I originally published this story on the blog some years back but then decided to expand it, remove it from the blog, and send it out for consideration. After some well-earned rejections, I’ve decided to just put it back up on the blog (in its expanded form) but with the original picture. I have also changed the title from “Tecumseh” to “Ghosts of Savannah”. I think the letter format may not be what publications are looking for (or, more likely, I didn’t execute to those standards), but I like the voice and the questionable origin of Sherman’s visitation: war guilt or something more sinister?
December 24, 1864
My Dearest Ellen,
It is with the warmest devotion that I write to you from once-proud Savannah. I am alive and well. This morning, I have posted a letter to President Lincoln, offering him this fine (but now burning) city as an early Christmas gift. He and Grant, especially Grant, have stood by me all these months of hard war, from Shiloh to Bull Run to Atlanta. I can only hope the destruction my army has wrought all through Georgia will be adequate recompense for their many kindnesses, my prior difficulties notwithstanding.
Savannah lies prostrate before me. However, a soldier’s pride in victory cannot completely eclipse my growing sense of revulsion at the human toll of this war. I confess, with no shame, that I am tired of fighting – it’s glory ephemeral as moonlight. Even the most brilliant victory rests atop dead and mangled bodies, and each evening I must read the heartfelt lamentations of those distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers who will never return to them in any recognizable fashion, if at all. It is only those happy souls who have never heard a shot, never heard the screams and groans of the wounded, dying in pools of blood, that cry ever louder for more death, more vengeance, more desolation.
The acrid smoke wafting through the city mixes with the odor of the salt marshes to the east, where we have stacked the rebel dead, soldier and civilian alike. This evening, even as I write these lines to you, the humid east wind whispers through the gauze curtains of this room, the carrion stench nearly too much to take, even for me who has seen (and caused, God help me) so much human calamity.
Despite this tropical heat, my spirit is cold and damp, like West Point in November. I can only hope the imminent Christmas and New Year celebrations will see an abatement of the horror that threatens to engulf me once again, and cast me back into that pit of despair from which I felt I had finally, and permanently, extricated myself.
Upon entering the city this morning, victorious, but somehow detached from those around me, I dutifully saw to the security of our positions and then rode out to inspect the “dead fields”, as the men call them, out in the marshes. And it was there I saw steaming piles of men, women, and even children, the old and the young, putrefying in the heat, facing the sun with vacant, milky-eyed stares.
At one point in my inspection, a young woman, half of her torso blown away, came scrabbling, one-armed, through the mud and blood, dragging behind her the viscera that spilled out of a gaping hole in her side, and shrieking, “Amanda? Amanda!” Her daughter? Sister, perhaps? A mere phantom of her delirium? I could not say. But in spontaneous revulsion, I drew my saber and slew her. I tell myself it was only to put her from her misery, but I know deep in my bones that it was to silence those pitiful calls to Amanda, whom, I knew, would never in this life respond.
I made my way to quarters, a commandeered house of concrete block located at the end of a long, twisting lane at the eastern extremity of the city. It sits under a stand of enormous willows and so remains in shifting shadows, even at midday. The grand house is the color of salmon flesh and adorned with intricately detailed, glossy-black ironwork. My aide, Lieutenant Driscoll, escorted me through the foyer into the main parlor which was adorned with the most exquisite tapestries. Mahogany moldings, as dark as chocolate, melted down into blood red tiles, which were highly polished. A grand piano stood silent as the grave before a magnificent floor-to-ceiling window. A rattan ottoman with a richly embroidered cushion bore a small fiddle with the bow askew, as if thrown there in haste or without care.
“And what of the inhabitants?” I asked Driscoll.
He appeared somewhat discomfited and shot a glance at a black door on the eastern wall. “A woman and three children were found hiding in the basement and, I’m sorry to say, General-sir, they were cut down by several of the first men to enter. Their bodies remain down there, sir. Wrapped in sheets. I will have them removed to the marshes immediately.”
“That can wait, Lieutenant,” I said.. In my exhausted state I wanted nothing more than to lie down. “Have my trunk brought up to my room and leave me. I ascended the stairs with one last backward glance at the basement door.
Dear Ellen, after so many years of this damn war, one would think I would have a heart stony enough to remain unperturbed in the face of civilian casualties. However, the memory of those mounds of the dead and dying out in the marshes (“Amanda?”) threatens to unhinge me, to release that madness I believed I had so well put behind me.
The sun now is spilling a deep scarlet across the western horizon, as if the very sky bleeds above Savannah. I must rest.
I write to you now, Ellen, after three hours of tortured sleep. A sleep in which the faces of the dead rose before me out of a misty swamp. In truth, my exhaustion has only increased.
