While fighting in the Civil War would cause some soldiers to turn and run, other soldiers were invigorated by battle. Thus it was with US Lieutenant Herman Brayle. As recounted by Ambrose Bierce, Brayle’s unit was assigned to the brigade the 9th Indiana Infantry regiment was part of, during the Atlanta Campaign. Based on information gathered by this author, primarily through web searches, Brayle enlisted in Ohio and was part of a topographical engineers unit assigned to the IV Corps in US Major General George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland. A search through the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System returned no results for anyone named Herman Brayle. It makes one wonder, 146 years after the following narrative, if Herman Brayle actually existed.
Here is a description of Lieutenant Brayle provided by Bierce:
“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.”
Bierce goes on to describe Brayle’s actions during the Battle of Stones River.
“We all came to like Brayle as much as we admired him, and it was with sincere concern that in the engagement of Stone’s River – our first action after he joined us – we observed that he had one most objectionable and unsoldierly quality: he was vain 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.”(i)
Bierce would later describe how they watched Brayle, at the Battle of Resaca, as he went forward between the lines of battle.
“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 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.”
Then Bierce goes on to conclude this fateful journey between the lines:
“……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.”(ii)
Bierce would continue to describe how he was given a “Russian leather” pocketbook which contained a love letter from Marian Mendenhall, of California. In the letter she describes being told that her sweetheart was seen crouching behind a tree on a Virginia battlefield – cowering in fear. Bierce theorizes that Mendenhall’s letter ultimately led to Brayle’s “most objectionable and unsoldierly” quality – vain courage. His writing intimates that it would lead to his death, between the lines, at Resaca.
Bierce claims to have later visited Miss Mendenhall at Rincon Hill. Here is his recollection of their conversation after giving her the letter he had held for the occasion.
“‘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-’
‘Madame,’ 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 voluntarily 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.”(iii)
This author is left wondering who Brayle was and if he ever really existed. Did Bierce change his name to protect him, or was he totally a fictional character of the author’s imagination? The publisher of the book notes that Bierce’s book is a work of fiction and non-fiction. I guess we will never know the answer as Bierce took it with him to his grave.
(i) Bierce, Ambrose, Shadows of Blue and Gray, published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC as a A Forge Book in February 2003, Pgs. 97–98.
(ii) Ibid, Pgs. 101–102.
(iii) Ibid, Pg. 103.