My interest for the US Civil War period comes out in this story and while this story hasn't been published yet, it is perhaps my favorite--I'm in the process of adding to it, and will be a much longer story when finished.
REQUIESCANT IN PACE
The blood-curdling screams could be heard from miles around. Screams of agony. Screams of torment. Screams of fear. For the second time, Sudley Church had been transformed into a hospital, and was full to capacity. The pews that on previous Sundays seating God-fearing worshipers were now being used as beds to hold the wounded and dying. The smell of iron-rich blood, or nauseating, pus-filled infection, and the stench of urine of worry, permeated the air. The men lying on the pews, all had the same look upon their faces. Sheer terror. The still barely living men, envied those who had already died. They longed for death to greet them soon, so they would feel pain no more.
Outside the church, large pristine military white canvas tents, with flimsy, make-shift cots, stored row upon row inside, had been hastily set up to store more wounded soldiers who kept coming in by the wagonful. Set slightly apart from the rest of these tents, was another one. Its color wasn’t so pristine, so white. It was soaked with large splattered red stains. It was here, in this tent, where the screams were the loudest.
Rivers of blood trickled out from this tent, creating deep pools all around it. There was so much blood, that it couldn’t seep into the ground. At one spot, instead of lush, green grass, there was a thick, red, sticky lake, several inches deep; a lake of blood. At its center, in pyramidal fashion, were the discarded remains of still oozing, bloody-soaked feet, toes, arms, legs, fingers and hands that had been sawed off.
A semi-conscious young man, of about eighteen years of age, was being carried into this tent on a stretcher. It was so drenched with his own blood that it dripped down and was leaving a trail. The left leg of his trousers was no longer grey, but red, like the color of the flag of his country he was serving and fighting for. Confederate red. He was Private Nathaniel Benjamin Woods, of Company K, of the Virginia 8th Infantry. Suddenly, he became aware of where he was being taken to. His senses awakened full hilt. He began screaming at the top of his lungs. The two men carrying him had gotten used to hearing the screams of those that they transported into this tent, and had learned to ignore them long ago. If they hadn’t, they were sure that they’d be haunted for the rest of their lives, and upon their death would surely be sent to purgatory.
Private Woods was still screaming as the two men lifted and laid him upon a table. He stopped, however, when he saw Dr. Edward R. Harrison approach him. In a voice, raspy, hoarse, and barely above a whisper, he pleaded.
“Please sir. Please. Merciful God in heaven. Please don’t take my leg.”
Dr. Harrison looked down at Private Woods, remaining silent, motionless, unmoving. Signaling only with his eyes, he conveyed to the two men to hold Private Woods down. From behind him, the surgeon picked up the amputee saw. It was no longer the flashing, sparkling silver color it had been at the beginning of the war, only a little over a year ago. Now it was permanently stained red, and droplets of blood fell from it, from its use only moments ago.
As Dr. Harrison began sawing off the leg, the two men holding Private Woods down, suddenly had the urge to retch. They had heard the horrific screams of all the others, but never as bad as this before. Total shock was the expression on Private Woods’ face as he watched the surgeon throw his now lifeless leg on the pile of the other limbs in the corner of the tent. Dr. Harrison then nodded his head to the two men, indicating that Private Woods should now be taken away.
Later that night, at precisely 2:43 a.m., on August 30, 1862, Private Woods died. The same two men carried his body out to one of the deep, multi-dead graves. As they placed Private Woods on top of the pile of the other bodies, they both noticed, even in the dark, with only the full moon to illuminate the night, that Private Woods was smiling.
The loud, deafening gunfire of cannons seemed to be coming from all around him. With each explosion, he could feel their surging power, their strength, throughout his body, rattling right to his very bones. He kept running, running, running. He couldn’t tell if he was running away from or into the enemy. He couldn’t see well, for everywhere he looked, the air was filled with the smoke from the cannons, and of rifle-muskets. But, he saw enough. Laid strewn about upon the ground, were scores of the bodies of the fallen dead, dying and wounded. He kept running. He wanted to get the hell away from here.
Suddenly, he fell to the ground. In sheer, panicked agony, he knew he was wounded. How bad, he didn’t know, but he couldn’t move. Thoughts raced through his mind. Maybe he should just lie still, pretend he was dead until the whole thing was over with, which, he hoped to God, would be soon. As he laid there, clouds of smoke rolled over his body, covering him like a shroud. Once in awhile, blown up pieces from the ground pelted him with scattered debris whenever a cannon shot hit near him.
He had no idea how long he laid there on the ground, but he became aware of how deathly quiet it had become. No longer could he hear the cannons, nor the rapid, fired discharge of the multitude of rifle-muskets. No longer could he hear the painful, tortured moans from the men lying on the ground around him.
