The Civil War made him a man. The battle of Shiloh made him a hero and gave him a nickname that stuck. The notorious Union prisoner of war camp made him a killer of his own fellow prisoners in "Gladiator" contests in order to survive. But the killings brought haunting nightmares that wouldn't end until he settled an old score with a Union Colonel determined to see Shiloh dead.
APRIL 8, 1865-Camp Douglas Prisoner of War Camp near Chicago, Illinois.
Known as the “Death Camp.”
The bleeding finally stopped. Shiloh winced and sucked a draft of air through clenched teeth. Searing pain knifed through him like a red-hot poker. He rolled his head and lifted it off the bare, slat-board bunk. His face screwed up into a grimace as he stared in horror at the gaping wound on his left forearm. White bone lay exposed through an opening two inches wide that started just below his elbow and angled down to near his wrist.
“That’s a nasty cut,” the old Confederate field doctor said, lowering his balding head to peer over the tiny spectacles that sat on the very tip of a bulbous nose. “I’m gonna have to sew that arm up.”
Shiloh didn’t answer. He resigned himself to what was about to happen and watched the doctor as he withdrew a long curved needle, a spool of black thread, and a half-filled bottle of whiskey from a worn black doctoring bag.
After threading the needle with a shaky hand, the doc doused Shiloh’s cut with the golden liquid before tipping the bottle to his lips and taking a long swallow.
“I got nothing to give you, Son,” Doc Williams told him. “This ain’t gonna be easy but it’s got to be done. I can spare a swig or two from my bottle if you like. It might dull the hurt some.”
“Thanks anyway,” Shiloh said. “Don’t see how it could hurt much worse than it already does. Go on and get it over and done with.”
Shiloh watched the old doctor stare at the wound over his glasses for a long minute
before shaking his head and tightening the tourniquet another twist. Doc poured the open cut full of whiskey. White-hot fire shot up his arm in a paroxysm of pain.
Each stroke of the needle sent a stab of pain racing through him like a lightening bolt, jarring him to the very core of his being. To separate his mind from the hurt, Shiloh tried to think about something else.
He watched the doctor as he worked. The man seemed tired. It was no wonder. He worked night and day trying to keep the three hundred or so Confederate prisoners of war alive.
A thousand Confederate prisoners were interned in the camp before last winter. Three hundred eighty-seven had been buried in shallow graves hacked from the frozen ground during the month of January alone. Without even a blanket, most had simply
frozen to death.
The whole camp knew that the Union commander, Colonel Mattox, regularly stole money that was supposed to be used for food and blankets and medicine for the prisoners; it was an open secret.
The Union called this place Camp Douglas Prisoner of War Camp. The prisoners called it, ‘The Death Camp’.
Shiloh laid his head back on his bunk and stared at the ceiling. He bit back the excruciating pain and swallowed screams that welled up in his throat each time the doctor pierced his skin with the shiny needle. As the old doc worked, he mumbled a steady stream of gibberish that Shiloh couldn’t understand.
“If you’re gonna talk, I wish you’d do it so a man could understand what you’re saying,” Shiloh mumbled through clenched teeth.
“I said, it’s pure-de barbaric. Making two men fight each other like that. Like . . . like some kind of gladiators of something. When this war’s over, you can bet your britches I’m gonna see the colonel’s superiors hear about what went on in this place.”
Shiloh eyed the doctor with an appreciative stare. He had heard it said the doc was
from Arkansas somewhere around Fort Smith. Someone that had known him before the war said the doc gave up a successful practice to join up and fight for what he believed in. The man was barely beyond middle-aged, but looked much older. War did that to a man.
His thinning gray hair brushed straight back failed to hide balding spots. Deep turkey tracks lined bloodshot eyes in a reddish, puffy face. Heavy bags hung loose and flabby under the tiny spectacles and spoke of too many nights with too little sleep.
“You don’t really think he’s gonna let anybody walk out of here alive to tell anything do you?” Shiloh asked.
“You’re lucky this fellow didn’t kill you. Who was he? I never did hear his name.”
“Jackson. His name was Tom Jackson. He was with the second infantry of Kentucky. He was just an overgrown kid trying to get home and desperate enough to try anything. I don’t blame him none. Can’t say I wouldn’t do the same it they promised I could walk out free as a bird if I won.”
“It’s down right barbaric,” the doc said, tying off the last stitch and pouring what was left from the bottle over the wound. “That bayonet could have opened up your belly instead of your arm. How many is it now?”
