Tourists at the Battle of Shiloh historic site stumble across a terrifying cave in this Civil War ghost story from Bill Morris.
“Nearly 24,000 men were wounded, killed or captured that day. Nearly 11,000 on our side – brave Johnny Rebs.” The speaker was dressed in the full battle gear of a Confederate soldier – a bedroll draped over one shoulder and a rifle on the other. “The scene depicted before you is a typical prisoner stockade set into the mouth of a cave for protection from the weather and surprise attacks. ‘Em two guards are cooking soup over an open fire.”
As if on cue, thunder rolled across the open fields nearby and lightning flashed from the rolling clouds. The wind picked up, swirling leaves and debris in little tornadoes throughout the display. “We’d better move on down to the Confederate fort and ride out this storm. Don’t look like it will last too long. Y’all can buy some snacks and souvenirs before we cross to the main battlefield for the reenactment. I also recommend you pick up a bottle of creek water. It’s going to get hot after this storm passes.”
Billy Bob watched the rest of the tour group rush ahead to get out of the rain while he stepped behind a tree to relieve himself. A clap of thunder was followed by a lightning bolt that struck the tree sending splinters flying, electrifying the air. Billy Bob felt the current flow through the ground underneath his feet, felt his hair stand on end, and felt more than a little nauseous. With his pants around his ankles, he stumbled face-first into a mud puddle. He raised his head, spit leaves from his mouth and blew mud from his nostrils. He took a deep breath filled with the smell of scorched hickory and gun powder.
“Raise your hands and state your rank and unit.” The voice was directly behind Billy Bob, with a smooth southern twang but strictly business. He raised one arm, the other arm pulling his pants from his ankles to his waist. He turned slowly, coming face-to-face with the two statues from the diorama, both very much alive, both with tobacco-stained grins, both keeping their distance.
“He ain’t wearing no uniform, Jeb; you think he’s a spy?” The soldier holding a gun on Billy Bob looked over to the other man, just a kid really, holding a second gun pointed at him.
“We’ll have to let the captain know we caught ‘im,” said Jeb. “General Beauregard left orders that all spies are to be interrogated.” He made a sign with an arm over his head pulling a noose around his neck. “Don’t take your gun off him, Caleb, ’em spies can be tricky.”
“I’m not a spy,” said Billy Bob. “I’m just a tourist here for the tour.” He looked around for someone from his tour group. Anyone not dressed in battle gear would have been great.
“Same thing that last spy said,” chuckled Caleb. “You guys must have trained at the same school. Just keep your hands raised and walk back to that stockade over yonder.” He pointed off to the left with his rifle towards a modified pig pen with six-foot-high sides.
The walls were no more that saplings driven into the mud to form three walls across the mouth of a shallow cave – a gate was held in place by a cross-bar. For the first time, Billy Bob noticed two sets of fingers sticking through the pen’s front wall and wrapped around the stakes. Caleb pushed him towards the crude pen. Jeb opened the gate and pushed him on through. He stumbled over saplings scattered on the ground and landed on his hands and knees, then rolled onto his butt. Turning back towards the front wall, he saw the owner of the fingers he had seen earlier. He was a young guy in shorts and a T-shirt, about the same age as Billy Bob. His fellow prisoner’s knees, fingers and cheeks were covered with mud. His eyes were saucer-sized and crazed!
“Who are you?” the emaciated figure asked. “What year is it?”
“I’m Billy Bob and it’s 2017. For God’s sake, how long have you been in here?”
“Took the tour in 1976,” he said. “Been here ever since.”
“That’s over 40 years. You don’t even look thirty. That can’t be.”
“Say it ain’t so, Joe. I know it doesn’t make sense, but time stops. Something to do with the energy in the thunder and lightning. Look, here!” He walked to the back of the enclosure just inside the cave and pointed to several groups of etchings on the wall. “See my name, Tom, and the marks underneath. I’ve kept a record.”
Billy Bob cautiously stepped closer to the wall, leaned to within six inches, and counted the scratches on the stone surface – fifteen to his count.
“Each time lasts only a few days, it’s like you go to sleep and wake up, go to sleep and wake up, over and over again,” said Tom.
