Two Humanitarianisms in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'

29 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2018 Last revised: 22 Mar 2019

Date Written: March 21, 2018


The oft-anthologized short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Union Army veteran Ambrose Bierce — long a staple of high school curricula and the subject of music videos, television, and film — is not typically thought of as a study in the dilemmas of humanitarian law. But it is. It depicts an execution for violation of the laws of war. Even better, the text embodies a central tension in the laws of war, one that emerged in Bierce’s time and persists today.  On the one hand stands a sentimental humanitarianism that aims to minimize the human suffering of war; Henri Dunant’s book, A Memory of Solferino popularized this stance and helped establish the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. On the other hand, a righteous humanitarianism chafes at the constraints that sentimental humanitarianism places on the pursuit of justice. Romantic nationalists like the Prussian-American political thinker Francis Lieber, whose code of rules for the Union Army was published a year after Dunant’s book, embrace the righteous justice of particular causes. Bierce’s “Owl Creek” straddles the two planks of the modern laws of war, conveying the power of both views.

Keywords: Humanitarianism, Francis Lieber, Henri Dunant, Red Cross, Laws of War, War

JEL Classification: K10, K30, K33, K40

Suggested Citation

Witt, John Fabian, Two Humanitarianisms in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' (March 21, 2018). Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 636, Available at SSRN: or

John Fabian Witt (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

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