Today I have another North American, specifically, Southern United States, ghost story for you. My childhood is filled with these tales of yore, from a mischievous older brother who delighted in my childlike terror. Here is another such tale for you, and while it is a Folktale, a similar tale has been published under the same title by the author S.E. Schlosser in the book Spooky South. The original Folktale can also be googled and read online. I hope you enjoy my version of The Army of the Dead.
Once, not so long ago in the history of the United States of America there was a great Civil War. It was a gruesome, long, inglorious war that pitted brother against brother and brought about by the trade of human flesh, money, and rebellion. What is often overlooked by middle school textbooks is how hard the war was. It was a hungry, cold, damning war.
If you didn’t die from a gunshot, or from cannon fire and bayonet wounds your body festered with ripe wounds and your very flesh putrefied into a green deadly mess. If that did not kill you, the hacksaws (doctors of the day) amputated the decaying flesh and often you died because of blood loss or dirty operating implements. They really did just hacksaw and on their way again.
If you lived and managed to avoid all this, you had to go long winters without proper provisioning: not enough food, shoes, socks, tents, wearable uniforms. Soldiers starved, froze, and suffered in such unimaginable ways.
Many did not come home from this. Those that did came back to a weakened country, not because of which side won, but because what was left of each side.
A time after this war, not long enough for the sight of missing limbs to be shocking but long enough for them to be healed over lived a young woman named Maddie.
Maddie was a simple girl, she grew up not far from the center of South Carolina. Her parents had done the best they could to raise her well but she always got into the most avoidable situations.
Once she was caught switching the sheet music in church because she believed it would be funny to hear some of the hymns with alternate endings. Another time her mother warned her to not go playing in the pond and she came home covered in great black leeches.
She had sense but sometimes her mother wasn’t quite sure she knew how to use it.
After the war, her father did not come home and it fell to Maddie to go get a job to help support her mother and siblings. Being the eldest, it was hoped she would work for a time for the eldest boy, who was now 8, to grow and be old enough to work for a more honest wage. Children simply did not make as much as the adults, and then that was seen as a pity.
Maddie was plain terrible at just about anything domestic, she couldn’t cook without loosing interest and burning the meal, or she would fret she would burn the meal and it would come out under cooked. She cleaned like she did most things, taking shortcuts that often got her in trouble. No one pays for dirt swept under a rug.
No, there was one thing she was particularly good at and that was washing. That girl could pound a stain out of a frock like you’d never seen before. She wielded a washboard like an avenging knight, defeating dirt and wine stains like they were common foes. Moreover, she enjoyed the work. Besides being able to gossip to her heart’s content, she could sing.
When Maddie sang, everyone would stop and listen. She made even the hardest hearts soften when she sang. No one minded as long as it wasn’t all day and even then, she didn’t sing for praise, she sang for the joy of it. That alone made everyone glad to have her wash by them at the stream or at the house.
Knowing her daughter’s strength, laundry, it was no wonder she suggested Maddie apply as a laundress in Charleston. With Maddie’s mischief and curiosity saved for gossip and her hands kept at the washing, she would earn a pretty penny or two for the family.
In no time at all, the girl was hired and she moved into a boarding house on a dead-end street. There she rented a room with another girl who washed and the first couple of days and nights were a whirl of moving in, learning her employer’s demands and getting to know her new place at the laundry. Every night she came home to the boarding house, are supper and fell asleep instantly when her head touched the pillow.
However, on the sixth night in Charleston Maddie had finally had enough sleep and she heard it. The clock struck the last chime of twelve and outside of her window she heard the sounds of many hoof beats striking the ground. Wagons could be heard rolling past squeaky and in need of oil. A faint almost whispery sound could almost be heard, as if she could almost hear people below her talking and horses neighing. The sound continued on for quite a while and then slowly faded away.
Maddie was rightly petrified, and stayed in bed the entire time the noises were heard. Once she felt rave enough, she flew from her bed to the window. The dirt road below shine in the moonlight, barely disturbed due to the nature of being a dead-end street with not much else but the boarding house and a few other small homes. Nothing was out-of-place and a gentle breeze rolled right on past out towards the field in the distance.
Deciding it surely was a dream, she went back to sleep.
The next day passed with 5 bags of laundry washed by her alone and plenty of gossiping and singing. Maddie once again went home, ate and went to bed. The strange sounds from the night before we’re far from her mind. Yet at midnight, when the last bell sounded, she heard the sounds of hundreds of horses, men, and wagons pass by her window. Again, she stayed in bed and listened to the sounds in fear.
