THE FINAL ACCOUNT OF PRIVATE ROBERT SHANKS OF THE FIRST NC CAVALRY, SCOFFLAW AND DESERTER
Steve as Isaac Maybank
Lee as Pembroke Eager
Vinnie as Henry Dunham
Charlie as Robert Shanks
I know I shall take this letter to the grave with me. My wife and children, my grandchildren… they must never know what I did, but as I get older, the ghosts of those I knew in the Civil War get louder.
Heaven is not my destination, for I know the things I did in those swamps have marked my soul and that of those around me. I am the best of a bad lot, only the last.
We were all North Carolina born but loyal to the Union, waging war in our own back yard against people we knew growing up, some of us against our own families. I assumed that’s why they stuck us together, to keep all their snakes in one basket. They numbered few, but heading them up was one Corporal Isaac Maybank. My compatriot was a Private Henry Dunham, a man who has exposed me to things I did not believe people able to do. Finally, there was Pembroke Eager, our bugler and a man not so jaded with the vicissitudes of war as the rest of us.
Our journey was supposed to take us to the Rocky Mountain Depot, but we were lacking supplies and on the other side of Confederate-controlled territory. We came across Greenville early on an planned to take it in an organised fashion. I know not what went wrong, but we charged the town as people were going about their morning business. Corporal Maybank ran down a local madam while Dunham’s overwhelming charge was too much for the townsfolk and even some of our own men. It was a slaughter. The bugler tried to get in on the action, burning down the telegraph station so no word of our attack could get out.
The looting was rife from our men, after so many had died and the town could not look after itself. I admit I was part of the looting, having entered the bank and attempted to liberate a jewelled necklace from its owner. She fought back and in the struggle my pistol went off, fatally injuring the woman. I left her to die from the shot, taking the necklace and fleeing before I could rob the bank, leaving it to the other soldiers.
Tarboro was a blur, I had resorted to liquor as a way of quieting the ghost of the woman in the bank. I heard reports of what went on and was recovered from the gutter in time to move on.
Pembroke was on fine form, murdering one of our own, Isaac’s brother who was helping himself to one of the local women, an idea apparently planted in there by the corporal, himself. “Why not enjoy the spoils of war?” were his words which carried through the lesser ranks. Dunham’s family home was in Tarboro, intact when I entered, but when I left it was a ruin. They dragged Dunham out of there, covered in blood and grinning. I dread to think what went on there.
We hit Rocky Mount, the final town before the depot, less chaotic than last time. There were controlled fires which I took part in, burning the libraries and galleries on the edge of town, Isaac revelled in the people who burnt in those fires a little too much. Pembroke, ever the moralist, refused to take part in one of the execution squads. The people of the Rocky Mount Depot were just far enough that we were able to hole up in the town for the night. In the morning I saw the most horrible sight, Private Dunham was pulled out of the body of a horse, which he said was the only way he could sleep at night. I made a note then to never be caught travelling alone with him.
Rocky Mount Depot was a blur of action, timed perfectly. Pembroke fled the moment there was any fight to be had, along with several others, most of whom were put down by Corporal Maybank. Despite his horrendous equine proclivities, Denham made an admirable attempt to stop the train from fleeing the depot, crashing it in the process. And what did I do, you ask? I held the people in the depot hostage, so no one would flee and tell any Rebs. I recognised a kid there, maybe twelve years old at most. He was one of the fastest riders in the county. I took a single shot which landed squarely between his shoulder blades. I’m not proud of what I did, but if it’s any consolation, he probably died quick.
The mission was done, the train was ruined, those who survived had to get back to Union territory, skirting around all the carnage we had caused. Of course, just when we needed it least, a storm threatened to split us up and slow us down. The deserters were struck, too and those who rejoined our number were spared.
Dunham scouted ahead but was little use as he seemed too transfixed with the body of an old slave dangling from a lynching tree, being mourned by a woman who must have been one of her peers. We discussed our need for shelter with her, promising to kill the family at the plantation she worked at, then we would be able to stay there for the night.
