Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/December 4, 1898

A Transient Record of Individual Opinion

The launching of the battleship “Wisconsin” brought out an uncommonly strong contingent of go-forthers. First on the list came up as a flower, Miss Margaret Duff, who in presenting a school-made flag to Commodore Watson turned from him to the ship and remarked: “Go forth, magnificient ‘Wisconsin’; dip your noble bow today in the waters,” etc.; “sail fearlessly,” etc.: “show your,” etc. Then Mayor Phelan read a “poem” by Miss Clara Iza Price, who obviously was born unto prose. The “poem” began as followeth hereunder:


Go forth as the eagle skims the blue—

Defiant and brave and free;

A challenge to might, a menace to wrong

Wherever thy path may be.


There was no more go-forthing until evening, when the Union Iron Works dined the delegation of “prominent citizens” from “the Badger State”; then a lady read another “poem” by the mightiest and most majestic go-forther of the lot—one John Goadby Gregory:


Go-forth, strong verssel, and proudly bear,

With the flag of the brave and free,

The name of the oldest land on earth

To the bounds of the broadest sea.


Go forth, etc.

Clearly it was foreordained from the beginning of time that John should till the soil.

It must be confessed that all this clabbered fudge is accurately consistent with the general programme in such cases made and provided–the button-pushing by some prominent official or distinguished babe, the gaudy speeching, the young woman gravely whacking the prow with a bottle of drink and rigmaroling her piece—and the rest of it. This young woman, by the way, was so affected by the awful responsibility laid upon her that before the ceremonies she uttered her sense of it in the newspapers and signified her hope that she would prove equal to it. Fancy a score or two of grown-up human beings. Some of them males, coming all the way from Wisconsin to assist at “christening” something that can never know that it was “christened”! Fancy tens of thousands of our fellow creatures (created in the image of their maker and but a little lower than the angels) looking at and listening to this solemn fooling with never a smile! If we were unfamiliar with this kind of monkeyshines and a traveler should relate them as occurring in Ghargaroo, Central Africa, would we not laugh?—and is it not wicked to laugh at the afflicted? We are civilized, that is certain—acutely civilized and seriously enlightened, but pray God, do not take the Fool-killer’s attention from his duties in Southeastern Europe.

The death of Gen. Don Carlos Buell provoked hardly a ripple of interest. To many of the present generation he was hardly known as an historical figure. Yet he was a notable person in his day, and by many of the old Army men he was regarded as the ablest soldier of the Civil War. The whiskered pandours and the fierce hussars of the non-combatant contingent in Washington and elsewhere, the iron-handed Stanton and his fiery following, thought that Buell’s treatment of the Southern people had too much rose-water in it; many of his men and officers resented being put on guard over the property of their enemies, and the seraphim and cherubim of Abolition continually did cry. So his magnificent “Army of the Ohio” was taken away from him, he was denied another opportunity and resigned before the close of the war; but if ever that turbulent time have a competent historian who had nothing to do with it the name of Don Carlos Buell will not need to be shouted in letters of brass to obtain an honorable renown.

Buell’s most notable service was the rescue of Grant’s army from the consequences of its commander’s astonishing fatuity at Shiloh, or more accurately Pittsburg Landing. And in the ensuing controversy he showed literary qualities of the highest order. One has only to read this controversy between Buell on one side and Grant and Sherman on the other to get an abiding consciousness of the man’s immeasurable superiority to them in clarity of mind and conscience. Grant was no more a match for him in logic and veracity than upon that memorable field he was for Sidney Johnston in arms.

The facts are simple. At the close of the first days’ battle Grant’s camps were held by the enemy and his army had been driven (withdrawn he says) to the river. Night had put an end of the fighting. Buell arrived that evening and, crossing thirty thousand men, attacked next morning. It required an all-day’s fight of incomparable severity for the united Federal armies to retake the lost ground and win a victory which was merely not a defeat. These facts are conceded by all—there is no dispute about them and they decided the question. Grant says he would have won without Buell although with him he did no more than save himself. If that is true Buell’s thirty thousand fresh troops counted for nothing, their labors and losses were needless, their assistance did not assist! That is the absurd position to which Grant’s apologists are driven without their opponents having to make a single disputed statement. Let it be in justice to them that they have never signified the faintest consciousness of the bog into which they have been herded.

Now comes Admiral Sampson and mounting the orbicular bulk of Shafter the Fat capers nimbly thereon to the lascivious pleasing of his own lute. The floor is a trifle overcrowded with dancers, but he manages to execute his rigadoon with grace and effect, his twinkling feet falling fast and free, like drumsticks beating to battle at the break o’ day. Underneath the performance and all unheedful, the man-monster chortles in brute security, armored in his blubber and sustained by the consciousness of a primacy admitting no dispute. “Errors and blunders I may have made,” quo’ he; “my manners may lack the polish of those distinguishing the domestic hog, my profanity exceed the needs of occasion; but when all is said that detraction can say it remains that I, I alone, am Shafter, the fattest man in the army!”

The burglars who broke into the vacant house of Monsieur Michel Henri de Young may have been looking for a Unites States Senatorship. It is as if “they know not well the subtle ways” of Michel Henri; he carries it always in his pocket. It is of the shape and general appearance of a gold brick, and the robber who should knock him down and take it away from him would have a legal cause of action against him for swindling.