“Six,” Shiloh replied sadly. “The worse part of it is, even if any of them had killed me, the Colonel wouldn’t have let them walk out of here alive. That big sergeant of his would have shot ‘em in the back before they got a mile down the road.”
“How long you been in here, son?”
“I was captured in the fall of ’63; so let’s see, this is early April. I guess it’s going on a year and a half now. I plumb lost track. Like I say, it don’t make no difference, none of us will get out of here alive anyway.”
“Why’s the colonel so all-fired set on seeing you dead? Never seen a man hate so hard.”
“It all goes back to the battle of Shiloh in April of ‘62. The Colonel had over a thousand Union soldiers under his command. They were dug in at a place called the ‘Hornet’s Nest.’ They had beat back two Confederate charges before General Johnson ordered us to make an all out assault on the Union’s position.
“I had just received a battlefield promotion to Captain of the First Cavalry. There wasn’t much left of the company. It had a little over a hundred regulars and another fifty misfits from other outfits.
“I’ll never know why they picked my company to spearhead the attack because the general himself was killed later that same day. It was a suicide mission from the start. None of us should have survived.
“My horse was shot out from under me before we got halfway up the hill. I managed to jump free and grab a rifle with a bayonet on it from a fallen soldier and led my men in a bayonet charge. I wasn’t trying to be no hero or nothing, I just didn’t know nothing else to do.
“I tell you, Doc, it was something to see, though. We went charging up that hill, as hard as we could run, right into a hail of bullets, screaming at the top of our lungs like a bunch of wild Indians. We must have put the fear of God in them or something. The colonel’s blue-bellies threw down their weapons and lit out. They left their cannons and everything. They just lit a shuck.
“I heard later the colonel was court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy. It was only after I was captured and sent here, that I discovered he had been demoted and put in charge of this prisoner of war camp.”
“So he blames you for his court-marshal and demotion,” the doc said, leaning back in the straight-backed chair and shaking his head.
“I reckon so.”
“So that’s why he has that sergeant of his, the one they call the ‘Bear’, set up these ‘Battle of the Bayonets.’ He wants to see you die by the same weapon you used to defeat him. Is that when you picked up the nickname Shiloh?”
“Yeah, my real name is Nathan Whittington. I reckon for some folks that’s just too much to get out all in one breath, so everybody just took to calling me Shiloh.”
“Well,” the doc said, picking up his black bag and standing, “that’s about all I can do for that arm right now. You best keep it still for awhile so you don’t tear it open again. I’ll look at it again in a day or two. It ain’t gonna be much use to you for quite a spell. I’ll see if I can scrounge up something to use for a sling. The less you move it around the quicker it’s gonna heal.”
“Thanks Doc, I’m obliged to you,” Shiloh called out as he limped out the door on his gimpy leg.
Shiloh lay on his bunk, drew a long, shaky breath and stared at the ceiling, lost in his own swirling thoughts. When would all the killing stop? He had already seen enough in his twenty years to last him a lifetime.
After awhile he heard the supper bell ring. He’d skip supper, he decided. He couldn’t bring himself to use what little energy he had left to walk the hundred yards or so to the mess hall. Besides, the slop they called food wasn’t worth the effort.
He rolled to his side and felt his leg touch metal. Reaching his right hand, his fingers closed on the cold steel of a bayonet. It was Tom Jackson’s bayonet-the man he had just killed.
Shiloh lifted it before his eyes, and slowly turned it. He stared at it for a long few minutes. Its edges were honed to razor sharpness. The point had been ground down until it was needle sharp.
The last rays of a setting sun filtered through the open door and skipped off the shiny metal, shooting streaks of light bouncing off the walls of the prisoners’ barracks.
Traces of Shiloh’s own blood still clung to the evil weapon. Another man had died. A good man. A man with dreams and hopes and plans for a future and maybe a ma and pa waiting back home for their son to return from war. Shiloh’s heart hurt. A tear seeped from the corner of his pale green eyes and slowly traced a wet trail down his cheeks.
The sound of footsteps jerked his mind back to the present. He quickly sat upright and hurriedly slid a small wooden box from underneath his bunk. Lifting the lid, he added the bayonet to the five others inside.
“How come you weren’t at supper?” Lester Posey asked as he tromped through
the door. “Some of us was worried sick about you.”
