Ambrose Bierce was born on June 24, 1842, in Meigs County, Ohio, son of Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce, and the youngest of a large brood of children. He left his family in 1857 to live in Indiana, working for an abolitionist newspaper. He eventually came to live with his uncle Lucius Verus in Ohio, then attended the Kentucky Military Institute for a year before dropping out.
Bierce worked odd jobs until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, when he enlisted with the Ninth Indiana volunteers. Bierce worked primarily as a topographical engineer, where his excellent and valiant performance allowed him to rise through the ranks.
What he saw and experienced in the war had the most profound effect on Bierce. His wartime experiences are commonly seen as the source of his cynical realism.
Bierce moved to San Francisco in 1867, where he got a job working at the mint. It was then he decided on a career in journalism. Self-taught, he got a regular job as the "Town Crier" in the San Francisco News Letter at the end of the following year. Bierce's acid wit quickly gained him great local fame and a burgeoning national notoriety. In 1871, he courted and wed Mary Ellen Day, a San Franciscan socialite of one of the best families of the city.
A wedding gift took them to England, where Bierce would spend one of the happiest periods of his life. During his time there, Mollie gave birth to his first two children, and he wrote his first three books: Nuggets and Dust, The Fiend's Delight, and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull.
In early 1875, Mollie returned to San Francisco with their young family. Bierce reluctantly followed later that year, just before the birth of the couple's third child. In 1877, Bierce became the editor of The Argonaut, gaining notoriety for his "Prattle" column. After a brief period, Bierce returned to San Francisco and joined the Wasp in 1881, where he picked up his "Prattle" column.
In 1887, Bierce began his famous (and tumultuous) relationship with publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, joining the staff of the San Francisco Examiner. While continuing his newspaper work, Bierce began producing books in America. Between 1891 and 1893, Bierce wrote and published The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, Black Beetles in Amber, and Can Such Things Be?
Bierce published Fantastic Fables in 1899 and Shapes of Clay in 1903. After Mollie's death in 1905, Bierce began working for Hearst's Cosmopolitan, and Bierce's Cynic's Work Book (later the Devil's Dictionary) was published in 1906.
Bierce became less and less involved in the world around him. When Walter Neal approached Bierce to compile his Collected Works in 1909, Bierce resigned to Hearst for the last time. That year, he also published The Shadow on the Dial and Write It Right, all while working on the Collected Works. The last volumes of the twelve-volume Collected Works set appeared in 1912.
In December 1913, Bierce crossed the border into revolutionary Mexico, possibly to meet up with rebel leader Pancho Villa, and was never heard from again. His death is generally agreed to have occurred in 1914.