KILLED AT RESACA
by Ambrose Bierce
The best soldier of our staff was Lieutenant
Herman Brayle, one of the two aides-de-camp. I
don't remember where the general picked him up;
from some Ohio regiment, I think; none of us
had previously known him, and it would have
been strange if we had, for no two of us came
from the same State, nor even from adjoining
States. The general seemed to think that a
position on his staff was a distinction that
should be so judiciously conferred as not to
beget any sectional jealousies and imperil the
integrity of that part of the country which
was still an integer. He would not even choose
officers from his own command, but by some
jugglery at department headquarters obtained
them from other brigades. Under such circumstances,
a man's services had to be very distinguished
indeed to be heard of by his family and the
friends of his youth; and "the speaking trump
of fame" was a trifle hoarse from loquacity,
Lieutenant Brayle was more than six feet in
height and of splendid proportions, with the
light hair and gray-blue eyes which men so
gifted usually find associated with a high
order of courage. As he was commonly in full
uniform, especially in action, when most
officers are content to be less flamboyantly
attired, he was a very striking and conspicuous
figure. As to the rest, he had a gentleman's
manners, a scholar's head, and a lion's heart.
His age was about thirty.
We all soon came to like Brayle as much as we
admired him, and it was with sincere concern
that in the engagement at Stone's River--our
first action after he joined us--we observed
that he had one most objectionable and unsoldierly
quality: he was vain of his courage. During
all the vicissitudes and mutations of that
hideous encounter, whether our troops were
fighting in the open cotton fields, in
the cedar thickets, or behind the railway
embankment, he did not once take cover, except
when sternly commanded to do so by the general,
who usually had other things to think of than
the lives of his staff officers--or those of
his men, for that matter.
In every later engagement while Brayle was with
us it was the same way. He would sit his horse
like an equestrian statue, in a storm of bullets
and grape, in the most exposed places--wherever,
in fact, duty, requiring him to go, permitted
him to remain--when, without trouble and
with distinct advantage to his reputation for
common sense, he might have been in such security
as is possible on a battlefield in the brief
intervals of personal inaction.
On foot, from necessity or in deference to his
dismounted commander or associates, his conduct
was the same. He would stand like a rock in the
open when officers and men alike had taken to
cover; while men older in service and years,
higher in rank and of unquestionable intrepidity,
were loyally preserving behind the crest of a
hill lives infinitely precious to their country,
this fellow would stand, equally idle, on the
ridge, facing in the direction of the sharpest
When battles are going on in open ground it
frequently occurs that the opposing lines,
confronting each other within a stone's throw
for hours, hug the earth as closely as if they
loved it. The line officers in their proper
places flatten themselves no less, and the
field officers, their horses all killed or
sent to the rear, crouch beneath the infernal
canopy of hissing lead and screaming iron
without a thought of personal dignity.
In such circumstances the life of a staff
officer of a brigade is distinctly "not a
happy one," mainly because of its precarious
tenure and the unnerving alternations of
emotion to which he is exposed. From a position
of that comparative security from which a
civilian would ascribe his escape to a
"miracle," he may be despatched with an
order to some commander of a prone regiment
in the front line--a person for the moment
inconspicuous and not always easy to find
without a deal of search among men somewhat
preoccupied, and in a din in which question
and answer alike must be imparted in the sign
language. It is customary in such cases to
duck the head and scuttle away on a keen run,
an object of lively interest to some thousands
of admiring marksmen. In returning--well,
it is not customary to return.
Brayle's practice was different. He would
consign his horse to the care of an orderly,--he
loved his horse,--and walk quietly away on his
perilous errand with never a stoop of the back,
his splendid figure, accentuated by his uniform,
holding the eye with a strange fascination. We
watched him with suspended breath, our hearts
in our mouths. On one occasion of this kind,
indeed, one of our number, an impetuous
stammerer, was so possessed by his emotion
that he shouted at me:
"I'll b-b-bet you t-two d-d-dollars they d-drop
him b-b-before he g-gets to that d-d-ditch!"
I did not accept the brutal wager; I thought
Let me do justice to a brave man's memory; in
all these needless exposures of life there was
no visible bravado nor subsequent narration.
In the few instances when some of us had ventured
to remonstrate, Brayle had smiled pleasantly
and made some light reply, which, however, had
not encouraged a further pursuit of the subject.
Once he said:
"Captain, if ever I come to grief by forgetting
your advice, I hope my last moments will be
cheered by the sound of your beloved voice
breathing into my ear the blessed words, 'I
told you so.'"
We laughed at the captain--just why we could
probably not have explained--and that afternoon
when he was shot to rags from an ambuscade
Brayle remained by the body for some time,
adjusting the limbs with needless care--there
in the middle of a road swept by gusts of grape
and canister! It is easy to condemn this kind
of thing, and not very difficult to refrain
from imitation, but it is impossible not to
respect, and Brayle was liked none the less for
the weakness which had so heroic an expression.
We wished he were not a fool, but he went on
that way to the end, sometimes hard hit, but
always returning to duty about as good as new.
Of course, it came at last; he who ignores the
law of probabilities challenges an adversary
that is seldom beaten. It was at Resaca, in
Georgia, during the movement that resulted in
the taking of Atlanta. In front of our brigade
the enemy's line of earthworks ran through open
fields along a slight crest. At each end of this
open ground we were close up to him in the woods,
but the clear ground we could not hope to occupy
until night, when darkness would enable us to
burrow like moles and throw up earth. At this
point our line was a quarter-mile away in the
edge of a wood. Roughly, we formed a semicircle,
the enemy's fortified line being the chord of
"Lieutenant, go tell Colonel Ward to work up as
close as he can get cover, and not to waste much
ammunition in unnecessary firing. You may leave
When the general gave this direction we were in
the fringe of the forest, near the right extremity
of the arc. Colonel Ward was at the left. The
suggestion to leave the horse obviously enough
meant that Brayle was to take the longer line,
through the woods and among the men. Indeed, the
suggestion was needless; to go by the short route
meant absolutely certain failure to deliver the
message. Before anybody could interpose, Brayle
had cantered lightly into the field and the
enemy's works were in crackling conflagration.
"Stop that damned fool!" shouted the general.
A private of the escort, with more ambition than
brains, spurred forward to obey, and within ten
yards left himself and his horse dead on the field
Brayle was beyond recall, galloping easily along,
parallel to the enemy and less than two hundred
yards distant. He was a picture to see! His hat
had been blown or shot from his head, and his
long, blond hair rose and fell with the motion
of his horse. He sat erect in the saddle, holding
the reins lightly in his left hand, his right
hanging carelessly at his side. An occasional
glimpse of his handsome profile as he turned
his head one way or the other proved that the
interest which he took in what was going on was
natural and without affectation.
The picture was intensely dramatic, but in no
degree theatrical. Successive scores of rifles
spat at him viciously as he came within range,
and our own line in the edge of the timber broke
out in visible and audible defense. No longer
regardful of themselves or their orders, our
fellows sprang to their feet, and swarming into
the open sent broad sheets of bullets against
the blazing crest of the offending works, which
poured an answering fire into their unprotected
groups with deadly effect. The artillery on both
sides joined the battle, punctuating the rattle
and roar with deep, earth-shaking explosions
and tearing the air with storms of screaming
grape, which from the enemy's side splintered
the trees and spattered them with blood, and
from ours defiled the smoke of his arms with
banks and clouds of dust from his parapet.
My attention had been for a moment drawn to the
general combat, but now, glancing down the
unobscured avenue between these two thunderclouds,
I saw Brayle, the cause of the carnage. Invisible
now from either side, and equally doomed by
friend and foe, he stood in the shot-swept space,
motionless, his face toward the enemy. At some
little distance lay his horse. I instantly saw
what had stopped him.
As topographical engineer I had, early in the
day, made a hasty examination of the ground,
and now remembered that at that point was a
deep and sinuous gully, crossing half the field
from the enemy's line, its general course at
right angles to it. From where we now were it
was invisible, and Brayle had evidently not
known about it. Clearly, it was impassable. Its
salient angles would have afforded him absolute
security if he had chosen to be satisfied with
the miracle already wrought in his favor and
leapt into it. He could not go forward, he
would not turn back; he stood awaiting death.
It did not keep him long waiting.
By some mysterious coincidence, almost
instantaneously as he fell, the firing ceased,
a few desultory shots at long intervals serving
rather to accentuate than break the silence.
It was as if both sides had suddenly repented
of their profitless crime. Four stretcher-bearers
of ours, following a sergeant with a white flag,
soon afterward moved unmolested into the field,
and made straight for Brayle's body. Several
Confederate officers and men came out to meet
them, and with uncovered heads assisted them to
take up their sacred burden. As it was borne
toward us we heard beyond the hostile works
fifes and a muffled drum--a dirge. A generous
enemy honored the fallen brave.
Amongst the dead man's effects was a soiled
Russia-leather pocketbook. In the distribution
of mementoes of our friend, which the general, as
administrator, decreed, this fell to me.
A year after the close of the war, on my way
to California, I opened and idly inspected it.
Out of an overlooked compartment fell a letter
without envelope or address. It was in a woman's
handwriting, and began with words of endearment,
but no name.
It had the following date line: "San Francisco,
Cal., July 9, 1862." The signature was "Darling,"
in marks of quotation. Incidentally, in the
body of the text, the writer's full name was
The letter showed evidence of cultivation and
good breeding, but it was an ordinary love
letter, if a love letter can be ordinary. There
was not much in it, but there was something.
It was this:
"Mr. Winters, whom I shall always hate for it,
has been telling that at some battle in Virginia,
where he got his hurt, you were seen crouching
behind a tree. I think he wants to injure you
in my regard, which he knows the story would do
if I believed it. I could bear to hear of my
soldier lover's death, but not of his cowardice."
These were the words which on that sunny afternoon,
in a distant region, had slain a hundred men. Is
One evening I called on Miss Mendenhall to return
the letter to her. I intended, also, to tell her
what she had done--but not that she did it. I
found her in a handsome dwelling on Rincon Hill.
She was beautiful, well bred--in a word, charming.
"You knew Lieutenant Herman Brayle," I said,
rather abruptly. "You know, doubtless, that he
fell in battle. Among his effects was found this
letter from you. My errand here is to place it
in your hands."
She mechanically took the letter, glanced through
it with deepening color, and then, looking at me
with a smile, said:
"It is very good of you, though I am sure it was
hardly worth while." She started suddenly and
changed color. "This stain," she said, "is it--surely
it is not--"
"Madam," I said, "pardon me, but that is the blood
of the truest and bravest heart that ever beat."
She hastily flung the letter on the blazing coals.
"Uh! I cannot bear the sight of blood!" she said.
"How did he die?"
I had involuntarily risen to rescue that scrap of
paper, sacred even to me, and now stood partly
behind her. As she asked the question she turned
her face about and slightly upward. The light of
the burning letter was reflected in her eyes and
touched her cheek with a tinge of crimson like the
stain upon its page. I had never seen anything so
beautiful as this detestable creature.
"He was bitten by a snake," I replied.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~