One of Ambrose Bierce"s many read stories, A Horseman in the skies (1889) is a lively account of challenging ethical choices during wartime. We hope this overview is particularly useful because that students and also teachers.

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Here"s the story: A Horseman in the Sky, Character analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Literary gadgets & Vocabulary, historical Context, Quotes, conversation Questions, Paired analysis Recommendations, useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments

View from Seneca Rocks, phibìc Fork hill near Grafton, West Virginia

Character Analysis

Carter Druse - The story"s protagonist, that is the only child of well-off Virginia parents that decides to join the Union regiment the arrived in Grafton, Virginia, a couple of miles from their home. His activity makes him a traitor come Virginia (according come his father) and breaks his heart. The Union policemans assign Carter come a remote station as sentinel because he to know the terrain and they space impressed by his "deeds the devotion and daring." the betrays them by falling asleep on duty.

Carter"s father - A wealthy landowner in western Virginia whose only son announced he is involvement the Union, to which that replied, "Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be her duty." His father guarantees they will speak much more of the issue should they both live come the finish of the war (that was prescient). The dad is both staunchly reserved (does not display emotion), and also reveres duty and also family.

The Horseman - The identification of the driver is not revealed until the finish of the story, as soon as we learn it"s Druse"s father, a Confederate spy. Likened come a god, collosal in magnitude and seemingly having actually spiritual powers, Carter shooting him come avoid allowing him to disclose the Union regiment"s position he"s guarding in the valley below.

Carter"s mom - despite she never appears in the story, Carter"s dad reminds him the she is critically ill and will die in a couple of weeks. The young Druse does no announce his decision or speak goodbye to her, at his father"s insistence, as result of her delicate condition.

The Officer - The only witness come the death of Druse"s father, whom he look at falling end a thousand foot vertical cliff, appearing to fly as an apparition. He provided up searching for the body and horse and failed come report it.

Sargeant - The officer that hears the shot and also interviews Druse, that confesses that the guy he shot to be his father, horrifying the sargeant.

The angel - The unseen force that wakens Druse indigenous his sentry slumber, simply in time to spy the Confederate spy undetected.

Plot Summary

The story"s main character is Carter Druse, a private who join the Union army in defiance that his Virginia heritage and family that live near where the fighting is around to commence. His father, despite broken-hearted, tells Carter to monitor his sense of duty and also to no tell his dying mother. Because he prospered up in the terrain, Druse is appointed sentinel on a high ridge overlooking a valley wherein his regiment is awaiting their surprise attack on the Confederates. He falls asleep, however is awakened by an angelic pressure just in time to angry a mysterious, statuesque horseman who has figured out the Union regiments, yet has no yet discovered Druse"s position. Druse has his hand top top his rifle prepared to fire, they look into eachother"s eyes prior to Druse, ~ hesitating, decides it is his duty to death the Confederate horseman spy to protect the Union"s position. One officer saw the fall horseman over the thin cliff, showing up to fly, provides up his find for the human body below, and also decides no to report it to his superior. A sargeant who heard the shot interviews Druse, who confesses the the man he eliminated was his father.

Man top top Horseback, 1634


Civil War short stories genre, historic fiction in that is seeming realistic portrayal of yes, really events, soldiers, and battles, through a supernatural element of supernatural allegory. Because Bierce served in the War, he coupled his gifted composing abilities v his credible and dramatic story that brought the complexities of battle to life for his readers.


Son vs. Father - The war tore families apart; men deciding come enlist in the civil War normally had a greater allegiance to their town, county, state, prior to their country. In this story, both father and son determined to safeguard their duty over your family, however for the contrary sides, which makes Bierce"s story so poignant.

Treason - involvement the Union as a Virginian was thought about treason by his father, he knowingly dissapointed his parents, committed a crime as sentinel (sleeping on watch). Most importantly, he cursed treason versus his family, killing his very own father!

Hierarchy that Duties - The story explores the powerful concepts of allegiance to family, faith and also their sometimes-conflict with army duty. No "spiritual preparation" to be needed, the "duty the the soldier to be plain: the male must be shot dead native ambush."

Compassion, Conscience and also Reason - characteristics shared by both father and also son, yet each of your decisions, and the irreversible consequences, leaving the reader understanding the War"s devastation in Bierce"s telling of the story.

Rules specify Actions - Soldiers adhere to the military"s rules of conduct; their duty is to death the enemy. Druse choose his duty to the Union by killing an enemy spy who will disclose their position, over his love and also allegiance come his father.

Judgement - exactly how will Druse by judged and also by whom? God? Family? The commonwealth Army? fellow soldiers? will Druse be able to live with himself and also his decision in the end?

The sleeping Sentinel, wilhelm Scott

Literary Devices

Bierce"s Hook

Bierce"s writing style constantly dives right in come details, start with the first sentence, fully engaging his reader from the get-go.

Metaphors and Similes

Describing his father"s disappointment: " returned the salute v a stately courtesy that masked a breaking heart."Personified wake-up contact (an angel?): "...some invisible messenger of fate touched with unsealing finger the eyes of his consciousness--whispered into the ear that his heart the secret awakening native which no person lips ever have spoken, no human being memory ever has recalled.""The file of the equine was reduced with the sharpness the a cameo"Bierce to compare the driver to a "noble occupational of art""His nerves were as serene as a resting babe"s"

Situational Irony

The story employs situational irony because that the discrepancy in between what we mean to happen and also what actually happens.


Consequences the falling asleep at his post: "Their place would be perilous in the extreme; and fail lock surely would need to accident or vigilance apprise the adversary of the movement."Foreshadowing his death? The father speak Carter, "Should we both live come the finish of the war, we will speak more of the matter."

Biblical References

Druse "bows reverently come his father" together a spiritual leaderDescribing the an effective presence of the rider: "heroic, colossal, Grecian god"Their position high top top a mountain, ~ above a cut down (pulpit), looking under (into the valley of death?), numerous Biblical referrals here.Before he shoots, visions the dark angels or demons? "Statuesque group prior to him as black color figures, rising, falling, moving unsteadily in arcs of circles in a fiery sky."Describing his father"s parting words as "a magnificent mandate."Like a blessing, prior to he shoots, Druse says: "Peace, be still."Spiritual vision that resurrection: the officer witnessed a guy on horseback riding v the air."Good God!" was the sargeant"s response upon hearing Druse"s confession.

The Chimaera

Mythological References

Colossal hero - Grecian GodLionine head - Lions indicate power and wealth. The Nemean lion to be a vicious monster, at some point killed through Heracles, yet his fur was impervious to mortals" weapons


Leonine head - explicate Druse"s father, it way resembling a lionCarbine - A light automatically riflePommel the the saddle - The increase curving or projecting part of a saddle in front of the rider.Bivouac in the sink - A short-term camp there is no tents or cover.Foeman - An enemy in war.

Union soldiers wait to fight at the Rappahannock River, 1863

Bierce characteristically supplies so lot detail and also descriptions in his Civil battle stories, he bring to life the details battles, strategies, and personalizes the soldiers" experiences both on and also off the battlefield, specifically the moral choices war time presents.

To better understand the historical context the this story, it"s valuable to review the Civil war battles fought in western Virginia. The setting may be near Grafton (where Druse told his dad the Union regiment had arrived) and also Philippi where both militaries led your brigades: Col. Morris (US) and also Col. Porterfield (Confederates). The Union mounted a two-prong advance, surprising a little Confederate occupation force at Philippi before dawn top top June 3, 1861. Though it caused only 30 casualties, that was taken into consideration the very first major land activity in the east Theater.

Was it yes, really an action of "treason" because that Virginians come enlist in the Union fairly than Confederate forces? No, the counties the today comprise West Virginia were mostly Union controlled, from which approximately 32,000 Virginians offered in the Union army. The vast bulk of standard Virginians (155,000) offered the Confederates. The enlistment rate in Confederate Virginia was 89 percent, more men 보다 from any kind of other state in the Confederacy. For more details: Encyclopedia Virginia.

Is the true the a soldier who drops asleep in ~ his short article can it is in executed? Yes, a Union soldier, william Scott, "The sleeping Sentinel" to be court-martialed and sentenced to be enforcement for sleeping on duty in 1861. Lincoln agreed to his pardon, extending mercy to the criminal. The pardon states: "This action of clemency should not be interpreted as affording a criterion for any kind of future case. The duty of a sentinel is of together a nature, that its overlook by resting upon or deserting his post may endanger the security of a command, or even of the totality army, and all countries affix come the offence the penalty of death."

To ensure clear rules that conduct for all commonwealth soldiers throughout war time, president Lincoln enforced the Lieber code in April the 1863, which mentioned the honest treatment of prisoners of war and also empancipated slaves.

Explain what the following estimates mean and also how lock relate come the story:

Bierce"s "hook": "One clear afternoon in the fall of the year 1861 a soldier put in a clump that laurel through the side of a road in west Virginia."