Lester was a long and lanky, sandy haired boy from Tennessee, just a few
mountains over from Shiloh’s own home. His ruddy complexion and peach-fuzz
whiskers gave him a boyish look though he was a year older than Shiloh. Lester had lost his left arm at the second battle of Bull Run, had been captured, and ended up in this hell-hole. He was one of only a few fellow prisoners Shiloh could count as a friend. Most were afraid to have anything to do with him. They were afraid of incurring the wrath of the sergeant or of being selected as Shiloh’s next opponent.
“Didn’t figure it’d be worth the walk,” Shiloh told his friend.
“It weren’t,” Lester said, flashing a grin that took up most of his face. “Boy, you shore whipped that old boy good today. Wish I could fight like that. I thought he had you a time or two, especially when he laid your arm open. You was bleeding like a stuck hog. How is it? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. The doc sewed it up. But I’d rather not talk about it if it’s all the same to you.”
“Good enough for him if you ask me. Good-bye and good riddance to bad rubbish. A man that would go against . . .”
“Lester,” Shiloh interrupted harshly.
“Okay-okay, dag nab it. He just shouldn’t of done it and he got what he had coming to him and that’s all I’m gonna say about it.”
The footsteps of several men approaching the barracks halted their conversation. Shiloh swung a glance at the door, expecting to see some of his fellow prisoners returning from supper; it wasn’t.
The massive hulk of the sergeant of the guard filled the doorway, blocking out the last remnants of a dimming twilight from outside. He was a thick-set giant of a man. Only slightly shorter than Shiloh’s own six foot-four inches but the sergeant would tip the scales at well over three hundred pounds.
His huge head seemed to cling deep-seated on his massive shoulders with no neck in between. Ham-like arms stretched the sleeves of the Union jacket that carried dirty sergeant stripes. Dark, beady eyes peered menacingly from under a heavily bearded face and fixed directly on Shiloh.
The big man shuffled into the barracks and headed toward Shiloh’s bunk. As always, he was accompanied by a squad of heavily armed guards. When he spoke it sounded like an angry bullfrog croaking on a quiet summer night.
“You all healed up, Reb?” he asked, a cruel laugh spewing from his throat.
Shiloh didn’t bother answering. Lester backed up against the plank wall, trying hard to make himself invisible.
“Stand up when I’m talking to you!” the man roared.
Shiloh rolled his head sideways and sliced his gaze to lock eyes with the giant. For a long minute they glared at each other, competing in a silent combat of wills, neither seemingly willing to be the first to look away.
Slowly, with no small difficulty, Shiloh swung his legs to the floor and pulled himself to his full height before slouching defiantly before the sergeant.
“I got some news for you,” the big man growled. “You got another fight tomorrow. Thought you’d want to know since it’ll be your last one. This one ain’t gonna be no pushover like the others. He come in yesterday with the last bunch of prisoners. His name is Boone Le Feve. He’s a Cajun from New Orleans. Supposed to be some kind of expert at knife fighting I hear tell.”
“Shiloh’s in no shape to fight again this quick,” Lester spoke up, his voice quivering with fear. “Can’t you see his arm is cut half off?”
“Looks fit to me,” the sergeant bellowed, accompanied by an evil laugh. Turning on his heels he wobbled out the door, calling over his shoulder, “You sleep good now, Reb.”
Morning came slow. Shiloh hadn’t slept a wink all night; he didn’t most nights. When he did it was restless sleep--his mind haunted by the familiar nightmare that returned again and again. It was always the same. A long line of those who had died by his hand materialized slowly from the fog of his memory. In the thickest part of the night they returned, as he knew they would; as they did each night, to march in single file through his mind, to stare through sightless, condemning eyes.
Once they had been good men, and now they were dead. Once they had laughed, and cried, and loved, and been loved. Now they only marched silently through his memory. . .and stared at him.
Lying on his hard bunk in the inky darkness, he had re-lived his whole life all over again. It’s funny what a man thinks about when he’s convinced he’s about to die. He thought of all the things in his life he wished he’d done and hadn’t; or wished he’d done different.
He should have told his ma and pa he loved them instead of just figuring they
already knew. Why hadn’t he taken longer to say goodbye? If he could only see them again, he would hug his ma like he knew she liked for him to. He would shake his pa’s hand and feel the strength of that work-hardened hand clasping his own. Why did I take all those things for granted?