For several minutes, it remained totally, utterly silent. Still. The eerie silence was broken, replaced by an uproarious, loud cheering with huzzahs, and then applause. Ever so slowly, the men lying on the ground, began to rise; Sergeant Carter included.
A man wearing the blue color uniform of his enemy, with a captain’s insignia, began walking toward Carter. He had an enthusiastic smile of his face, and he held out his right hand with a friendly gesture of greeting. The two men shook hands.
“Allen P. Moore’s the name. Great turnout, wouldn’t you say?” he asked with a noticeable Boston accent.
“George Daniel Carter. Yes. Really incredible. I never get tired of doing this.”
“Neither do I. I get a real buzz from all this. Hey, look! Everyone seems to be heading toward the mess tents. I don’t know about you, but I’m positively famished.”
“Me too. Nothing like a major battle to bring on an appetite, right?”
A long line had already formed ahead of Allen and George, but it moved swiftly as plates were being piled high with food. The two men went over to one of the long, wooden, red and white, checkered table-clothed picnic tables and sat opposite each other.
“My, Confederate through and through, aren’t you? See you grabbed the catfish and hush puppies. So....Sergeant...who are you representing here?”
“The Virginia 8th Infantry,” said George.
“Wow! The Bloody Eighth, huh? That was some regiment, wasn’t it? There were practically in every battle in Virginia , weren’t they?” asked Allen.
“Yes, from First Manassas , or , as you Yankees called it, Bull Run, up to Sayler’s Creek, just three days before the surrender at Appomattox .”
“I’m representing the 16th Massachusetts . They only just upgraded me to play captain for this Gettysburg battle.”
“How long have you been doing these re-enactments?”
“Oh, gee, let’s see. Yeah, about twelve years now, I should say,” said Allen.
“That’s strange. I’ve never seen you before, and I’ve been at this kind of thing for twenty-one years now.”
“Are you joking? Wow! You should at least be portraying a brigadier-general or something like that by now. You know George...,” Allen paused a moment, as he crammed a large helping of the heavily gravied roast beef into his mouth. He ate slowly. “...quite frankly, my wife thinks I’m totally out of my mind for doing these re-enactments.”
“So does my wife, Katy. How did you get involved anyway?” asked George.
“It’s funny, really. I was never much for American history. But then some years ago, I saw that mini-series....you know, the one with Patrick Swayze in it.”
“North and South?”
“Yeah. That’s the one. Then there was the movie Glory. Jesus! That was some movie. Do you know I still cry at the end of it?” asked Allen.
“It was a good movie.”
“Then, of course, was the Ken Burns’ series. That’s what really got me hooked on the whole Civil War thing. Have been ever since.” Allen paused again as he ate another mouthful of the roast beef. “I read anything and everything I can get my hands on. But you know? It just wasn’t enough for me to be reading about it. I wanted to actually feel it. How about you, George? Feel the same way I do? Obviously you must, since you’re a re-enactor.”
“I’m just as enthusiastic about the Civil War as you are, but for an entirely different reason,” said George.
“Oh? Yeah? And, what’s that?”
“Well...my great-great-great grandfather , Joshua Daniel Carter was a Sergeant with the Virginia 8th . That’s why I’m still just a Sergeant in these re-enactments. You might say I’m honoring his memory.”
“Oh, wow! That’s fantastic. You really had an ancestor in the war? I would’ve have loved having had one of my ancestors involved in the war.”
“You didn’t?” asked George.
“Nah....not so lucky as you. My ancestors timing was all wrong. Either born too early, or too late. Hey...do you mind if I have one of your hush puppies? I’ve never tasted one before.”
George watched Allen reach over, grabbing not just one, but three.
"Mmmm...not bad. How did you find out about your ancestor? Do the genealogy thing?"
"No. Actually, it was through all the stories I had heard as a boy from my great-grandfather, Elijah Thomas Carter. My parents and I would go down to visit my great-grandparents and grandparents who all still lived in the old family home in Warrenton , Virginia . My parents moved back there only a few years ago."
"Down? So...you're not from Virginia then?"
"No. My father was born there, but then got accepted and attended Columbia University . My father loved New York so much that he decided to stay there. Then, of course, he met my mother there, and I was born in Maspeth. I still live there."
"So...your great-grandfather told you all about your Civil War ancestor?" asked Allen.
"Yes. He knew every single detail about Joshua’s life. Why the way he used to tell the stories, you'd think he had been in the war. Do you know I have Joshua's actual letters he wrote during the war? I even have a glass plate photo of him wearing his uniform."
