An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge HTML version

The Mocking-Bird
The time, a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the early autumn of 1861. The place, a forest's
heart in the mountain region of southwestern Virginia. Private Grayrock of the Federal
Army is discovered seated comfortably at the root of a great pine tree, against which he
leans, his legs extended straight along the ground, his rifle lying across his thighs, his
hands (clasped in order that they may not fall away to his sides) resting upon the barrel of
the weapon. The contact of the back of his head with the tree has pushed his cap
downward over his eyes, almost concealing them; one seeing him would say that he slept.
Private Grayrock did not sleep; to have done so would have imperiled the interests of the
United States, for he was a long way outside the lines and subject to capture or death at
the hands of the enemy. Moreover, he was in a frame of mind unfavorable. to repose. The
cause of his perturbation of spirit was this: during the previous night he had served on the
picket-guard, and had been posted as a sentinel in this very forest. The night was clear,
though moonless, but in the gloom of the wood the darkness was deep. Grayrock's post
was at a considerable distance from those to right and left, for the pickets had been
thrown out a needless distance from the camp, making the line too long for the force
detailed to occupy it. The war was young, and military camps entertained the error that
while sleeping they were better protected by thin lines a long way out toward the enemy
than by thicker ones close in. And surely they needed as long notice as possible of an
enemy's approach, for they were at that time addicted to the practice of undressing--than
which nothing could be more unsoldierly. On the morning of the memorable 6th of April,
at Shiloh, many of Grant's men when spitted on Confederate bayonets were as naked as
civilians; but it should be allowed that this was not because of any defect in their picket
line. Their error was of another sort: they had no pickets. This is perhaps a vain
digression. I should not care to undertake to interest the reader in the fate of an army;
what we have here to consider is that of Private Grayrock.
For two hours after he had been left at his lonely post that Saturday night he stood stock-
still, leaning against the trunk of a large tree, staring into the darkness in his front and
trying to recognize known objects; for he had been posted at the same spot during the
day. But all was now different; he saw nothing in detail, but only groups of things, whose
shapes, not observed when there was something more of them to observe, were now
unfamiliar. They seemed not to have been there before. A landscape that is all trees and
undergrowth, moreover, lacks definition, is confused and without accentuated points
upon which attention can gain a foothold. Add the gloom of a moonless night, and
something more than great natural intelligence and a city education is required to
preserve one's knowledge of direction. And that is how it occurred that Private Grayrock,
after vigilantly watching the spaces in his front and then imprudently executing a
circumspection of his whole dimly visible environment (silently walking around his tree
to accomplish it) lost his bearings and seriously impaired his usefulness as a sentinel.
Lost at his post--unable to say in which direction to look for an enemy's approach, and in
which lay the sleeping camp for whose security he was accountable with his life--