One of Ambrose Bierce's most read stories, A Horseman in the Sky (1889) is a vivid account of difficult ethical choices during wartime. We hope this guide is particularly useful for students and teachers.
Here's the story: A Horseman in the Sky, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Literary Devices & Vocabulary, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Reading Recommendations, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Carter Druse - The story's protagonist, he is the only child of wealthy Virginia parents who decides to join the Union regiment that arrived in Grafton, Virginia, a few miles from their home. His action makes him a traitor to Virginia (according to his father) and breaks his heart. The Union officers assign Carter to a remote outpost as sentinel since he knows the terrain and they are impressed by his "deeds of devotion and daring." He betrays them by falling asleep on duty.
Carter's Father - A wealthy landowner in Western Virginia whose only son announced he is joining the Union, to which he replied, "Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty." His father promises they will speak more of the matter should they both live to the end of the war (that was prescient). The father is both staunchly reserved (does not show emotion), and reveres duty and family.
The Horseman - The identity of the rider is not revealed until the end of the story, when we learn it's Druse's father, a Confederate spy. Likened to a god, collosal in magnitude and seemingly having spiritual powers, Carter shoots him to avoid allowing him to reveal the Union regiment's position he's guarding in the valley below.
Carter's Mother - Though she never appears in the story, Carter's father reminds him that she is critically ill and will die in a few weeks. The young Druse does not announce his decision or say goodbye to her, at his father's insistence, due to her fragile condition.
The Officer - The only witness to the death of Druse's father, whom he sees falling over a thousand foot vertical cliff, appearing to fly as an apparition. He gave up searching for the body and horse and failed to report it.
Sargeant - The officer who hears the shot and interviews Druse, who confesses that the man he shot was his father, horrifying the sargeant.
The Angel - The unseen force that wakens Druse from his sentry slumber, just in time to spy the Confederate spy undetected.
The story's main character is Carter Druse, a private who joined the Union Army in defiance of his Virginia heritage and family who live near where the fighting is about to commence. His father, though broken-hearted, tells Carter to follow his sense of duty and to not tell his dying mother. Because he grew up in the terrain, Druse is appointed sentinel on a high ridge overlooking a valley where his regiment is awaiting their surprise attack on the Confederates. He falls asleep, but is awakened by an angelic force just in time to witness a mysterious, statuesque horseman who has identified the Union regiments, but has not yet discovered Druse's position. Druse has his hand on his rifle ready to fire, they look into eachother's eyes before Druse, after hesitating, decides it is his duty to kill the Confederate horseman spy to protect the Union's position. One officer witnessed the falling horseman over the sheer cliff, appearing to fly, gives up his search for the body below, and decides not to report it to his superior. A sargeant who heard the shot interviews Druse, who confesses that the man he killed was his father.
Civil War short stories genre, historic fiction in its seeming realistic portrayal of actual events, soldiers, and battles, with a supernatural element of mythological allegory. Since Bierce served in the War, he coupled his gifted writing abilities with his credible and dramatic stories that brought the complexities of War to life for his readers.
Son vs. Father - The War tore families apart; men deciding to enlist in the Civil War generally had a greater allegiance to their town, county, state, before their country. In this story, both father and son chose to defend their duty over their family, but for opposing sides, which makes Bierce's story so poignant.
Treason - Joining the Union as a Virginian was considered treason by his father, he knowingly dissapointed his parents, committed a crime as sentinel (sleeping on watch). Most importantly, he committed treason against his family, killing his own father!
Hierarchy of Duties - The story explores the powerful concepts of allegiance to family, faith and their sometimes-conflict with military duty. No "spiritual preparation" was needed, the "duty of the soldier was plain: the man must be shot dead from ambush."
Compassion, Conscience and Reason - Qualities shared by both father and son, but each of their decisions, and the irreversible consequences, leave the reader understanding the War's devastation in Bierce's telling of the story.
Rules Define Actions - Soldiers adhere to the military's rules of conduct; their duty is to kill the enemy. Druse chooses his duty to the Union by killing an enemy spy who will reveal their position, over his love and allegiance to his father.
Judgement - How will Druse by judged and by whom? God? Family? The Federal Army? Fellow soldiers? Will Druse be able to live with himself and his decision in the end?
Metaphors and Similes
Bierce characteristically offers so much detail and descriptions in his Civil War stories, he brings to life the specific battles, strategies, and personalizes the soldiers' experiences both on and off the battlefield, particularly the moral choices war time presents.
To better understand the historic context of this story, it's helpful to review the Civil War battles fought in Western Virginia. The setting may be near Grafton (where Druse told his father the Union regiment had arrived) and Philippi where both armies led their brigades: Col. Morris (US) and Col. Porterfield (Confederates). The Union mounted a two-prong advance, surprising a small Confederate occupation force at Philippi before dawn on June 3, 1861. Though it resulted in only 30 casualties, it was considered the first major land action in the Eastern Theater.
