, Joshi gives Boone’s death date as 1878, seemingly a typo given Bierce’s essay. I’m somewhat chagrined that I never heard of May before in any of my readings of Old West or Black Hills history. Some of his exploits can be found here and this page specifically mentions him in the context of Bierce’s essay.
Bierce’s foray in the Black Hills ended in October 1880. He spent a few months in New York City and then returned to San Francisco to pursue a literary and journalism career the rest of his life.
In his remaining years, he would get divorced, have numerous affairs, see one of his sons die from alcoholism and the other die in a murder-suicide. Bierce would also shoot dogs on sight (but have birds, toads, and rats as pets). It would also see him hired by William Randolph Hearst in 1887.
It was at Hearst’s request, in 1896, that he went to Washington, D.C. and committed one of the great acts of American journalism.
A bill was in congress to postpone the requirement for the Southern Pacific Railroad to pay back their $130 million in government loans they had been given to build the first transcontinental railroad. Bierce wrote more than 60 articles attacking the bill and the man who requested it, Collis P. Huntington.
Huntington eventually confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and asked what his price would be to stop his attacks.
Bierce replied, “My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.”
That incorruptibility was one of his two great virtues. The other one was being willing to help out young writers.
But, as the years wore on, it became a lonelier life. And the definition of alone is — at least according to Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary — “In bad company.”
I hope in my next posting to start looking at the weird fiction Bierce left us.
Earlier Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.