"Are you kidding me? Really? Jesus, they must be worth a fortune. Ever think of selling them?"
"Not on your life."
"Tell me about Joshua," said Allen, "I'd love to hear all about him."
"Well..."" said George a bit hesitantly.
"Not everything of course. Just give me some highlights."
"Oh, sure. Why not? Joshua enlisted as a Private with Company K of the Virginia 8th Infantry in Warrenton, Virginia on July 31, 1861. A year later he was promoted to Sergeant."
"When was he born?" interrupted Allen.
"October 18, 1838."
"So...he was...gee, only twenty-one when he enlisted."
"That's right. Joshua was wounded twice. First in the arm during the Battle at Ball’s Bluff, then at the calf of his leg during the Seven Pines battle. Since he himself knew what it was like to be wounded, many of his letters mention how he'd help carry the wounded away from the battlefields to the make-shift hospitals. He would also tend to the wounded when the doctors couldn't."
"That mustn't have been a very pleasant experience for him."
"No, I guess it wasn't."
"Did he participate in all the battles with the Bloody Eighth?"
“Yes, right up until Gettysburg .”
“Don’t tell me he got killed there?”
“No, not killed. He was captured after Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, and was sent to Fort Delaware , then was transferred to Point Lookout prison. He wasn’t released until June 23, 1865.”
“Point Lookout, huh?’ Not as bad as Andersonville , but it wasn’t exactly a cozy retreat center either.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Besides his letters and photos, are you like me? You know, collect Civil War artifacts?” asked Allen.
“I sure do. In fact, I’m waiting for something I ordered to arrive any day now.”
“Really, what? Uh, oh......”
“What is it?” asked George.
“My wife. She’s standing over there. Well, fun’s over, I guess...” said Allen, standing up, waving to his wife. He took out a pen and notepad from his pocket, and hastily scribbled on it. “Here’s my address, phone number, e-mail, the works. Give me yours, okay? I’d really like to keep in touch with you. I’m dying to hear more about Joshua.”
“Are you going to be in next year’s Gettysburg re-enactment, Allen?”
“Why, of course! Wouldn’t dare miss it. You?”
“No. I think I’ll stick to the Confederate victory-related battles.”
“Ah, hah! Loyal to the Confederacy, huh? Well, gotta go. Gloria’s getting that impatient look on her face. Really glad to meet you George,” said Allen, shaking George’s hand. “Keep in touch, hear?”
A door slammed open. Hurried footsteps ran toward Abigail’s room. Katy flicked on the light switch and quickly went over to her terrified, eight year old daughter and sat on the bed. Abigail wrapped her small arms tightly around her mother. Katy could feel her daughter shaking.
“Mommy, I’m scared.”
“I know baby, I know. Still hearing those screams?”
“Yes, Mommy. I saw a man.”
“A man? What man? Who was it?”
“Don’t know, mommy. He was over there,” said Abigail, pointing toward the window. “He had no leg, Mommy.” Abagail began crying. “Make the screams and the man go away.”
“Hush, baby. It’s all right. Would you like to sleep with me and your daddy tonight?”
“I’m concerned about Abi.”
“Do you think you could put that paper down for a minute? I need to talk to you. It’s serious.”
George looked up from his newspaper, folded it, and placed it on the breakfast table.
“Okay, so what’s wrong, Katy?”
“Abi’s frightened out of her mind. She’s been having horrible nightmares lately.”
“What do you mean? For how long?”
“Oh, I’d say for the past two weeks. She wakes up each night, yelling at the top of her lungs.”
“How come I haven’t heard her?”
“Are you kidding, George? The way you sleep? One would have to detonate a bomb next to you to wake you up once you’re sleeping. You haven’t even realized that she’s been sleeping with us every night.”
“What are her nightmares about?”
“Well, up until last night, it was just screams she heard.”
“Yes. She says she hears these God-awful, terrifying screams. Then, last night she told me that she saw a man in her room. A man without a leg.”
“Well, the man’s not real, is he?”
“No....no, of course not. But that’s not the point. I’ve never known Abi to be so frightened before.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Probably just a weird phase she’s going through. Didn’t you have nightmares as a kid?”
“Yes, I did. Still...I’m really concerned about her.”
“Don’t worry about it, Katy. She’ll probably outgrow it soon.”
“I hope so.”
“I’m sure glad you called and invited me to stop by while I’m here in New York . Can’t wait to see your collection,” said Allen.
“It’s all in here, “said George, gesturing to Allen to follow him into his study.
“When Allen went inside, he gave a quick glance around the room, then gave a whistle.