There were other names on the wall, too, all with marks underneath. Billy Bob counted at least ten names.
“Who are these people? Where are they, Tom?” asked Billy Bob.
“Come and gone,” said Tom. “Don’t ask.”
“You mean they escaped, but how?”
“No, just gone,” murmured Tom. His chin was on his chest, the point of his right shoe drew circles in the dirt. He was about to say more, when a scream echoed throughout the cave. It came from someone outside.
The loud voices outside the pen demanded their attention. It was a major altercation and they could hear the sounds of pushing, shoving, and grunting. They both moved to the front wall of the wooden fence, placing their eyes, then their ears near open slots.
There were more soldiers and another tourist with hands tied behind his back. He, too, was being accused of being a spy and was not taking it calmly. The prisoner continued to kick, scream, and thrash about. He was a big man. The soldiers had a difficult time keeping him under control until one of them struck the prisoner in the back of the head with his rifle butt. The man went down in a heap.
“Take this prisoner out to the oak tree in the pasture,” said a man in an officer’s uniform. “It’s about time we show these traitors we’re serious.”
It took three soldiers to carry the big man out of the area. One on each arm and one with a handful of hair were able to drag him up the hill and out of sight. The area was quiet, no talking, no wind in the trees, a deathly silence. In less than fifteen minutes, Billy Bob and Tom heard a volley of rifle fire followed by a single shot.
“What was that?” said Billy Bob. “It can’t be . . .”
“Yes,” whispered Tom. “It was a firing squad followed by a kill shot, just in case. They execute spies on a regular basis. These guys are at war. These guys are serious.”
“You need to get out of those clothes,” said Tom. “There are uniforms back there from former prisoners that don’t need them anymore. You’d be much better off as a Yankee prisoner than a spy. I’ve been here so long, they wouldn’t believe me if I changed no’how.”
Billy Bob went into the cave searching through piles of old clothing and found a uniform he could wear. It was a tight fit, but passed as something that might belong to him. He kept his Nike tennis shoes. There were limited choices in boots in the pile and he wanted to be able to run when the time came. There were stacks of bones, cameras, and walking sticks – not a good sign.
“We have to get out of here,” said Billy Bob. “I don’t want to spend eternity in this pigpen.”
“I’m with you, Billy Bob. So far I’ve been able to feed them information I remember from my history class, but sooner or later they’ll figure out it’s mostly revisionist lies and put me against a tree with the other spies.” Tom’s eyes grew wide, his upper lip peeled back revealing a few missing teeth – no doubt a loss from prior interrogations.
“Good,” said Billy Bob. “We’ll wait until the guards begin to doze. Then, with the next big roll of thunder and lightning, we’ll climb the fence and run like hell. I’ll take my chances with a musket ball in the back before I’ll stay here for 40 years. There’s a good chance they haven’t kept their powder dry all this time. Don’t run straight. Zigzag, those muskets aren’t much good past thirty yards if you keep moving . . . even less in the dark.”
The storm was growing in intensity, wind coming out of the west. As soon as the thunder and lightning reached their camp, the two prisoners were ready to make a run for it. They crouched near the fence. For weapons, Tom sharpened points on sticks rubbing them on nearby rocks. They waited for the thunder and lightning that would set them free.
As the skies cleared, the next tour group entered the area following their Confederate guide. The life-sized diorama depicted a Rebel encampment where prisoners were held during the war. Two soldiers stood in the center cooking a meal over a camp fire.
“Nearly 24,000 men were wounded, killed or captured during the battle of Shiloh. Nearly 11,000 on our side – brave Johnny Rebs.” The speaker was dressed in the full battle gear of a Confederate soldier – a bedroll draped over one shoulder and a rifle on the other. “The scene you see before you is a typical Rebel civil war prisoner stockade set into the mouth of a cave for protection from the weather and surprise attacks. ‘Em two guards are cooking soup over an open fire.”
“Look, Daddy,” said the cute little blond eight-year-old in the front row. ”That soldier in the back, carrying firewood . . . the one missing two front teeth . . . he’s wearing running shoes just like mine!”
SEE ALSO: The real Battle of Shiloh