The heat and humidity have driven me from this bed. Whose bed, I wonder? Hers, perhaps, lying in a bloodied heap in the basement? Surrounded by her dead children? Did those same children, so silent and still in the dark beneath me, in happier days come bounding into this very room to surprise their Mama and Papa? The lithographs on the bedside table tell the story.
I can hear voices, not in my head like before, but outside, in the trees, whispering in the Spanish moss. No doubt skipping over the willows and cattails, up out of the dead fields. And what, I ask, do the dead have to say to one another? Or to me? My despair grows, and this letter to you seems my only tether to the rest of humanity. Love and fellowship have abandoned this place. The scents of sweetgrass and honeysuckle that should permeate this room are pushed aside and replaced by the stench of the swamp.
Perhaps I am simply overwrought, after this recent campaign. The willow trees outside my window are silhouetted by a gigantic, orange moon which hangs fat and low in the sky, too tired to lift itself very much past the horizon.
In my hand I hold a lithograph of a happy family. Those bright, black eyes stare out at me and all I can think of is you, dearest one, and the happiness and warmth that have attended our lives, our children safe and growing. Strange, how the death of innocents never captured my imagination before, my mind filled only with thoughts of duty and country. Victory. Yet, in just the last several months, how many deaths have I brought to the world? Is there any measure of atonement that can pay for the dead I own?
Now the voices seem to be in the parlor below. And is that music I hear? Some unearthly strain I cannot identify. I am trying to employ the reasoning Dr. Turgeon recommended, that I must realize these sounds I hear have no place in the real world. They are spectral phenomena, merely the products of an overactive mind. Yet, despite my attempts to ignore them, I feel compelled to investigate.
Dearest, I have charged back to this room from the basement where I was led, and I will try my best to find the words to relate to you what I experienced in that hellish place. I can only hope that time will inevitably dissipate my memory of this house and its…inhabitants.
I left this bedroom, as I last wrote, to investigate the sounds —voices and strange music —that emanated from the lower level of the house. With no breeze to kill the tiny flame of my single taper, I made my way slowly down the grand staircase. The voices and music had stopped at some point during my preparations. All was silent down in the darkened parlor. I was clearly alone in the house. Nothing moved. Tentatively, I stepped to the kitchen where a stone cistern promised cool water to drink, but it was empty.
I reentered the parlor, with no thought but to return to my room before my taper could sputter and die. A night bird screeched in the rear garden. I passed the ottoman I had seen earlier, the tiny violin still lying atop it. I even stopped to pluck a note or two. It was still in tune, recently played, no doubt.
A soft thump behind me made me start. I turned and found myself staring at the door leading to the basement. It was painted with a glossy, black enamel. My taper’s small flame reflected brightly off the paint and for a moment I was terrified by my own distorted reflection.
Realizing my error, a small nervous laugh escaped me and I found myself inexplicably fearful of alerting someone, — or some thing— to my presence. I looked back at the black door and I was suddenly possessed of a mad notion to open it and descend those stairs. To what end, I asked myself? I only can say that a burgeoning desire for forgiveness and peace suffused my spirit. I resolved to seek atonement by bearing witness to my dead hosts down there in the dark.
Madness, some would call it. But, as you know, I am well acquainted with that particular affliction.
I opened the door, sniffed tentatively, and was relieved to find that no odor of putrefaction swept up out of the blackness. Just an earthy, muddy smell.
My taper cast but a meager globe of light not more than two feet in diameter. And in my imagination, horrifying images of what lay beyond in the dark assailed me. But, as I said, I was compelled to seek that forgiveness for which I had undertaken this descent.
I stepped slowly, as quietly as I could. I realized the burning in my chest was a result of having held my breath all the way down. I let cool air rush into my lungs as I inched forward into the gloom. An irregular, pink mound—blood-soaked sheets they were— materialized on the floor, about two feet in front of me.
I stopped, unable to draw another breath. I heard a trickling in the darkness. Of course, I reminded myself, the house sat not far from the salt marshes and thus admitted water freely. The earthy smell of the root cellar, mixed with the coppery scent of the four dead at my feet, produced in me an overwhelming sense of dread. And a horrifying revulsion grew at the base of my throat.
Fully in the throes of madness now, I waited for the mound to move. For sliced, bloody hands to slide from beneath those sheets to clutch at my boots. To pull me from this world to a dimension where neither death nor peace could ever find me. The night bird’s cry outside the parlor window above seemed impossibly far away.
As my taper burned down and sputtered, sending irregular shadows dancing over the sheets, I was left with the impression—no, the certainty—that the mound was alive with jerking movements. When the taper finally burned out, I resigned myself to never finding those stairs behind me again.