The Sims Plantation was an unpleasant place, even with the storm clearing up. We rained death upon them, eventually rounding up the couple who owned the plantation and their two young sons, not even of an age to be with us. The newly-freed slave woman asked them to sing for her, then slit the throat of the plantation owner’s wife. Pembroke shot her hand off in retaliation and I made good of the rest of the family. The remaining freed slaves attacked Pembroke and I admit I let the man take his lumps, preferring to save my own skin while the fighting went on. I returned for the looting, of course. The eager vultures would pick the bones off such a wealthy estate. One private murdered another for some cigars, so Dunham and I intervened. Private Dunham thumbed the man’s eye out and rather than see the man suffer, I ran him through with my bayonet. He coughed up blood and grabbed onto me, unwilling to give up and die. I had to stab him again and again to put the poor fool out of his misery. The noise brought Corporal Maybank to us, but all he did was pocket one of the stolen cigars and leave us on our way.
Once we had rested at the plantation, it was time to move on. We made out way through the woods, narrowly avoiding a fire and a stampede. It appeared to have been set deliberately as we found a camp on the outskirts of the woods, with a little hoodoo doll in a Union uniform lying in a fire.
Dunham saw that and he wasn’t the most sane person to begin with. That little doll didn’t help, from what I heard. Dunham and Pembroke heard noises in the woods, so we fled.
Our camp that night was half-assed to say the least, using a few cabins we’d come across and what remained of our tents. I slept outside, waking only with the screams of Pembroke Eager. I admit I loaded my gun, wondering if that boy would need putting down. It was something so much worse than an attack of ‘morals’ from the boy. Private Dunham was in his tent, kneeling with his back to the opening, his torso exposed and covered in bloody swirls and stab wounds. One of the scouts turned his body round and saw the man dead, his eyes stabbed out, something we believed was self-inflicted. When his body twitched, the poor boy fainted.
We had gone to ground, deep into the swamp, our morning filled with nothing but arguments about whether to go deeper into the swamp or to skirt around the sides and keep our horses. Eager’s terrible directions were blamed for our predicament, not least by me.
The argument was stopped by a horse stumbling into the camp, half-rotted out, dragging its innards down the path with it. We put the poor creature out of its misery, but were out of sorts after such a hideous creature. Some of the younger soldiers and some of the released slaves who had joined us spoke up on how such things weren’t possible, how they were hoodoo. I didn’t care, I silenced Eager fast enough by flinging his bugle into the swamp and getting them in line for the longer walk on land.
The horse wasn’t the only being of dead flesh we saw that day and maybe, just maybe they were real. Eager and Maybank started yelling about Maybank’s brother being on a horse up ahead of our party. He was long dead, so it could have only been a looter. Whoever was on that horse, Eager charged up and pulled him from his horse. Maybank stopped him from stabbing the man and before we could enter debate as calm and civilised as we did in our last camp, gunshots rang out. Folk were in the swamp, armed and in a mix of Union and Rebel clothing. They ordered us to stand down, but I knew they weren’t going to let us go. I stabbed the nearest one with my bayonet, a child, but he didn’t look like any child I’d seen before. All was gunfire and madness, right up until we realised we’d lost sight of every enemy. They were gone as quick as they came, back into the swamp, as far as I could figure. Even the man Eager thought was Maybank’s brother had vanished.
The rest of the day passed without event after that point, but it didn’t matter, we were spending most of our time eyeing up the swamp, preparing for more ambushers. When night fell however, we found a Confederate checkpoint. Scouts said it was well-armed, so Maybank sent the freed slaves down to surprise the camp from one side while we ran in at the other. The attack started badly and got worse from there, Maybank took a bullet and was thrown from his horse. Eager saved him but fled the fight, something I admit I did after hearing the whirl of gatling. I didn’t know which side had it, but I wasn’t going to be torn apart by bullets like the others.
