In 1861 Bierce enlisted in the army, rising eventually to the rank of lieutenant. During the American Civil War he served until 1865 in the Union Army - an experience that was crucial for his life and career as a writer. He fought in several battles including Shiloh and the one that later provided the setting for 'Chickamauga' (1889), one of his best stories. It tells about a little boy who sees wounded crawling toward a creek from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. He leads the company to his home. The place is burning, and finds his mother dead.
At Kenesaw Mountain Bierce was wounded in the temple. The bullet lodged within his skull behind his left ear. On leave his engagement with Bernie Wright was broken. After the war Bierce served briefly as a Treasury aide in Alabama. He was a topographical officer on General William B. Hazen's staff, and then settled in San Francisco, where he began his journalistic career. Bierce contributed to a number of periodicals, among others the Overland Monthly and the Californian. In 1868 he became the editor of the News-Letter and California Advertiser. His first story, 'The Haunted Valley', appeared in 1871 in the Overland Monthly.
In 1871 Bierce married a wealthy miner's daughter, Mollie Day; they had two sons and a daughter. He went with his wife in 1872 to England, where he lived in London from 1872 to 1875, and wrote sketches for the magazines Figaro and Fun. During this time he published three volumes of sketches and epigrams, THE FIEND'S DELIGHT (1872), NUGGETS AND DUST PANNED OUT IN CALIFORNIA (1872), and COBWEBS FROM AN EMPTY SKULL (1874). Tales of Soldiers and Civilians included Bierce's most celebrated tale, 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'. "A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck." The story continues with a lucky miracle - the rope breaks, and Peyton Farquhar escapes from the execution and returns to his wife at his plantation. But in the end Bierce reveals that this is merely a fantasy, occurring just before his death. "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge." As disillusioned was his view of the soldiers who fell at Shiloh: "Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of the these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for."
After returning to San Francisco, Bierce took a job at the U.S. Mint. In 1877 Bierce worked as an associate editor of the San Francisco Argonaut, a weekly paper. With Thomas A. Harcourth he wrote THE DANCE OF DEATH (1877) under the pseudonym William Herman. In the late 1870s he tried his luck in the mining business in the Dakota Territory without success, and went back to San Francisco to work for the Wasp. Bierce joined later the San Francisco Examiner, which started his long career as a columnist and contributor to the Hearst publications.
Bierce's marriage was stormy. The couple separated in 1888 and divorced in 1905. No wonder that in THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY (1911) Bierce defined happiness "as an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another." He also said: "You are not permitted to kill a woman who has wronged you, but nothing forbids you to reflect that she is growing older every minute. You are avenged 1440 times a day." Between the years 1887 and 1906 he wrote his famous "Prattle" column, which was a mixture of literary gossip, epigrams, and stories. He did not have much passion for writing novels, but preferred the short story. His sardonic and cruel epigrams and aphorisms Bierce gathered in THE CYNIC'S WORD BOOK (1906). When he edited his twelve-volume COLLECTED WORKS (1909-1912), however, he changed the title of this work to The Devil's Dictionary. Although Bierce was called "wicked" and "devilish", behind the misanthropic facade was a disappointed idealist, who saw a saint as "a dead sinner revised and edited", and a marriage "a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two." Bierce's satires have much in common with the views of Swift and Voltaire, whom he had read. Bierce also confessed his debt to Stoicism, the especially praised Epictetus. His attitude to religion was worldly: "Treat things divine with marked respect - don't have anything to do with them."
In 1896 Bierce moved to Washington, D.C., where he lobbied for Hearst interests. He contributed to the New York Journal, the San Francisco Examiner, and Cosmopolitan magazine. Bierce's marriage started to fall apart, and he had problems with alcohol. His son, Day, had run away from home at fifteen. Day killed a rival suitor of a sixteen-year-old girl and eventually was killed in a duel in 1889. Bierce's other son, Leigh, died of died of pneumonia at the age of 26. In the 1890s Beirce published some of his best works, including Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. From 1900 to 1913 Bierce lived and worked mainly in Washington. Among his friends and drinking companions was H.L. Mencken. Once Bierce told him that he kept the ashes of his son on his writing desk. Mencken said that the urn must be a formidable ornament. '"Urn hell!" he answered. "I keep them in a cigar-box."' (from Prejudices by H.L. Mencken, 1927)