Overcoming my growing desire to flee, I resolved to complete my mission. In the total darkness I got down onto my knees before the butchered family. Blubbering, and with my hands raised in supplication, I managed to say, “Please forgive me!”, the sound of my own voice startling me out of the fugue. I now thought I heard shuffling in the darkness. And hissing. Surely, my overwrought imagination now wildly out of control.
I shot to my feet. Those approaching noises, either real or imagined, were enough to send this old soldier sprinting for the stairs which, when I found them, I ascended two at a time, too terrified to look behind me. For I was certain those poor, angry corpses reached out for me with, not forgiveness, but with bloody vengeance in their black hearts. I reached the top of the stairs and slammed the door shut, my heart thumping wildly in my throat.
I made my way back across the parlor, tripping over the ottoman and spilling the fiddle, which clattered across the red tiles. I sped up the grand staircase and locked myself here in this bedroom, where after several much-needed glasses of bourbon, I have set down this sequence of events for you.
The bourbon has done nothing to quell my fear, and my despair grows unchecked. Madness or murderous spirits, what difference to me? My life feels forfeit. The hot wind carries with it the smell of the dead fields, and I must close the windows and lie down. I will, if God allows, continue this letter when I awake in the morning.
Unable to sleep, I write to you now after only forty minutes of lying in bed, fighting off a growing sense of unreality. I am untethered from the world, floating toward a blackness that whispers a malign invitation.
Despite closing the windows, the stench of corruption continues to worsen. And there is again shuffling and muted conversation down in the parlor. I initially held out some hope that it was Driscoll come to check on me, but the growing odor of rotten meat is enough to convince me who is down there. Up from the basement. Waiting.
Once again, I must leave you to investigate — proof of my insanity.
Now, Ellen, you must know how it ends.
I am writing as quickly as I can. I can only hope that I have time to scribble what I saw below in the parlor, and that somehow this letter shall be found, even if I am not, and delivered into your hands. Perhaps what I set down here will somehow protect my posterity from any suspicions of madness, and that the world will believe that malignant spirits do walk this earth with us, meting out the justice we the living cannot seem to discharge.
I lit a small taper I found on the bedside table and left my room. The music and muffled voices below in the dark stopped as I descended the stairs. The air was so humid, the bannister on the stairs was slick with dew. At the bottom of the stairs, I stopped, tried to see anything beyond the meager circle of light cast by my little candle. I listened, hardly breathing.
The silence was complete. Only the rush of blood thrumming in my head.
And then, the most exquisite strain of music reached out to me through the darkness. It was “My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home” from the Dowland Lute Book. I know it well. Someone was playing an arrangement for solo violin, an arrangement so beautiful, so expressive of the fallen soldier’s sad return to his family, that I was moved to tears. Tears that had been amassing in my eyes all day, nay, all my life.
I closed my eyes to blink back the tears and let the music flow through me. I felt as if I had dissolved into the darkness. And the tears continued to flow. The music led me on forward into the parlor. I was suffused with an overwhelming sense of forgiveness. I cannot describe the joy that held me in its sway at that moment.
When at last I opened my eyes, they were there, the dead ones, enveloped in an opalescent green nimbus, the beaming mother and two young ones looking on while her older son, his right leg resting on the rattan ottoman, coaxed unearthly beauty from his violin.
I could only moan, breathless and remorseful. And that was my undoing, for as I intruded upon the scene, their eyes sought me out and grew cold. The boy with the fiddle was now a demonic apparition I have no words to describe. It cast down the fiddle and hissed. The family, all now similarly transformed, rose as one and advanced upon me. I screamed like a raw recruit in his first pitched battle, and staggered back up the stairs, locked the door—little good that will do!—and came to this desk where I now scratch these last lines to you while they pound on the door.
Despair floods my heart to think of you alone in the victorious North. What future awaits the country remains unknowable. I am sorry I cannot be there to accompany you into that future. My business lies here, in the South.
My sidearm can no longer affect those on the other side of this door, those who wish me such grievous harm. But it will be the instrument of my salvation. My physical death will come at no one’s hands but my own.
Let them call me mad, you will know the truth.
When the sun’s first rays wake Savannah later this day, perhaps my body will be found at this table. But I know my spirit will finally complete this journey, this long march to the sea. A sea of atonement and peace, I can only hope. I pray my spirit will find company with the dead, out in the eastern marshes.
The war is over, the Union preserved. What this nation becomes is of no concern to those of us rotting in the swamps. We will sink into time and be forgotten.
We will become flowers and mud.
Merely a scent that reaches you on the breeze.