The next day she remembered vividly what she had heard and asked her roommate about the sounds she had heard. Her roommate denied ever hearing such a thing. However, I mentioned Maddie was curious and a bit mischievous.
After a receiving several unsatisfying evasions, Maddie began to plot a way to make sure two people were awake that night at midnight.
After returning home, eating, and readying for bed, Maddie waited for her roommate to fall asleep. Once she did, Maddie got up and opened their window out into the street. Once she checked for any activity she found suspicious, she went to her bed and around eleven began to act ill. She moaned and she rolled and she slowly but surely woke up her roommate. Concerned, her roommate rushed to the water pitcher to dampen a cloth when the clock struck twelve.
She stilled at the basin and heard the first strains of a faint fife, far off drums and horses, so many horses that when the windows was shut you could not shut them out, but now, now the window was open! Such things could be heard properly with the window open! Maddie watched as her roommate turned her head towards the open window and bolted to the nearest bed, Maddie’s bed and dove under the covers quaking in fear.
Both women lay in Maddie’s bed listening to the sound both previously had not heard in their fullness and Maddie’s roommate began to fiercely whisper:
“I don’t know how I forgot to close that window tonight, but you mustn’t ever go near it at midnight Maddie. My momma warned me when I moved here that there were stories of this. Like a siren in old stories the mist curls around you and the sounds, so strange, so odd call you, but you mustn’t look Maddie! You mustn’t!”
“By why, why? They are making so much noise it is doubtful they will hear me or even see me. What is in the street on those horses? What is that music?” Maddie asked curiously, her curiosity overpowering her fear in that small moment.
“It is the Army of the Dead. They are Confederate soldiers who have died without knowing the battle is over and the war is lost. Every night they march North to Virginia to reinforce General Lee and bolster the southern forces.” Her roommate said in hushed tones.
Finally the sound stopped, and a far off bugle sound could be heard in the distance. Waiting a bit longer, Maddie’s roommate slipped from Maddie’s bed and went back to her own, not even once looking at the window.
“Don’t go looking for trouble Maddie, don’t ever try to watch them. Even once, could be too much.” And with that warning, her roommate turned over and went to sleep. It wasn’t but a mere hour before dawn.
The morning was a very still, both Maddie and her roommate dressed silently and ate breakfast without much animation. As the day wore on though, old habits are hard to shake and both girls gossiped and sang to pass the time and soon it was time to go home and eat dinner. Both girls got ready for bed and Maddie managed to sleep through the night, every night for many weeks.
But the Army of the Dead persisted in her thoughts, to the point it is possible she romanticized not only what the ghosts went through but the tragic way that they had to march for eternity, to save a war long since lost.
She began to lay awake most nights and listen to the muffled steps of the horses, the sounds of the tragic young men and goodly fathers marching towards eternity. Finally, one night she crept out of bed at 11:55 and open the window and watched, only the left side of her face, throat, and left arm resting on the windowsill, were visible in the moonlight, the rest of her shrouded in blankets and hidden by the curtains.
A thick gray fog rolled in and one by one specters of the Confederate army appeared. With them they brought their wagons, their horses, their cannons, and the army musicians came into view never wavering as they played out a haunting song that Maddie couldn’t identify. The specters marched together, fatigue, sadness, and finality etched over their transparent forms, death could not erase the things they had seen or done. They marched down the road for what seemed like forever, until the last solider went onwards towards the field and to Virginia, to a battle none of them knew was over, that would never be over for them.
Maddie tried to rouse herself from the fog of what she had seen and witnessed, stepping back from the curtains, her left arm fell heavily off the sill and to her side. she gasped but a strange strained sound came from her lips. Walking uneasily she went to the small mirror they shared to get ready in the morning and was shocked to see that the left side of her face, the area that the moonlight touched was weak and sagging, as limp as her left arm. She turned to her roommate’s bed and softly, for that’s all her voice seemed to allow, called out to her. Her roommate woke, and once she saw Maddie gasped.
“Oh Maddie! You watched them didn’t you?” She walked to Maddie and drew her back to her bed, rocking her friend as tears rolled down her face.
Maddie never recovered from that night. Her left arm, and the left side of her face were forever paralyzed. Her voice was also effected, and she never sang as lovely as she had before she saw the Army of the Dead.
Some say the army no longer walks because it has been too long. Others say the development of Charleston has confused the specters so much that even if they had risen from their graves they would have run into a car or turned down the wrong street and never made it out before dawn.
But some say at night, if you open your window and listen, you can hear a lone fife playing in perfect time to a regimental drum.