“No country is so wild and an overwhelming but men will do it a theatre the war; surprise in the forest at the bottom of that military rat-trap, in which fifty percent a hundred males in possession the the exits might have starved an military to submission, lay 5 regiments of federal infantry.”

“Your mother, as the physician has informed you, is in a most vital condition; at the best she cannot be through us much longer than a couple of weeks, but that time is precious. It would certainly be far better not come disturb her.”

“His first feeling to be a keen artistic delight. Top top a colossal pedestal, the cliff,--motionless at the too much edge that the capping rock and sharply outlined versus the sky,--was an equestrian statue of outstanding dignity. The figure of the man sat the figure of the horse, straight and soldierly, however with the repose the a Grecian god carved in the marble which limits the suggestion of activity.

"At that instant the horseman turned his head and looked in the direction that his hidden foeman--seemed to look into his really face, right into his eyes, right into his brave, compassionate heart."

“Carter Druse flourished pale; that shook in every limb, rotate faint, and also saw the statuesque group prior to him as black figures, rising, falling, relocating unsteadily in arcs of circles in a fiery sky.”

"The duty of the soldier to be plain: the male must it is in shot dead from ambush--without warning, there is no a moment"s spiritual preparation, with never so lot as one unspoken prayer, he need to be sent to his account."

“It was not for long; in one more moment his face was increased from earth, his hand resumed their locations on the rifle, his forefinger search the trigger; mind, heart, and eyes were clear, conscience and also reason sound.”

“"See here, Druse," the said, after ~ a moment"s silence, "it"s no usage making a mystery. Ns order you to report. Was there anyone on the horse?""Yes." "Well?" "My father."... "Good God!""

1. Ambrose Bierce was one of the only significant author to view combat throughout the polite War. He offered in the ninth Regiment, Indiana Volunteers. What evidence can you provide that "he to know what the is talk about" in his telling of the story?

2. Recognize Bierce"s provides of foreshadowing and also how it creates tension and anticipation for his reader.

3. Describe Bierce"s literary devices and writing layout in explicate the rider (Section II, 4th paragraph). What facts does the disclose? What does the withhold (that we find only at the finish of the story)?

4. Define the an allegory in which that compares the rider to "a noble work-related of art."

5. What examples of military etiquette or rule of command are described in the story? Why space these important?

6. Comment on the recurring theme of treason throughout the story and carry out examples.

See more: The Three Field System Middle Ages, When Did The Three Field System Start

7. Based upon the proof Bierce provides (and doesn"t), execute you think Druse"s father was an officer or civilian?

8. Discuss Druse"s decision process, even if it is to shooting the rider (whom us don"t yet recognize is his father) and also his statement: "Is it then so disastrous to kill an adversary in war--an adversary who has surprised a secret critical to the safety and security of one"s self and also comrades--an enemy an ext formidable for his knowledge than all his army for the numbers?"

9. Identify and also analyze the Biblical recommendations in the story.

10. Read around Ambrose Bierce"s life. Why perform you think the writer earned the nickname, "Bitter Bierce"?

Essay prompt: create the ending-- what will occur to Druse next? just how will Druse it is in judged (by the Army, various other soldiers, through his mommy , through God, have the right to he live through his decision)?

Compare another story"s plot, setting, symbols, creating style, and also struggles the conscience with A Horseman in the Sky:

The Sniper, similar themes including irony and also moral selections during battle time

An event at Owl Creek Bridge, thought about Bierce"s most famed story. To help with the story, check out our research Guide

The sleeping Sentinel, a poem about William Scott, convicted of sleeping on duty

The Tragedy that Julius Caesar (Act III)

The Chimaera, the mythological flying horse and also his rider, Bellerophon

The Story the a Conscience, an additional Confederate spy, this one is captured behind adversary lines

Biography and Works by Ambrose Bierce

An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge examine Guide

Civil battle Battles in western Virginia

Virginia Soldiers: who Fought and for Whom?

Lesson arrangement & video clip for ELL: A Horseman in the Sky

American literature Lesson Plans: Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and also the Unreliable Biographers

Analysis of A Horseman in the Sky

Improve her Civil war Vocabulary

Spying in the polite War

Bierce"s early Life and also Military Career

The Ambrose Bierce job War Photographs

Mythological Gods and also Monsters: The Nemean Lion

Civil war Stories, Poems, and Novels

Civil battle Songs

American background in Literature

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