He thought about Elizabeth Johnson; the only girl he had ever liked. He remembered her long blonde hair with the curls on the ends that bounced and lifted in the breeze when she ran. In his mind he could almost see those sky-blue eyes that seemed to sparkle all the time.
He would never forget the way she had smiled at him at the box supper at the
church in Sweetwater, Tennessee. She had laughed happily when he paid the last fifty cents he had for the apple pie she had brought. They had shared it together under the big old weeping willow tree down by the creek. Those times they met under the willow tree were some of the happiest memories of his life. They had made the spot their own special place. Those were good times-happy times.
He well remembered the day he left to join the cavalry; he had ridden by the Johnson place to tell Elizabeth good-bye. He had never seen her look more beautiful. She had stretched high on her tiptoes to kiss him. The memory of the softness of her body when she brushed against him still tantalized him. He would never forget how she had yielded when he took her in his arms and surrounded her with a warm embrace. The picture in his mind of her tears as he mounted and rode away still hurt his heart.
She was the only girl he had ever kissed. Her lips tasted sweet, like a ripe strawberry. He had always kinda figured on marrying her someday. But all that was gone now; all gone.
A Cajun, the sergeant had said. What was his name? Boone? Yes, Boone LeFeve. Shiloh knew he would be no match for a professional knife fighter even if his arm were well, much less now. The others he had fought had known no more about knife fighting than he did. He had been lucky. But an experienced knife fighter? Shiloh knew he didn’t have a prayer.
He listened to the other prisoners as they snored. Lester was the loudest of all. His bunk was right next to Shiloh’s. He liked Lester. He was his best friend. Shiloh had hoped after the war they could be neighbors or something. Lester got on his nerves sometimes, but he was an okay guy.
The night was long and slow to die. Shiloh turned his head to stare through the door at the first blush of dawn. A new day was being born. Most likely my last. Well, if a man’s got to die, guess one day’s as good as another. Something gets born. Something dies. That’s the way of it I guess. Well, he’d do what he had done with everything else in his life, he decided. He’d do his best. That was all a man could do.
The other prisoners avoided looking at him as they rousted out and tromped past his bunk on their way to breakfast. Again, he saw no point in making the effort. He never had learned to stomach watery grits and tasteless, weevil-infested corn-bread anyway, especially for breakfast.
“I’ll try to slip you out a piece of pone if I can,” Lester said, staring at him with a sad puppy-dog look, like he was saying a last good-bye or something.
“Don’t bother,” Shiloh told him. “I’m not much hungry anyway.”
Doc Williams limped in on his stiff leg just as Lester was leaving. The doc carried his little black bag in one hand and a large white rag in the other.
“How’s that arm this morning?”
“It hurt all night.”
“I don’t wonder, that’s a bad cut. Let me take a look at it.”
The doc pulled a straight-backed chair over close to Shiloh’s bunk and lifted the wounded arm. For a long minute he stared at it. Without a word he snapped open his bag and took out a tin of foul smelling salve. He smeared the stuff over the wound and wrapped the arm tightly with a strip he tore off the big cloth.
“I heard about the fight today,” the doc said sadly. “Wish there was something I could do. You ain’t in no shape to fight.”
“I’m obliged for what you’ve done, Doc.”
“Here, let me tie this cloth around your neck for a sling. At least it’ll keep that arm still so it won’t start bleeding again.”
The old doctor adjusted the large cloth and placed Shiloh’s arm inside, then paused for a long moment and stared sadly before reaching a hand to pat Shiloh on the shoulder. A tiny silver tear escaped the old man’s eye and inched its way along a deep wrinkle. He turned without a word and limped out the door.
Lester burst in and hurried to Shiloh’s bunk. A big grin creased his boyish face as he pulled a square of cornbread from his coat pocket and proudly handed it to his friend.
“Here, I stole this for you slicker than a whistle. You need to eat it to keep up your strength. Everybody’s talking about the fight. They’re saying it’s at ten o’clock this morning. I saw that Cajun fellow. He looks more like an Indian than a white man. He’s bragging how he’s gonna make short work of you. I told him that’s what the other six thought too but now all they’re doing is feeding the worms. He didn’t like that too much. Hey, where’d you get the sling?”
“The doc came by and fixed it for me. Thanks for the pone.”
“GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY!” Lester shouted and spun on his heels, hurrying for the
door. “Seeing that sling give me an idea that might save your bacon. I’ll be right back”