The following story is found in The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts by J. Allen Randolph, published in London in 1959:
The American Civil War killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, far more than any other war fought in America, indeed, more than any other war fought by Americans. If a violent death is a prerequisite for a haunting, then the American Civil War must have produced a plethora of ghosts or at least as many ghost stories.
One such story comes to us from a correspondent in the American state of Tennessee. Civil War ghosts are as numerous as the stars, but this particular tale struck me as intensely intriguing, resonating as it does with a mythic past almost forgotten on these shores.
In April 1862 the Battle of Shiloh was fought for two days in southwestern Tennessee. On the first day, the rebel army of the Confederates almost overran the federal Union line, but on the second, reinforcements turned the tide.
Our correspondent – my friend – is an avid historian, albeit an amateur one, and his interest drew him many times to the site of the battle. On one such occasion, he was exploring an unusually dense thicket with a tragic past.
It seems that on that bloody first day, as the Union lines retreated, small bands of brave men gathered here and there and held their positions so that their fellow soldiers could regroup and repel the quickly advancing rebel army.
One such stand was made in the lonely thicket by remnants of the 9th and 12th Illinois regiments. These men steadfastly refused to retreat and their rifles never stopped firing. It was their courage and the courage of others like them that saved the Union army that day.
Unfortunately, history does not record a happy ending for these particular soldiers. As the Union line solidified behind the thicket, a plan was hatched by an officer to use the thicket’s advantageous position to surprise and repel the oncoming enemy soldiers. Once the Confederates passed the thicket, the Union soldiers were ordered to attack them from the rear.
It seems, however, that no one thought to tell the Union artillery of the plan. The thicket was quickly mistaken for an enemy holdout and the heavy Union guns rained hell upon it.
Of the three dozen soldiers in the thicket, only one lived long enough to tell the tale of the lonely last stand in the thicket and how the soldiers there died waiting for the order to advance and rejoin their line. Only pieces of these soldiers were found.
Seventy years later, our intrepid correspondent enters the scene. The Shiloh battlefield is well-known in America, but the story of the last stand in the thicket is not. My friend, however, was well aware of it, being a connoisseur of history’s mysteries, and was determined to uncover its exact whereabouts.
Surveying the battlefield, our correspondent quickly perceived four candidates and began his explorations.
What was he looking for? I am not an historian and I do not pretend to share their particular variety of perspicacity. Whatever my friend was looking for that would provide evidence of a battle some seventy years old – whether bullets or bones – he did not find it in his examinations of the first three thickets.
The fourth thicket stood alone. Apart from spindly trees and thorny bushes, it seemed to shelter only deep shadows and a bitter chill that rebutted the balmy May afternoon. Our correspondent, however, with his preternatural sense of the historical, had a feeling he was in the right place.
The sunlight seemed to disappear in the cool air of the overgrown thicket. My friend walked slowly among the trees, carefully examining the wild undergrowth for hidden signs from long ago.
As the shadows lengthened, one could not say whether the sun had set yet or not, but my friend did not care, for as he leaned his back against a sturdy trunk, he looked down and at his feet, he saw a cracked, yellowing skull staring up at him.
Our correspondent was certain that he was in the right place and carefully examined the remains without picking them up. He left the skull where it lay and ventured further into the trees.
As my friend walked through the thick grove, he looked down and saw bones and skulls, scraps of long-decayed cloth, bits of rusted rifles and twisted canteens among the roots and undergrowth.
He stopped to contemplate the significance of his grisly find and thought he could almost smell the smoldering flesh and hear the bugles and terrible cries of the dying men. Then he saw something move.
Behind the trees shadows moved, crowding the few open spaces. They were men – or shadows of men – that surged toward our correspondent, and as they did, he could see the outline of the Union caps and the long barrels of the rifles carried by federal soldiers.
They swarmed among the trees but stopped and lingered a few meters away. My friend could still only make out their dark shapes and the countless sets of dim silver light that he took for eyes.
The shadows stood quietly, seemingly contemplating the living intruder in their place of rest. My friend could only stand his ground, struck as he was with both fear and wonder at the strange assemblage before him.
A gust of icy wind whipped through the trees and one of the shadows seemed to lean forward. My friend heard the voice as if it came from far away, from long ago, but he knew it was the shadow before him that whispered, “Is it time? Is it time yet?”
My friend staggered under the weight of the sudden burden that had been thrust upon him. “No,” he answered. “Not yet.” He immediately regretted his response, but he appreciated the immediate effect as the shadows retreated and quickly dissolved in the darkness.
My friend’s heart was pierced with terror and sorrow at the poor wretches who lingered in the world long after it had abandoned them. Had he given the right answer? Had he released the spirits from their bondage, what would they have done? My friend believes that only more tragedy would follow.
There exist numerous stories of sleeping warriors in the British Isles. In Ireland, the hills are said to be filled to the brim with them. It seems these stories, like many others, have crossed the Atlantic. The last warriors of Shiloh remain, waiting, as King Arthur and his knights slumber in Avalon, to fight again when their country calls upon them once more.
Read more stories of true encounters with the paranormal in Scary True Stories Vol. 1 and Scary True Stories Vol. 2!