New Ambrose Bierce manuscript collection open for research: Foster Family Collection of Ambrose Bierce materials

February 26, 2019
Benjamin Lee Stone
Carte de Visite photograph of Ambrose Bierce, Morse's Gallery of the Cumberland, Nashville, Tennessee (undated; 1862-1863?)


Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), author of such noted Civil War short stories as the “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” collected in his seminal 1891 collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, was unique among American writers for his front-line service as a combatant in the American Civil War. Thanks to a recent major gift, the Department of Special Collections in the Stanford University Libraries now hold unique manuscript materials relating to Bierce’s Civil War service.

In 2016, Cindra Heston and Debra Van Dyke donated the Foster Family Collection of Ambrose Bierce materials to the Stanford Libraries.  Their father, D.W. "Jim" Strauss, had originally loaned this collection to the Elkhart County Historical Museum in Bristol, Indiana on behalf of his late wife Betty Ann, who had inherited it from her mother Grace Juanita Bussing Foster, Almeda Bierce Pittenger’s daughter [Almeda Bierce Pittenger was Ambrose Bierce’s sister].  Staff at the Elkhart County Historical Museum, most notably Curators Liz Fisher and Michelle Nash, were instrumental in facilitating transfer of the gift to Stanford, along with detailed catalog records.  

The Foster Family Collection provides a rich complement to Stanford’s already strong Bierce manuscript holdings, most notably the Ambrose Bierce Papers, 1872-1913. The Foster Family Collection adds rich materials on Bierce’s Indiana family and his service in the Civil War, including maps drawn by Bierce during his  service as a topographical engineer in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, 1863-1865, as well as artifacts such as his writing desk and surveying/drafting instruments.

The collection also contains correspondence (including one letter from Ambrose Bierce to a family member), photographs, maps, field notes, receipts, dispatches, telegrams, newspapers, and printed material. In addition to copious material from Bierce’s Civil War service, the collection also contains a wealth of information on his extended family in Indiana, especially his sister Almeda Sophia Bierce Pittenger (the original source of this collection), his father Marcus Aurelius Bierce and brothers Albert and Addison Bierce.

A native of Elkhart, Indiana, Bierce enlisted into the 9th Indiana Volunteers on April 19, 1861.  After experiencing combat at the Battles of Rich Mountain and Shiloh in  1861 and 1862, Bierce was promoted to  topographical engineer and assigned to the staff of Brig. Gen. William Hazen, commander of the 19th Brigade in the Army of the Cumberland. Bierce proved a talented surveyor and mapmaker and provided further service at the Battles of Stone’s River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, among others.  

For further reading on Bierce's Civil War years, see Christopher Kiernan Coleman's 2016 monograph Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife: The Civil War and the Emergence of an American Writer (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press). Craig Carey's 2013 article <A> And <B>: Marks, Maps, Media, and the Materiality of Ambrose Bierce's Style, American Literature (2013) 85 (4): 629-66, provides an analysis of the influence of Bierce's mapmaking skills towards his literary style; Carey made extensive use of Bierce's maps and topographical field books in the Foster Family Collection (which were then held at the Elkhart County Historical Musuem).

Thanks to the hard work of Franz Kunst, processing archivist in SUL’s manuscripts processing unit in the Department of Special Collections, the Foster Collection has been processed and a finding aid is available online.  Thanks to Astrid Smith and John Pearson in the Digital Production Group (DPG-DLSS), SUL has digitized five of Bierce’s manuscript maps, as well as a carte-de-visite photograph taken in Nashville in 1862, and Bierce’s discharge certificate from the Union Army.  Jessica Cebra, metadata management librarian provided invaluable metadata for digitized objects.