Imagine for a moment that you're reading Bierce's story in 1890. Maybe you or a family member fought in the Civil War. You still see injured men walking around. The aftermath of the war is everywhere. Even if you weren't a staunch Unionist or Confederate, you certainly have an opinion about the war, and this opinion will probably influence your feelings about Peyton Farquhar. Is he a civilian hero who answered the call of duty and paid a high price, or is he a dastardly enemy of the US government who got his just desserts? Or maybe he's both. You'll have to decide for yourself.
Farquhar is certainly dedicated to the southern cause. He owns slaves and is intent on southern victory so he can maintain his livelihood and lifestyle. He doesn't, however, choose to serve the cause by becoming a Confederate soldier. Why on earth not? Well, the narrator tells us that it is Farquhar's "imperious nature" (2.1) that keeps him from joining the military. That's basically just a nicer way of saying that he's bossy and arrogant.
Though the narrator doesn't elaborate on the "circumstances" (2.1) related to Farquhar's imperiousness, we're pretty sure that a wealthy "civilian who [is] at heart a soldier" (2.1) would have a hard time taking orders from a superior officer. Think of every war movie you've ever seen. You know that guy who resents having to listen to commands and always seems ready to break the rules? Farquhar would totally be that guy. Since he knows he's not military material, he decides to take things into his own hands.
This leads us to our original question: is Farquhar a hero or a villain? Bierce seems to argue that, in the end, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that Farquhar is dead and will remain that way. Military justice is swift and brutal, and Farquhar's fantasy of escape is a complete and utter impossibility.
Hero or villain, Farquhar is certainly a confident – nay, naively arrogant – dude. He calls himself a "student of hanging," seeming to imply that he thinks he can commit the crime and still avoid the punishment. Even once he has a noose around his neck, he thinks he can control whether he lives or dies. In any case, he learns an important lesson (or should we say we learn the lesson) on Owl Creek Bridge: hero or villain, "student of hanging" or layman, the war will get you.Timeline