Was it really an act of "treason" for Virginians to enlist in the Union rather than Confederate forces? No, the counties that today comprise West Virginia were mostly Union controlled, from which roughly 32,000 Virginians served in the Union army. The vast majority of eligible Virginians (155,000) served the Confederates. The enlistment rate in Confederate Virginia was 89 percent, more men than from any other state in the Confederacy. For more details: Encyclopedia Virginia.
Is it true that a soldier who falls asleep at his post can be executed? Yes, a Union soldier, William Scott, "The Sleeping Sentinel" was court-martialed and sentenced to be executed for sleeping on duty in 1861. Lincoln agreed to his pardon, extending mercy to the criminal. The pardon states:
"This act of clemency must not be understood as affording a precedent for any future case. The duty of a sentinel is of such a nature, that its neglect by sleeping upon or deserting his post may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army, and all nations affix to the offence the penalty of death."
To ensure clear rules of conduct for all Federal soldiers during war time, President Lincoln imposed the Lieber Code in April of 1863, which specified the ethical treatment of prisoners of war and empancipated slaves.
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
Bierce's 'hook': "One sunny afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861 a soldier lay in a clump of laurel by the side of a road in western Virginia."
“No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war; concealed in the forest at the bottom of that military rat-trap, in which half a hundred men in possession of the exits might have starved an army to submission, lay five regiments of Federal infantry.”
“Your mother, as the physician has informed you, is in a most critical condition; at the best she cannot be with us longer than a few weeks, but that time is precious. It would be better not to disturb her.”
“His first feeling was a keen artistic delight. On a colossal pedestal, the cliff,--motionless at the extreme edge of the capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky,--was an equestrian statue of impressive dignity. The figure of the man sat the figure of the horse, straight and soldierly, but with the repose of 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 of his concealed foeman--seemed to look into his very face, into his eyes, into his brave, compassionate heart."
“Carter Druse grew pale; he shook in every limb, turned faint, and saw the statuesque group before him as black figures, rising, falling, moving unsteadily in arcs of circles in a fiery sky.”
"The duty of the soldier was plain: the man must be shot dead from ambush--without warning, without a moment's spiritual preparation, with never so much as an unspoken prayer, he must be sent to his account."
“It was not for long; in another moment his face was raised from earth, his hands resumed their places on the rifle, his forefinger sought the trigger; mind, heart, and eyes were clear, conscience and reason sound.”
“'See here, Druse,' he said, after a moment's silence, 'it's no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anybody on the horse?''Yes.' 'Well?' 'My father.'... 'Good God!'"
1. Ambrose Bierce was one of the only major author to see combat during the Civil War. He served in the Ninth Regiment, Indiana Volunteers. What evidence can you provide that "he knows what he is talking about" in his telling of the story?
2. Identify Bierce's uses of foreshadowing and how it creates tension and anticipation for his reader.
3. Describe Bierce's literary devices and writing style in describing the rider (Section II, fourth paragraph). What facts does he disclose? What does he withhold (that we discover only at the end of the story)?
4. Explain the metaphor in which he compares the rider to "a noble work of art."
5. What examples of military etiquette or rules of conduct are described in the story? Why are these important?
6. Discuss the recurring theme of betrayal throughout the story and provide examples.
7. Based on the evidence Bierce provides (and doesn't), do you think Druse's father was an officer or civilian?
8. Discuss Druse's decision process, whether to shoot the rider (whom we don't yet know is his father) and his statement: "Is it then so terrible to kill an enemy in war--an enemy who has surprised a secret vital to the safety of one's self and comrades--an enemy more formidable for his knowledge than all his army for its numbers?"
9. Identify and analyze the Biblical references in the story.
10. Read about Ambrose Bierce's life. Why do you think the author earned the nickname, "Bitter Bierce"?
Essay prompt: Write the ending-- what will happen to Druse next? How will Druse be judged (by the Army, other soldiers, by his mother [who may never know], by God, can he live with his decision)?
Compare another story's plot, setting, symbols, writing style, and struggles of conscience with A Horseman in the Sky:
The Sniper, similar themes involving irony and moral choices during war time
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, considered Bierce's most famous story. To help with the story, check out our Study Guide
The Sleeping Sentinel, a poem about William Scott, convicted of sleeping on duty
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Act III)
The Chimaera, the mythological flying horse and his rider, Bellerophon
The Story of a Conscience, another Confederate spy, this one is captured behind enemy lines
Biography and Works by Ambrose Bierce
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Study Guide
Civil War Battles in Western Virginia
Virginia Soldiers: Who Fought and for Whom?
Lesson plan & video for ELL: A Horseman in the Sky
American Literature Lesson Plans: Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers
Analysis of A Horseman in the Sky
Improve Your Civil War Vocabulary
Bierce's Early Life and Military Career
The Ambrose Bierce Project War Photographs
Mythological Gods and Monsters: The Nemean Lion
Civil War Stories, Poems, and Novels
American History in Literature
Visit our Teacher Resources, supporting literacy instruction across all grade levels
American Literature's Study Guides
Return to American Literature Home Page