Among the charms and graces distinguishing San Luis Obispo’s abdsconding official it is mentioned that “he chews tobacco and often carries his mouth puckered on that account.” Then why did the intelligent masses elect him? Is not a man’s character known by the way that he “carries his mouth,” and what he carries inside it? It seems, too, that he is “a bit untidy in his attire.” In brief, this person appears to be just the sort of chap that “the plain people” of this new (and improved) world admire and trust and love to “put on guard”—just a common, unpretentious “son of the soil” who, like Aeneas at the fall of Troy, has his father on his hands and back.

My good friend “The Saunterer” of “Town Topics” refuses to believe that the chaplain of the Seventy-first New York Volunteers ran away in battle. “Why,” asks “The Saunterer,” “should a clergyman run away in battle? What is there for him to be afraid of? If he be killed, he believes that he will go straight to Heaven.” Why do clergymen run away from pestilence, fire, flood and churches rocked by earthquake? why do they employ physicians when ill?—which is running away from disease. Why, in brief, is a hope of Heaven not incompatible with a livelyl desire to remain in New York? Until my pious friend show that clergymen in this world are not, so far as in them lies, on a staying basis, but are exceptionally willing to be dead, the accusations against the reverend gentleman of the Seventy-first will not seem incredible. I have myself no doubt whatever that he sought the rear with such celerity that ot the slack attention of a pre-occupied eye he resembled a meridian of longitude and begot a momentary belief that the army had a visible connection with its base.

If Agoncillo, Aguinaldo’s representative, is coming in haste to America, as alleged, to “demand a definite statement at Washington as to the intentions of the United States regarding the Philippines,” Mr. Agoncillo shold take the precaution to pad well the seat of his trousers.—Elegant Contemporary.

And why, pray, should not Agoncillo demand a definite statement of our intentions regarding our country? Has our treatment of other and weaker countries been always so righteous as to allay apprehension? Has our dealing with the Filipinos been so candid, consistent and forthright that all can understand and none misread? Have not the people whom this man represents given us important service against the common enemy? While it was still unknown that at the back of the red dawn of liberty they looked for the white light of independence did we not recognize them as allies, arm them, encourage them to believe that success meant more than a change of masters? And now, while we are secretly determining their future, if they ask us to define our intentions they are to be kicked, forsooth! Let us suppose that during our war of the revolution our French allies and our British enemies had stopped the fighting and met in joint commission to fix the political status of the revolted colonies. Let us suppose that Washington and the Continental Congress had sent Benjamin Franklin to Paris to demand that the French king define his intentions. And suppose that a brilliant and illustrious French journalist, an honor to his country and a joy to the mother that bore him, had suggested a pillow for the colonial expansion of the philosopher’s nether habillment!


We are taking the Philippine islands from Spain because we have the right. They re spoils of the victor and a victor’s rights are coterminous with his power. We are taking them from the Filipinos because we want them. Our action has no other character than purveyance to our own desires. Why should we not candidly say so, and free ourselves from the charge of sniveling hypocrisy? All this talk about our new responsibilities, thrust upon us by the fortunes of war, and so forth, is fool talk. For what we do or don’t over there we are responsible to nobody. We could let go if we chose, and if other nations chose to take hold, and should come to blows over what we left, that would be their own affair not ours. Nothing has been thrust upon us; we had not been pitchforked into the van of the landgrabbers; we have deliberately entered into the squabble and elbowed our way to the front. If we are really concerned about the fate of Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia—if we fear that in precipitating themselves headlong upon what we leave they may crack their previous skulls, and in their greed to grab it scratch one another’s hands, we can do as we propose to do in Cuba—give the natives self-government under our protection. It does not greatly matter what we do, but it greatly matters how we do it. If we want the Philippines let us hold them, but let us do so with dignity and self-respect, giving no reasons or true ones. It is well enough understood that national magnanimity is  a lie: that nations act from no higher motives than the desire to promote their own interest; that the basis of international relations is selfishness tempered by mistrust. The entire business of being a nation is as innocent of morality as that of a thief or a pirate. Diplomacy is the art of getting what you can in exchange for what you cannot.

These things being so, and generally known to be so, what is the good of gilding our honest greed with glittering platitudes that deceive nobody, not even ourselves. To the Spaniards we owe no explanation; to the Filipinos we can make none; but to ourselves, in the privacy of the newspapers, we might with moral advantage admit that when the savage Philippine islands came running after us to bite us we could have got away from them if we had tried.

Extract from a story in a popular magazine:

The twilight was beginning to gild the distant hills when Ferdinand sought the hand of her who, since their estrangement, had again become his destiny. Ulla sat on the porch of her mother’s cottage as if carved in bronze, but observing him proceeding up the walk was so overcome by emotions of several kinds that but for her innate sense of what was due to a guest she would have fallen from her chair. In other respects she was immoved. He stood for a long time unable to advance his suit, then, taking one of her hands in his, “Darling,” knelt he, “I love you with the passionate devotion of a deep, strong nature!” “I will,” she answered, and no further conversation ensued—the moment was too supreme!

(Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)