We were separated from our allies, the people we’d freed, and our foes. We made our way through the swamp until we saw the lights of a church. It was small, ramshackle and evidently the only shelter a small group of people had. Their supplies were nearby in an unguarded pile, gathered in crates. They would provide us good shelter, but for a couple who were occupying themselves with pursuits frowned on in a house of the Lord. They were distracted enough for Eager and I to take them down. I knocked the woman down while Eager pistol-whipped the man, killing him. The woman was going to scream, so we had to see fit to get rid of her, too. Before we could be found having killed these two church-going folk, we fled into the darkness, making a large tree our shelter for the night. It was only in the morning that we noticed Maybank dead from the gunshot he took at the checkpoint.
Eager was my only companion, a ‘moralist’ of the worst kind. We sneaked past a Confederate group leading Miss Toole, the victim of the late Corporal Maybanks and his brother. Eager was ahead of me, scouting the way, but I swear I could see him behind me signalling like he was going to lynch me. Voices like those of Maybank and Dunham told me to take my turn with Miss Toole, that all these people were nothing but the worth they could serve me. I fled into the ruins of Greenville, catching up with Eager, away from those phantoms.
We had laid waste to the village with a level of ambition few see in a band of men. Most buildings were burnt and razed and the few left standing were barren. Confederate soldiers wandered the town, looking for any sign of life, so Eager and I made our way from building to building, trying to keep cover.
Of course the worst thing would happen. We were stopped by children, begging us for help, not aware how we were wearing the uniform of their late families’ enemies. Eager was twitchy, like he was hearing something. He shouted, summoning a man. Before we could see the colours he wore, Eager shot him, then me. My left on fire from the wound, Eager fled into the woods. I followed, hoping to get even with Eager.
We were stopped by a man with a shotgun, he looked familiar… oddly like Eager.
The bugler cleared up the matter pretty quick, the man was his father and the farm up the road, Daughteridge, belonged to their family. The old man took us inside and asked why he shouldn’t sell us out to the Rebs. I was done with patience, so I jumped him, took his shotgun and gave him a considerable gut-shot. We fled before anyone could investigate the noise.
The final stretch felt like an eternity, we had no direction, no horses and delirium from days of dehydration and desperation. We heard music and thought the last moments of our sanity had passed without us noticing. We were wrong though, it was a strange collection of performers with horses and covered waggons. The ringleader was a midget in the smartest outfit I’d seen since we first sacked Greenville, no higher than those children we’d abandoned. One woman was there, a prostitute if ever I saw one, guarded by a dog who was foaming at the mouth, ready to slip free and take the last pieces of flesh from us.
We negotiated with them for a horse. Eager led with the fact that I had previously murdered a child and was not to be reckoned with. We had money… some of it at least. I couldn’t give up the necklace I’d taken from the woman in the First Bank of Greenville. That was for my beloved, after all. The deal wasn’t going well, only to have the first piece of good fortune smile upon us. Colonel Davis’ wife stepped out of one of the wagons with one of the whores. She felt motivated enough to provide us horses, but Eager shot the hound, swearing blind it was going to attack us. Everything went to hell one last time.
The horses fled the gunshots and we chased them as best as we could with our wounds. They were too fast though and my wounded leg was slowing me down. Eager came back to me, saying that we didn’t need horses to get to camp, he would help me hobble my way home. Eager the moralist, the man who had publicly announced many times how I murdered a child, how I’d done so many terrible things in my short time with him. I couldn’t let my reputation be ruined by him, not this close to home. Not this close to my wife.
I shot him with the gun I’d murdered his father with. A shot to his stomach, leaving him a twitching mass in the swamp. I kicked him into the water, then stumbled to New Bern, surprising those who thought we’d all been massacred at Rocky Mount.
Their ghosts haunted me ever since, every single day whether it was the end of the war, seeing my son or granddaughter’s birth. They were always there, the witnesses to my sins, waiting for me to join them. I speak of Dunham, Maybanks and Eager now to exorcise their spirits before taking their names and deeds from this world and to hell, where I shall surely see all of them again.