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The Hell Soldiers

4,660 words

federal-siege-guns-yorktown-virginia-during-the-american-civil-war-mathew-bradyThe bend in the river was leafy and green with old trees that hung their thick branches out and over. The shadows were almost black at some parts on the banks, spreading gradually to grey green, then dappling away into nothing by the middle of the water. The sunlight sparkled gold and white on the dark waters. The bank was a deep one, consisting of sand and mud and rock, working up to a granite wall topped with an earthy ledge where the trees began their crowded presence.

It was a good place to hide. It was a good place to find yourself hidden. If any place was anymore.

The battle had been raging for three days just a few miles down river. The stink of sulphur and gunpowder reached the small bank and hung in its tree-walled air. The smell of death hung there too. And other smells, that you didn’t notice at first, but came to you as you got used to the overarching stench of burning weaponry and rotting meat—smells of blood, of charred flesh, of fear—they came too.

Came and settled in the bend.

Still, though, smells aren’t the same as the things that make the smells. A man can live with stink, with stench, with ripe odors that tug the gut until his ability to ignore them is made so strong that the stink can’t reach down so far inside anymore. Just like a door getting closed. A window shut.

Daniel Stampley knew if he waited long enough, he would cease to smell the slow and filthy decay of his brothers in arms. Stampley also hoped if he stayed where he was, in this hidden bend on this backwater river, deep in these wooded hills that no man so far had bothered to turn into farmland or chop down for wood, he could wait out everything.

The Ninth Virginia Infantry, his unit, was all gone, or as good as gone, by now. That last battle was the end of them. There hadn’t been that many to start with anyway. Not in this battle. Not by now.

Most of them were picked off back when they crossed with Union snipers a month ago, towards the end of winter. Hemmed in by Yankee sharpshooters, flanked by Yankee artillery. For two weeks while snow came down and rain washed blood into the narrow creeks that surrounded the area, the Virginia farm boys fell, one by one or in messy bloody knots of frightened men, to the snapping report of rifles or to the gut thundering roar and thud of cannon fire.

No matter what they were doing – getting water, using the outhouse, burying another farm boy soldier – they did it under the black knowledge that death could fall any second, any minute, from anywhere. Sometimes one of them would be outside, ordered to stand guard or hunt whatever small prey still lived in the closest lot of blasted trees. And he would just disappear. Nothing left of him. Hunted down and gone. Silently. Completely.

There was no fighting back. The enemy was invisible, all knowing, all seeing, and unkillable. At least they seemed like that.

Then they went away. The men that were left in the Ninth woke up one morning to a pale sunshine, and asparagus shoots pushing up from the ground.

And no death.

No death by the well when water was being drawn out by a man who waited for it with gut wrung and shoulders hunched. No death by the woodpile for the men who lifted each piece waiting for the sharp crackle and final burst of lung. No death by the outhouse. No death by the close edge of trees where squirrels chattered and looked down from thickly scarred branches while ragged men too thin for their uniforms took unsteady aim with slingshot and pistol at the small animals that stood between them and starvation.

No cannon balls came. No bullets came. Nothing came to take the men away to death. Spring flowers showed their pink and yellow faces to the sun. Weeds and grasses waved bright green leaves in breezes that hinted of warm days and the sun reached higher into the sky, lightening the dark forest, changing it more each day from a black expanse to a brown copse.

The Yankees had disappeared, leaving all that was left of the Ninth behind. Not many of the surviving men stopped to think of why. Why they’d do such a thing? Especially now, now that the air and the earth was warm and it would be comfortable and easy to sit in the forest and in the fields beyond the forest and kill each and every man camped here. It would be a pleasant task, a barrel shoot, an easy victory. But the enemy didn’t take it. They simply went away.

And so the Ninth pressed on.

Westward, across and down to the places where the farms no longer stood. Down to the places where the woods were shattered, and the creeks were filmed with slimey muck, choked and clogged with swollen wounded bodies in heavy winter uniforms, hair swaying in the small ripples that pushed through past the dead ruptured flesh and rusting weapons. Down to where the banks were clawed and churned by hands long since drowned and fallen back into the vile stink of the creek, and the shadows fell jagged and stark and there was nowhere to look that had not been turned into a staging area of death, of battle, of war.

Before this war these places would have been different. The smell of their world would have been of earth freshly turned for planting, of colts and calves newly born that cropped sweet grasses with their mothers in fields sunny and warm, dotted with wild flower and alive with the assorted sounds of bees and crickets and small birds. The creeks would have been sparkling fresh, with a small urgent rushing sound to them as the spring thaw brought new waters down, from the snow-melt in the hills, to fill them gently to the tops of their low banks.

There would have been the noise of peace time, men yelling “Hey!” to plow beasts, laundry flapping, cart wheels creaking and perhaps even children and women coming out to make their mark on their world. Laughter. Gentle voices. Contented animals.

But this was not before the war anymore. These places were only for the dead now. Cold. Still. No sounds except the sounds of the men who passed through these places, their marching no longer regular, their steps no longer proud. The slow-paced plod of men who have no wish to go any further, but must. The slow death march of men who know they have survived too much but have not survived enough at all. A column of men not yet battle dead, but close.

Hungry. Tired. There was no food to be found here. There was no place to rest upon here. They must just get through it. They must get through, past this barren and blasted spot, to a place not yet barren, not yet blasted. They must march; they were ordered to continue until they came to a big river.

The river – least wise the section they would come upon – was wide and deep and hemmed in on both banks by woods and un-pathed wildness. It was a part of the river that had no bridge built upon it yet. And that must not have a bridge built upon it. The Yankees would love to cross the river there, to ford it, and then to bridge it, so that they could roll their cannons across, march their troops over.

Fresh troops. New men coming everyday from ships that brought strong men from Ireland, from Europe, from far away across the ocean, to the northern ports. Where they became Union Soldiers before they touched the streets of the new country they swore to defend. Men who were not yet tired out from all this war.

So they must not have a bridge that they could cross.

When the Ninth arrived at the big river, it was afternoon. The sun was still high, the air carried no chill, the ground no damp. The river that they could see was not a river of death. There were no battle signs. There were no upturned carts. No horses, gut torn and kicking. No scattered bloodied traces of men and boys. The Ninth had seen many – too many – soldiers blown to nothing more than parts that weren’t good enough to be called meat.

If Stampley closed his eyes, he could see things he didn’t want to see. Unbidden, the images presented themselves to him within the darkness of his shut lids. A hank of bloody blond hair hanging from the side of a flesh peeled and shattered head. A bloodless white hand with the thumb torn off, ending in a grizzled red knot of wrist joint. A leg, still bleeding in its grey woolen uniform, dangling from a shattered tree trunk, carried up into the tall pines by a cannon ball and left where it had been caught.

And other things.

Things no living man should see.

An old churchyard, riddled with cannon balls. The old stones blown apart and the gutted ground forced to shake loose what it had long held in a deep embrace. Unearthed coffins and desiccated corpses splayed on the rutted surface of the little grounds where horses and men had thundered over and across, splintering and pulverizing whatever fell between them and the earth. The Ninth coming upon this cemetery two days after the melee and seeing wounded men, dying men and newly slain men left mixing with the cloying dust of the long ago dead.

All that bodily remained of a red haired union soldier lying in a small hollow on the edge of a field that the Ninth plodded through, his skull caved in, his flesh chewed and torn from the bones by whatever animal had dragged him in there.

A pile of gnawed human shanks lying in a nest of last autumn’s leaves and the rotten shards of homespun grey linen.

Teeth marks on the ends of arms and legs of the dead who lay bloated and blue and rotting damply in the creeks.

Stampley shook his head, trying to clear the visions from his mind. For the time being at least. But the image of the bear bites wouldn’t budge. They stayed stuck in his head, vivid and bright. And wrong. But how wrong? They were bear marks. They had to be bear marks; the pattern was like no panther bite Stampley ever saw.

Stampley shook his head again and this time drove the image out as he thought about bears and where they would hide when a battle raged and razed the woods and blasted caves and underhangs. Perhaps in the new holes made by the blasts.

It made little difference, in the end. Bear or not bear. Dead men were dead men. And Stampley had had his fill of them.

The section of the river where the bridge had not been built had not stayed serene for long. The Yankees arrived, more Yankees than the Ninth ever thought were possible. They arrived in long lines of blue that stretched out past the trees, across the dusty fields and down past the curves of the far off hills. Who knew how many were back there, behind those far off hills?

The Yankee soldiers arrived without cessation for the whole day. They assembled themselves across the river and set up stout tents and hot fires. Soup pots and spits strung with rabbit, squirrel and other game soon sputtered in front of the tents.

The tired and worn Ninth watched fitfully, from where they were camped without fire, without food, hidden in the thick brush that grew beneath the trees. Some were driven half crazy by the smells of the Yankee cook fires, the aromas of real coffee mingling with vapors of roast meat, breeze-borne across that river and right into the cold foodless encampment of the ragged Confederates. If it was an encampment at all. More like just a place where men no longer marched, but dropped down on their blanket rolls, and stayed. Unseen but not unseeing.

A lean man with dark unkempt hair that clung damply to his pale brow was the first man to die on that side of the river. He died, quietly and without dramatics, his throat slit, by their captain.

Stampley knew the dead man, Harlon McBride, from before the war; he was a good man, had a wife, three young ones, but still, Stampley knew it had to be done. McBride had begun licking his lips and quivering his nostrils early on, and by midday he had a small cluster of fellows ready to swim against the odds and the current and grab whatever it was over there the Yankees were cooking.

Stampley would have let him go, let them all go, let them go get their asses shot off halfway across the river, except he wasn’t the captain and except that their asses weren’t the only ones going to get shot. The Yankees had no inkling the Ninth were there, and Stampley sensed the captain aimed to keep it that way so long as he could. No one said the words, but the idea of maybe them Yankees would just move on in the morning, maybe they weren’t here to build no bridge hung like a fitful hope in the air around them.

Maybe the Ninth would wake up to nothing more than birdsong and damp fog on the other side. After all, this had happened before, them Yankees just up and going away, so the idea of “maybe” had to be worth something. Worth more than a skinny assed dirt farmer with no more sense in him than a panther in season anyways.

So Stampley had no bones with what had to be done. And as McBride dropped dead, quietly bleeding, and was as quietly dumped into the edges of the underbrush, the rest of the men who reckoned they’d make some of that Yankee food their own, melted back into the hungry shadows.

“Wait,” was all that the captain said to them.

Wait. And they waited. While the daylight bled away into grey chilly damp mists. While the mists slowly became black night. While the cold of the river ran across the tree line and settled down to cloak the Ninth.

The smells of those Yankee cook fires were a constant torment. And the noises. The assorted noises: horses nickering, men smoking, men talking, men playing – while the Ninth leaned fitfully on muscle-sprung haunches and were made aware of all they did not have. Would probably never have again, seeing as most of them would die here, fighting (if not well fed, at least somewhat fed) Yankee soldiers. And so they spent that night, their first night there – for many, their last night anywhere – by that river with no bridge.

When the morning light came beaming down weakly from in between the high branches, it grimly showed the dead man still laying there, half-hidden in the edge of the underbrush, the damp soil beneath him sticky damp now with blood. His limbs tilted at angles not made by any man but a dead one.

One big tall fellow walked over toward the body. Weller, the man’s name was. He walked slowly, pulling his belt in, sucking his teeth, saying if he weren’t going to get no food, at least he weren’t going to be made sick at the sight of McBride lying there all day—ain’t no decent man could do that, no matter how the bastard died.

“Better git something to use for a shovel then, Weller, if you thinking of burying him. Collins, Rice – you two, up and help him find himself a shovel,” the captain said distractedly.

The three men shuffled off, toward where the trees ended and the bank began, looking for a suitable branch or root.

“Take care to keep hidden now.”

Stampley watched, too tired and too hungry to care much beyond realizing he wasn’t a decent man anymore because he didn’t care if McBride laid there until hell froze, he wasn’t going to waste any energy to dig a hole for him.

The first tendrils of coffee-scented air were starting to reach the Ninth’s side of the river. Stampley wondered idly if bacon was something the Yankees had with them. Bacon, maybe ham, maybe some johnnycakes. Hot biscuits too, with butter and honey.

His mind wandered back to breakfasts he had had before the war took men like him away from things like breakfasts. He tried to remember if his wife had ever made cornpone or if it was his mother who used to serve it, cut and up and fried in drippings. He thought of how his wife would cook up fried eggs, cooked till they were crispy on their white edges, and how their yolk would stay golden and creamy, until it broke and spread across…

There was yelling. Too much yelling. It cut through Stampley’s famished daydreams and he reached for his rifle.

The men had returned from the tree edge, having found a root with a scoop-like end to it that would shift damp earth easily enough. But the root was lying on the ground, they weren’t digging with it. They were yelling. One of them was shrieking and pointing at McBride.

Stampley could hear the noise carry over the water. The captain reached the man before he did, and punched him in the face. The shrieks stopped abruptly; the man crumpled over and began rocking silently, holding his hands to his face. But the yelling continued with the two others, and the rest of the Ninth were coming over, pulling their tired bodies up out of the bushes where they had set up hastily rigged shelters, and coming over.

Stampley looked down at where they were all staring.

There was the body of McBride alright, at least wise, most of McBride. But where the top of him should have been, there was none. The fingers were gone too – chewed off, it looked like. Bits of hair, skin, blood, meat, bone were all over the bottom of the bushes where McBride’s head and neck and some of his shoulders should have been. There was spoor.

Looked like man spoor.

Had to be panther shit.


A younger soldier began puking, just hawing and heaving. He had nothing in his gut to puke up.

The soldier who had been punched in the face began laughing – a shrill, high laugh. As Stampley stared at him, the man fell over on his side, his laughter coming to an end as he began rambling, talking fast and loud, like a man with a demon inside of him, “Them things got him. Them things got him. I tol’ them they was things in there. They done and got him. They been eating all along. But not this close…now they gonna get us . . . now they gonna get us all . . . yes they will, all of us now . . .” He began to keen and shriek. “All! All!”

A rumble, like thunder clapping on a close-by mountain, and then the swift, roaring, hot thud-thud-thud of cannon balls ripped into the Ninth’s makeshift bivouac.

The men scattered. McBride’s body disintegrated under a direct hit. The shrieking man went with him, forever gone with a split second’s roar and blast.

Stampley threw himself to the ground, rolling out of the way into the shelter of the bigger trees, back beyond the encampment. Cannon balls hit the river bank, the bushes, and the provisional sleeping areas that the Ninth had occupied. The sounds of tearing and crushing, men screaming and dying, began to fill the morning air.

Hidden by a tangle of bush vines and a thick wall of overhanging willow branches, Stampley readied himself to fight. He loaded his rifle. He gritted his teeth. Keeping down low and making no sound, Stampley dug in and waited for whatever it was that was going to come to get at him first – the man-eating panther, or the Yankee army.

It was the armies that came.

The Yankees first. How they got there so fast, Stampley couldn’t rightly tell. There was still no bridge, but there they were. He could see them coming in from beyond the fringe of the trees, dripping wet, bayonets gleaming. The Yankees, masses of them, faces expressionless, had gotten to the encampment.

Already. Right there.

And, coming in from behind the trees, from somewhere on the other side of the encampment, from out of the thick growth there, there came men clad in the same uniform that Stampley wore. More Rebel soldiers than Stampley thought were in those parts, more than Stampley had seen, moving, in a long time.

His first impulse was a glad jubilation at the sight, but something about them quickly made him still, made him feel guarded and watchful at the sight of the Confederate soldiers coming in from the darkness of the forest. They, like the Yankees, were expressionless.

Union and Confederate – they were both there, faces pale and blank, the men moving with strange jerks and twitches. They swallowed up the tiny ragged fragment that was the Ninth as they fell to their fighting. Sudden, fierce, terrible fighting.

It was not fighting like Stampley had ever seen fighting. Leastwise between men.

Cannon and the few frightened shots his fellow Ninth were able to squeeze off were the only things that made Stampley know for sure that this thing he was seeing was not some delirium caused by a damp cold night on a stomach filled with nothing more than jerky and a few huckleberries.

Because this fighting was not soldiering-fighting. Not man-fighting. This fighting was tearing. This fighting was pulling. This fighting was soldier falling upon soldier and biting, clawing, tearing, rending and shrieking. Like dogs but not like any dogs Stampley had known. These were like hell dogs.