“Wow! Is all this stuff the real McCoy?”
“Everything except for that flag hanging over there. That’s a reproduction of the flag the Virginia 8th carried with them into battle.”
“What kind of guns are those?” asked Allen, pointing to the three rifles hanging over the fireplace mantle.
“A .58-caliber Mississippi , a .58-caliber Ashville Armory confederate, and a .577-caliber Enfield rifle-musket. They’re still functional too.”
“They must have cost you a fortune!”
“You’re not kidding.”
Allen walked over to the floor to ceiling bookcases that were divided into three sections. The two end sections were crammed with books, while the middle one, was a glass-encased bookcase filled with Civil War artifacts.
Allen whistled again as he read the titles of some of the books. “I don’t believe it! You actually have all of the Official Records volumes?”
“They’re reprints of course,” said George.
Allen then went over to peer inside the glass-encased bookcase. He saw a vast array of artillery and cavalry uniform buttons, neatly lined up in several rows; a wooden canteen, a slouch hat, and a Confederate Captain’s red kepi hat. Centered among this display, was a battered, closed, wooden box. Then, Allen saw the glass plate photo.
“Oh, my God! Is that Joshua?”
“The one and only.”
“Jesus! I feel as though I’ve walked inside a museum of something. That’s a bit out of place here though, isn’t it? asked Allen, nodding his head over to George’s desk, where the computer was.
“Well, I do have to get work done in here.”
“Can’t help noticing that everything is Confederate though. No Union stuff? What’s that? Allen asked while pointing to the battered wooden box.
“Ah! That’s my latest acquisition. It’s a genuine surgeon’s kit, complete with amputee saw.”
“Yuk! Why on earth would you want to have something like that for?”
”That’s what Katy keeps asking me. But, I couldn’t resist it. It’s the actual kit that belonged to Dr. Edward R. Harrison. He was the surgeon with the Virginia 8th.”
“Really? Still don’t know why you’d want to have it thought. Kind of morbid, isn’t it?”
“That’s what Katy thinks. That’s why I always keep it closed, so when she’s in here, she doesn’t have to look inside. Says it gives her the creeps.”
“I want to talk to you.”
“Look, Katy. If you’re still concerned about Abi, don’t be.”
“And just how long is she going to keep sleeping with us? She’s so frightened that she might see the man again, she won’t go into her room at all now. I have to get her school clothes for her every morning.”
“Don’t worry about her. Like I said. It’s a phase she’s going through.”
“There’s something else I want to talk about.”
“I want you to get rid of that surgeon’s kit.”
“Please. Just get rid of it. I don’t want it in this house. I think it’s the source of Abi’s nightmares.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Abi’s only started having nightmares ever since you got it. And this whole business with her is starting to spook me also. Honest to God, I swear there are times that I feel a presence in a room with me, whenever I’m alone.”
“Jesus, Katy. Sounds like you’re talking about ghosts here or something. Are you?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes, George. I don’t know. But whatever it is, I think it’s all connected with that kit of yours.”
“You’re imaging things.”
“Oh? Am I? Just think of it, George. Just think what that kit was used for, especially that saw.”
“What are you suggesting? That it’s possessed?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes, Katy. That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“Yes! Look, it took me a long time to track that kit down. I wanted something that was part of the Virginia 8th—something real, not a replica.”
“I’m pretty sure that there are more suitable things you can get. I mean it, George! Get rid of it!”
In the ten years that he and Katy had been married, George never lied or held anything back from her. Now, however, he wasn’t about to admit that maybe she was right about the kit. Too, often, while working on his computer, late at night, he was aware of a presence with him in his study. Like tonight. Yet, he had gotten so used to this feeling that something was keeping him company, that he no longer paid attention to it. He often reflected, that just maybe, the presence he felt, was his own ancestor, Joshua.
George yawned again. His eyes were heavy, his mind drowsy as he sat in front of the computer. He must have dozed off for perhaps only ten minutes or so, but when he shook himself awake, he felt a strange coldness in the room. The lights had gone out. The room was illuminated only the light from the computer’s screen. His eyes then widened with horror. Everywhere he looked, he saw piles and piles of oozing, bloody limbs scattered all over the room. From behind him, he heard a rhythmic tap, tap, tapping sound. He turned around. The doors of the glass-encased bookcase were slightly ajar, swinging back and forth, back and forth, causing the tapping sound. The surgeon’s kit was wide open. The entire kit was bathed and overflowing with streams of blood dripping down onto the carpeting.
