An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Military Bridge on the Tennessee River
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge - Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce's most famous story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) is a masterfully crafted story that everyone should read. We hope that our study guide is particularly useful for teachers and students.

Here's the story: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge study guide: Hopsitalities of the Farm
Southern Farmer during the Civil War

Character Analysis & Summary

Character Analysis

Plot Summary

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, pendulum
A pendulum is deeply symbolic in this story

Genre & Themes



The Affair at Coulter's Notch: Tidball's Battery
Tidball's Battery, Fair Oaks, Virginia, 1862

Historical Context

To better understand the historic context of the events during the Civil War leading up to this story, read about the specific Northern Alabama Civil War battles, review maps, and reminiscences of daily life on a Southern plantation during the War. The Franklin-Nashville campaign occurred in 1864, led by General Robert S. Grander (US) and General John B. Hood (Confederates).

The American Civil War is filled with stories of traitorous spies, or civilians caught and hung for their actions against the enemy. Spying in the Civil War

President Lincoln imposed the Lieber Code in April of 1863, which were instructions for how soldiers should conduct themselves in wartime, such as the ethical treatment of populations in occupied terrorities, prisoners of war, and the lawfulness of emancipating slaves. In Bierce's story, the Federal soldiers are complying with a strict code of conduct.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Ambrose Bierce


Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:

“Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.”

“The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment.”

“Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum.” [Compare the pendulum to a noose and time piece.]

“His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command.”

“An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!”

“Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene--perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine.”

“As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!”

Discussion Questions

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? Do you detect any bias in his writing, does his favor the Union over the Confederates, or is he seemingly impartial?

2. How does Bierce's methodic writing style of providing detailed descriptions in a quiet, slow, suspenseful manner affect the reader? Provide examples (like how he describes the rifles in "support" position, or the sound of his own watch ticking).

3. Describe Bierce's literary technique using foreshadowing and its effect of fully engaging his reader.

4. Explain the metaphor that "Death is a dignitary" in the first paragraph.

5. What examples of military etiquette or rules of conduct are described in the story? Why are these important?

6. What do the bridge and the fast-moving water below represent? Explain the symbolic meaning of the loose boards and "unsteady footing."

7. Explain what Farquhar's wife represents? Why does he reject what she represents in his reckless mission to suppress Union forces?

8. Do we know whether Farquhar actually burned the bridge? Though we are told the Union scout planted the idea in Farquhar's mind to burn the bridge and then must have reported Farquar's betrayal which resulted in his sentence to be hanged, how do we know he actually committed the crime and deserves to be hanged?

9. Describe the transcendental experience of Farquhar willing the noose to give way and envisioning his escape into the arms of his wife and safety, then the "white light" rather than the reality of his corpse's broken bones of death.

10. Tell the story using the same sequence of events, but from the Union Captain's point of view.

11. Describe the symbolism of the "pendulum" (first paragraph of section III) and how it relates to time, the hanging, his emotions.

12. The Federal troops were required to comply with the Liber Code, instructions for armies in the field, imposed by President Lincoln in 1863. Discuss the soldiers' conduct described in the story. Did they follow the letter of the Lieber Code?

Essay Question #1: Research the term "Copperhead" (used to describe a Northern Democrat who opposed fighting in the Civil War and demanded immediate peace). The modern equivalent is called "conscientious objector." Did Farquhar's actions serve the Confederates in the same way, more, or less, than had he enlisted and fought as a soldier? Does Bierce offer any clues as to why Farquhar didn't serve as a soldier?

Essay Question #2: Compare this story to another Civil War Story, either by Ambrose Bierce or a different author. Suggestion: The Story of a Conscience. Compare their themes, tone, literary techniques, and context within the Civil War genre.

Biography and Works by Ambrose Bierce

Lesson Plan for An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge: Heroes or Cowards?

Ambrose Bierce's Civil War, NY Times, 12/17/13

Bierce's Early Life and Military Career

Foreshadowing and Tone in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Improve Your Civil War Vocabulary

Spying in the Civil War (it happened in more ways than you might think)

The Ambrose Bierce Project annotated text

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

Civil War Stories, Poems, and Novels

Civil War Songs

American History in Literature

Notes/Teacher Comments

We need to hear from you! Please share your lesson plans, questions, or pit-falls to avoid while teaching this work in pursuing our common interests of helping more students enjoy reading classic literature! Contact us via Facebook or Twitter

Visit our Teacher Resources, supporting literacy instruction across all grade levels

American Literature's Study Guides

Return to American Literature Home Page

facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest