For All Hallows Eve
My dearest Elise,
The man to whom I have entrusted the delivery of this letter, Sgt. Perkins, is a decent fellow who has saved my bacon more than once. I rely on you to reward him fairly for his services.
What follows will provoke you to disbelief. I share it only out of the fear that such events might happen again, perhaps in even more terrible fashion. Someone must know.
I beg you to recall our childhood days, and our abiding trust for one another. Please, dear sister, trust me now.
The rebs berthed ironclad gunboats at Norfolk, and it was feared that they would thwart our capture of that port by floating the Dismal Swamp canal. Gen. Reno was sent to blow the locks.
Come 17 April, our boys of the 21st Massachusetts, along with the 51st Pennsylvania, embarked from Roanoke Island, later to land just south of Elizabeth City the evening of the 18th. Following the advice of a friendly mulatto, we set out with two wagons of charges, headed north to South Mills. The mulatto was shot for taking us down the wrong road, adding ten miles to our hike in the heat and dark.
After marching all night, we were near played out by noon of the 19th, when our scouts reported seeing reb pickets hightailing it into the forest towards the north end of Sawyers Lane. Expecting some action, we formed ranks, and at a command, began our advance toward the trees.
We were scarcely 200 paces from the wood when a cloud of smoke silently billowed forth all along the tree line, shot through with streaks of red flame. Odd, I thought, rebs got too much saltpeter in their powder.
Then the air was filled with mad hornets, and the sounds of tearing flesh and breaking bones surrounded me. Some of our brave boys dropped without a sound, while others cried out most piteously for their mothers and sweethearts.
After that volley, we reformed ranks to continue our advance, seeing no clear targets to occupy our own fire. The Minie ball that holed my kepi was nigh spent, but it plough’d a deep furrow above my ear. I felt no pain, but my strength deserted me, and I sunk to the ground. The sounds of battle receded, and I slept.
As I awoke, the roar of musketry and the pounding of cannon had ceased. A chorus of moans ebbed and flowed, as the wounded and dying lay entangled across that awful field. I rolled onto my side, fixing to stand up, but suddenly the whole world tossed like a flapjack. I retched and collapsed again onto my back. A squealing noise filled my ear. I clung to the ground as to a pitching deck, while the earth and sky tumbled. Darkness again overpowered me.
When next I regained my senses, night had come. Thin clouds dimmed the moon, bathing the field of battle in an uncertain pale light. I managed to raise myself onto hands and knees, whereupon the spinning returned, though not so severe. I paused in the hope it would ebb enough for me to walk, as my thirst was now growing intense.
Catching my breath, I surveyed the field in horror. My comrades lay strewn about in tortured postures, silent now for the most part.
Blinking to clear my sight, I observed movements quite unlike those of an injured man seeking comfort. Indistinct forms moved among the bodies, sometimes on two legs, sometimes on all fours. Their noiseless movements unsettled me, the quick hops of a toad, yet flowing like a serpent.
I saw shadowy shapes pause by dark mounds I knew to be my fallen brothers. Bending over the bodies, they hunched forward to bob slightly, as a cork on water. I figured they were looting valuables, robbing the dead.
Then came awful sounds, cracking and slobbering noises, grunts. Nearby one straightened again onto his haunches, holding something to his face, and working at it in some fashion. Just then, the moon emerged to illuminate the scene.
It was naked, hairless, the color of a catfish’s belly. Its bald head had no ears, only small holes in their place. Bulbous lips like those of a fish rimmed its bloody mouth, enclosing a double crescent of sharp, jagged teeth. In its hands it held — dear God! — a human leg and foot, at which it gnawed.
It spied me with its great empty eyes. Hoping to escape its attentions, I sank back to the dirt. Then, as I felt an icy touch on my hand, darkness came again.
It was dawn when I finally awoke, my thirst now extreme. As I struggled to stand, I stared at the ragged stump of my left forearm, ending just below the elbow. I could not comprehend the sight. All that day I stumbled in search of water, senseless, until a mounted patrol found me.
Reno, damn him, had abandoned the field, and us with it.
The tattered flesh of my forearm soon mortified. Though the surgeons have twice applied their saws, the remnant again grows green and foul.
I fear I shall not see you again, my darling, not in this world. Think of me as I was in our youth, not as I am now.
With all my love,
Your devoted brother Jack
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.