The computer screen flickered, then went blank. George was in total darkness now. His heart was beating so fast and hard, that he thought it was going to pop right out of his chest. He couldn’t breathe well, and he felt as if he were smothering. His hands were clammy; his forehead was drenched with sweat. All the while, it became colder and colder in the room. He wanted to bolt out of the room, but he couldn’t move, not an inch.
The computer’s screen suddenly lit up again. A hazy image was forming, then became clearer. It was an image of a young man in a Confederate soldier’s uniform. He was missing his left leg.
“Come in! Come in! My God, I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you. You’ve been such a stranger lately. It’s been such a long, long time.”
“I know, Dad. Too long,” said George, giving his father an affectionate bear hug.
“Funny. Here I was, just thinking about you, and I get a call from you the other night, asking if it be okay to come on down here. As if you really needed my permission. Shame Katy and Abi couldn’t come though.”
“Well...Abi’s got school, and Katy’s as busy as ever with work.”
“Sit yourself down. Your mom’s upstairs....taking a bit of a nap, but she’s dying to see you too! So...son...I’m gathering you have a reason then for being here.”
“Yes, I do. Do you remember much about Joshua?”
“Like what? Grandpa was the storyteller about him in the family, not me.”
“I know he was, but do you remember anything specific that he might have mentioned about him?”
“Well...I’ve read Joshua’s letters ad nauseum. I think I know every line he wrote by heart.”
“So do I. Those letters always fascinated me.”
“What I really want to know about are the duties Joshua may have had in tending the wounded. There’s not much detail about that in his letters.”
“No....I wouldn’t think there would be.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Don’t forget, Joshua was writing to his kin folk and his wife. I don’t think he would’ve wanted to let on about the true horrors of what he saw during the war.”
“Did your grandpa ever tell you though?”
“Yes, yes he did, that is once I got older.”
“How come he never told me?”
“Son, you were just a young boy. He’d probably felt it would scare the bejesus out of you to know everything.”
“So...what did he tell you?”
“The most common thing Grandpa would mention about were the God-awful screams Joshua heard on a daily basis. He’d hear the screams and moans of the soldiers as they lay wounded on the battlefield, and of the men in the hospitals. But the worse were the wretched, terrified screams of those soldiers, whose limbs were being sawed off. Joshua was often one of the men whose task it was to hold a soldier down, as the surgeon performed the amputation.”
“Jesus! That could explain the screams Abi hears.”
“Abi hears screams? What screams? Son, what are you talking about?”
“Never mind, dad. Was there anything else he’d mention?”
“Grandpa always told about how Joshua forever remembered one particular Private, whose leg had been amputated. His screams were completely unbearable. The kind that penetrated right into your very soul. To make matters worse, as Joshua and another soldier were carrying him back to Sudley Church , which was being used as a hospital back then, the Private started cursing at them all something fierce. Scared the living hell out of Joshua, it did. He remembered that curse to his dying day. The Private, poor soul, died later that night.”
“Oh, my God! Katy was right!”
“Right? Right about what? Will you please tell me what you’re talking about?”
“Later, dad. You wouldn’t happen to know where Dr. Harrison is buried, would you?”
“Dr. Edward R. Harrison. The surgeon for the Virginia 8th.”
“Oh, him. Why, yes, I do, as a matter of fact. He’s buried out in Warrenton Cemetery . Same as Joshua. A lot of Civil War soldiers were buried there. He died in...oh...let me see...yes, 1897, a few years before Joshua. Mentioned an odd thing ,he did .”
“What odd thing?” asked George.
“”Grandpa told me that there were quite a number of other veterans of
the Virginia 8th besides Joshua who attended Dr. Harrison’s funeral.
Some had missing arms and legs. As they were lowering the casket
into the ground, a few of the men went over and spat on his grave.
Son...why all this sudden interest in Joshua? Would you mind telling
me now what this is all about?”
The idea of all those decaying bodes in the ground filled George with a terrified, panicked fear, perhaps no doubt, as he realized, that one day his own body would also be buried and decaying. He hated cemeteries, yet, here he was, in the middle of one, crouched down on the ground, in front of one particular headstone.
No one was around. He was quite alone. If he were caught performing his mission, he’d be taken in for desecration. Yet, he wasn’t trying to dig something out of the ground, but put something in.
Using only a small gardening trowel, it was taking George a considerable amount of time to dig a large enough hole. Finally, he felt it was jus the right depth. George placed the battered, wooden surgeon’s kit into the ground; quickly piled the freshly dug earth over it, then stood up to stamp the loose dirt with his feet to pack it down tight.
He stood there breathing heavily. He was winded from his efforts. He sighed as he looked down at the headstone in front of him. It belonged to Dr. Edward R. Harrison.
“Rest in Peace.
All of you”