*date of death uncertain, disappeared sometime after December 26th 1913
American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran.
Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, first published in The Wasp, 1885
Available to read online here
This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. They describe Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General as “a crisscrossing of letters, with excerpts from other documents and a deposition thrown in for good measure.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General
On 3rd November 1861, the Secretary of War writes to the Hon. Jupiter Doke to inform him that the President has appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers. Will he accept the honour? Oh yes he will! He replies on the 9th that it will be the proudest moment of his life. The Secretary of War writes to Major General Blount Wardorg that the new Brigadier General is to be assigned to his department and is to take command of the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Wardorg, however, deliberately instructs Doke to take a route that he knows will be ambushed; he and his men are to be an instant sacrifice. But Doke sends his wife’s cousin in his place (because Doke never likes to get that involved) and it’s poor Mr Briller who gets sacrificed.
As the letters and diary notes continue, we see that Doke has taken to his new status like a fish to water – all apart from the military skill aspect. Wardorg quickly realises that Doke’s is a woefully poor appointment and that he and his men will have to be sacrificed due to their incompetence and stupidity, with the cutting remark to the Secretary of War: “I think him a fool”. After all, Doke is the man who has been collecting 2,300 mules in preparation for each of his men to ride one into Louisville as a form of dignified Retreat. The Confederate Army generals report that a freak of nature in the form of a tornado completely wipes out their men and Doke gets the credit. However, according to the eyewitness Mr Peyton, what really happened was that, at the first sounds of the oncoming enemy, Doke jumped through a window to escape and startled the mules so badly that they stampeded down the road towards the Confederates… I guess any that survived the tornado – if there really was a tornado – were muled to death! Result: Major General Jupiter Doke.
So despite all evidence to the contrary, when the President appointed Doke as Brigadier General, he might just have chosen the right guy! Doke quickly settles in to his new high office, spending all his time enjoying his peripheral benefits, appointing and recommending family members and friends, filling up his expense claims, publishing his speeches and over-egging his heroism, leasing a prominent residence in which to instal his wife and family, and engaging his brother in law to supply arms and regalia (much as you would with PPE today). When it comes to actual military matters, his judgment is pathetic, accidentally sending men to their death, and marching his men into town to be attacked because they were taken for the enemy, and when they returned to camp the real enemy had moved in.
This is a wonderful account of how someone can be promoted way beyond their ability, yet, by a series of extraordinary accidents and misjudgements, the final outcome has them smelling of roses and decorated accordingly. Every decision Doke makes is wrong, primarily because he spends all his time reaping the cash or status benefits of his new-found authority. Bierce portrays him as a magnificent example of small-town pomposity, concealing his own ineffectuality with flattery and self-aggrandization. He never misses a chance to improve his own standing, sneaking in an application for the Gubernatorial Chair of the Territory of Idaho, moving into a “prominent residence” whilst its previous incumbent is fighting in the war, writing a nonsense account of his own heroism for publication in the newspaper. However, the truth is that he is a coward who’ll escape through a window at the first sight of the enemy.
The story improves enormously on a second reading; for 21st century British readers not that familiar with 19th century American idiom and history, it’s easy to miss a few very important details on a first reading. Bierce himself had enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861 and had a great deal of active involvement in several battles and campaigns, so we can trust his experience when it comes to the military procedures and the type of manoeuvres that feature in this story. An excellent satire on how to muck up a war and the elevation of a clown to high office. Now, why does that ring a bell today?
The next story in the anthology, and the last of the three letter narration stories, is A Bundle of Letters by Henry James. As an English graduate, it is to my shame that I have never read any James, so it’s definitely time to put that right.