The Ambrose Bierce Site


Bard's First Major Recognition

by Don Swaim

From the Devil's Dictionary: Laughter, n. "An interior convulsion, producing a distortion of the features and accompanied by inarticulate noises." Perhaps Bierce would have found it amusing that it rained on the ceremony to honor him with a historic marker in Ohio. "Bierce, looking down, would have had a big belly laugh," theorizes Mary Powell, President of the Chester-Shade Historical Association in Meigs County.

The marker was dedicated on November 6, 2003, on the grounds of Eastern District High School on Ohio Route 7, approximately ten miles from the place of Bierce's birth along Horse Cave Creek on June 24, 1842. The actual birth site is unknown, but believed to be on privately-owned property.

What Bierce would have thought of a marker to honor him is conjecture, but he did define a monument as, "A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated."

Getting the marker dedication off the ground wasn't easy. Due to various conflicts, the ceremony was put off from the previous month. When the date finally arrived it poured, and Billi Bentley, Meigs County tourism coordinator, says the some 240 students and guests were forced to take shelter in the school gymnasium. Further, the ceremony was delayed due to the late arrival of Phil Ross, markers program coordinator for the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, which is responsible for putting up markers to various famous Ohioans around the state.

It was Ross who wrote the text on the marker, which reads:

An influential American journalist of the late nineteenth century, Ambrose Bierce (1842 - c. 1914) was born in Meigs County and reared in Kosciusko County, Indiana. He fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, a formative experience related in his short stories "Chickamauga" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Moving to San Francisco in the years after the war, he began his career as a writer and newspaper columnist. His cynical wit and elaborate puns realed a wide audience during the last quarter of the nineteenth through such papers as William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Bierce's best-known book, The Devil's Dictionary (1911) is a lexicon of humorous definitions first published in his newspaper columns. In December 1913 or January 1914, Bierce vanished during travels in rebellion-torn Mexico.

Eastern High School Student Council officers Josh Clegg, Chelsea Young Alyssa Holter, and Tia Pratt.
On the far right is Phil Ross of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission. Photo by Billi Bentley.

Dedication of the marker was previously caught up in a mini-controversy when Margaret Parker of the Meigs County Historical Society broached the notion Bierce may actually have been born in Akron, so she journied to that northern Ohio city on a fact-finding mission to prove her theory. However, Parker was confronted with convincing documentation suggesting Bierce was not born near Akron. Among the records were Civil War enlistment and pension records in which Bierce himself cited Meigs as "his nativity." Back in Meigs, Mary Powell of the (neighboring but not necessarily competing) Chester-Shade Historical Association (Chester for the township, Shade for the nearby river) found the tax record ledger for 1844, showing that the Bierce family did, indeed, live in Chester Township, Meigs County, and in 1843 paid taxes on two horses, three cows, plus a road levy, all in the amount of $1.60. The ledger, technically the property of Meigs County, had been stored, all but forgotten, in a building adjoining the old Chester Court House (1823), which was the county's original court house until the courts were moved to Pomeroy, Ohio, in 1841. Parker, incidentally, did not attend the marker dedication.

Photo by Paul Tople, Akron Beacon Journal

In Akron, historian Marker Parker confronts convincing evidence that Bierce was, indeed, born in Meigs County, Ohio.

The Chester Court House, a two-story building with one room on each floor, is also home to a plaque dedicated to Bierce, along with his photograph. Mary Powell says plans are in the works to form an Ambrose Bierce Society in Meigs County. Until the marker in Meigs County, the only other official recognition of Bierce was a grimy alley in San Francisco. There is a Bierce house in Elkhart, Indiana, and while some Bierce family members lived there, Bierce never did.

Bierce's biographers place his birthplace in an unincorporated rural area near Horse Cave Creek in the eastern edge of Meigs. The nearest community of any size is Bashan, where there is already a marker noting a Civil War skirmish involving Morgan's Raiders in the summer of 1863.

Plaque honoring Bierce is on the wall of old Chester Courthouse
Meigs County Courthouse, Pomeroy

The Meigs county seat, Pomeroy, with a population of only two-thousand, has two minor claims to fame, both of which have been cited in Ripley's "Believe It Not" comic strip. It has no cross streets, as its main drag runs parallel to the Ohio river, making cross streets impossible. It also has a courthouse built against a hill, so all three floors can be reached by ground level.

Meigs County is in southeastern Ohio along the Ohio River where it makes its "Great Bend" in the shape of a shoe. With ten state parks within fifty miles, Meigs is noted for its hills, lakes, cliffs, and rivers.

The county was named for Return J. Meigs, elected Governor of Ohio in 1810, and was formed from parts of Gallia and Athens counties on April 1, 1819. A court house and jail were built in Chester, the original county seat.

The site of Pomeroy was a mere village in 1806, and it wasn't until 1830 that its namesake, Samual Willys Pomeroy, arrived to establish the coal and salt mines which would turn the village into a prosperous industrial town. Eventually, Ohio's coal mines played out and salt is no longer a major Ohio commodity.

When Bierce was born in Meigs in 1842, the county had a population of under 12,000. By 1880 the population had nearly doubled to approximately 23,000. But by 2003 it had dropped to only about13,000 -- nearly the same as the date of Bierce's birth.

When Bierce was a child, his family moved to Indiana. During the Civil War Bierce was a member of Company C, 9th Indiana Infantry Volunteers.

In 1863, the year Bierce was promoted to a first lieutenant and fought in the battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, a Rebel general, John H, Morgan, with about 2000 men, invaded Ohio via Indiana. Near Portland, Meigs County, Morgan's Raiders were confronted by 4000 Union troops led by General Henry M. Judah. Two future presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, were among the Union forces involved in the battle, the only Civil War engagement to be fought in Ohio or north of the Ohio River. The Union troops captured 700 rebels, and the remaining Confederates scattered, some across the river into West Virginia. Morgan himself was captured near the Muskingum River as he retreated up the Ohio. He was taken to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, escaped, made his way by freight train to Cincinnati, where he swam the Ohio to safety in Kentucky.

There is an unresolved question as to whether Bierce, whose Civil War tales are without peer, was an anti-war writer. Certainly he depicted the horrors of war graphically, especially for the time, and his stories are as readable today as when they were first written. But Bierce loved military life and desperately wanted a commission after the war ended. He was intrigued by the strategies of conflict, placing one army against another in the way of a chess game. That he failed to win his commission was a victory for the reader, for military men are multitudinous and easy to come by, and their victories and defeats can be chalked up like Baseball Hall of Fame records. There was only one Ambrose Bierce, writer.

© 2003 by Don Swaim

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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