He could see that there was red flesh flying, chunks of it being torn and chewed out of each other, but there was no blood coming out of the wounds or the meat. There were hands and ears and innards being torn away from bodies, but it didn’t stop them. They went at each other. Earless or with rib cage torn right open so the guts of them was hanging out, they kept on chawing and clawing at each other.


Like nothing Stampley had ever seen.

Didn’t seem to matter how much of them was hurt, the soldiers clad in blue or gray grasped and grappled their opposites and pulled and bit and chewed upon each other, and they both set upon any of the Ninth they happened upon.

Yankee or Johnny Rebel, Stampley couldn’t see any difference in who would set upon the men of the Ninth and savagely rip them apart. The hell soldiers went for the limbs of his fellow soldiers first, and then they’d split the heads open like they were no more than oyster shells, and with both their hands inside the men they would pull the brains right out and start chawing on them.

The dual metallic tangs – fear and blood – released by the dying Ninth seemed to Stampley to drive the other hell soldiers into pitched frenzies. They tore and dove at each other to get at pieces of the freshly killed men. The brains of them, especially. Grey or blue, whole or hacked away, it didn’t matter; the hell men pushed each other away to get some of the Ninth in their mouths.

Were they just crazy from being starved? If they were, Stampley never saw crazy like that before, so crazy they kept fighting each other with no legs left, snapping and biting in the dust, dribbling blood of the Ninth infantry out of their mouths.

Stampley made no sound. Stampley slowly backed away. Every moment that he backed he wondered what he would be backing into.

This was no cowardice impelling him, this was no act of self-survival perpetrated at the cost of his fellow men. There were no fellows left back in the encampment, least ways none that would get out of there. He saw about half a dozen pulled to pieces right there in the first few minutes. How long could the others last, if they were still alive now at all?

From across the river, the cannon balls kept arriving, heaving their chaos into the fray. The heavy artillery drowned the shrieking with its thunderous roaring, and it sent pieces of charred flesh – blood, flesh, bone and brain – high in the air.

The hell soldiers, some of them, raised their battered faces in the din and, sniffing the air, chased after the large bits of blown men as the cannon explosions ended.

They came close – too close – to Stampley.

He froze.

But the smell of the cooked flesh, the sulphur and the burning camp was stronger than the scent of one man. They didn’t find him. This time.

They would, though, if he stayed. It was only a matter of when. There were so many of them, and they were fighting and fanning out as he watched. Already spreading their territory of gore into the first undergrowth around where the Ninth had spent the night.

Stampley stopped backing up slowly. Stampley got down on all fours and he skittered forward like a rat as fast as he could go. He skittered and he slid and he forced himself across that forest floor, hitting face first into thorny berry vines, stumbling with his bare hands across fetid patches of what was probably other confederate soldiers once, catching his knees and palms on roots and jutting rocks, but he kept going.

He didn’t stop.

He didn’t look back. He didn’t quit until he couldn’t feel the ground shake with cannon balls. Until he couldn’t smell burned human meat and bone and hair anymore. Until the shrieks and screams had faded, then receded into nothing, and didn’t come back. Until he had found a place where the river doubled back on itself and he had to scrabble down its banks by way of a sheer granite rock face it had carved itself into.

Then he stopped.

The bend in the river was leafy and green with old trees that hung their thick branches out and over. The shadows were almost black at some parts on the banks, spreading gradually to grey green, then dappling away into nothing by the middle of the water. The sunlight sparkled gold and white on the dark waters. He’d been there, in the secluded river bend, for three days now. Eating green huckleberries, and raw crawfish he caught as they came to inspect the bits of scabs he dropped in the water from his knees.

Every so often, along with the rank sourness of death, the wind brought the shrieks of the hell soldiers. Sometimes it seemed to him like the shrieks were louder, closer, than they were the time before. Once he thought he could hear the captain’s voice, calling him by name.

Stampley knew that a man’s mind could play tricks in a place like this. But, he knew that if he could stay hidden there, he would be alright. Just so long as they didn’t know he was there.

So long as the wind didn’t change and bring his scent back where they were.

Stampley shivered despite the fact that it was mid afternoon, shivered and wondered how long he had, waiting there . . .


First appeared in History is Dead (Permuted Press); I retain all rights.


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