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During times of strife and war, there are always tales of horrible, nightmarish things lurking just out of sight and driving good men mad. Perhaps it is the unfathomable cruelty of war that makes humans project these fantasies as a way of shutting out the terrible things men do to one another. Still, it is strange to consider how prevalent and enduring these stories can be, spreading through army lines like wildfire, igniting the imagination and multiplying fear upon fear.
One such story is said to have taken place during the American Civil War. Private James Masterson was attached to General Sherman’s division during the infamous “March to the Sea,” when the ghoulish Sherman cut a bloody, blazing swath across the heart of the South all the way to Atlanta, torching farms and cities with relentless abandon. The Southerners not outright killed by Sherman’s men were left to starve to death without so much as a roof over their heads.
Unlike his commanding officer, Masterson was racked by guilt and doubt - to kill an armed enemy was one thing, but these “partisans” were usually the elderly, women, and children. His commander, an astute man, saw Masterson’s growing unrest and moved him to the fore of the Advancing army, to scout ahead so that he wouldn’t have to see the aftermath of Sherman’s handiwork.
It was on one such scouting mission that Masterson’s unit came under attack. The local militia had lain an ambush and during the confusion, Masterson was shot and became separated from his fellow scouts. Bleeding and delirious, he wandered all night until he collapsed on the front stoop of a lonely manor house.
When Masterson awoke, he found that the manor had been converted into a field hospital by the Confederates and he’d been taken prisoner. The nurses who tended the hospital cleaned and dressed his wound, fed him, and even replaced his blood-soaked uniform with fresh, clean clothes.
Though they took his weapon and forbade him from leaving, the staff were not unkind and even the wounded confederates were never vindictive; they even showed him a measure of respect for wandering so far with such a wound as he’d suffered. At last, it seemed, Private Masterson had found a pocket of sanity amid an inferno of chaos and he resolved to weather the rest of the war in the isolated manor.
But, for some unidentifiable reason, sleep would not come. Paranoia, guilt, or maybe just fear, he tried to reason, but as the predawn hours grew darker, he began to hear strange sounds echoing down the hospital’s long, narrow halls.
The sounds seemed to change gradually; sometimes weeping, sometimes imploring, it was all he could do to shut them from his mind. He lay awake, clenching his eyes shut until he heard his father’s voice. Then, his wife’s. Looking around, the voices didn’t seem loud enough to wake any of the other patients, but to his ears, they beat with a pounding intensity, as if they were intended for him alone.
The whispers became too much and Private Masterson knew he had to find the source of the disturbance. Quietly and with a slight grunt of pain, the young Union scout set off down the moon-lit halls, his gut icy and his sutured wound burning.
He found that the voices terminated at a plain oak door on the second story. There was nothing distinguishing about the door - it seemed identical to those at his right and left sides. Still, there was something off-putting about the terrible humidity the second floor suffered from and the soft, muffled conversations behind the door. Pressing an ear to the painted wood, Masterson listened intently, trying to make some sense from the disconnected mumble.
With trepidation, Masterson turned the ivory knob and pulled the door open. Heat exhaled from the tiny room and the Private blinked at the unpleasant moisture. Moonlight from the windows at his back showed the room to be about six feet deep, as many wide, and perhaps seven feet tall, though the ceiling had a slight dome-like curve in the center. It was painted a vibrant red that had bleached over time into a dull pink. The crimson carpet retained much of its dark hue, though the dampness had produced splotches of white mold near the back of the room. It was as lavishly furnished as one might expect from a manor estate, though why the attendants had not housed a patient in it was not immediately obvious. Of the voices’ source, there was no sign.
Private Masterson was a God-fearing man, but he’d seen too much of war and murder to not have developed a superstitious nature. Rumors of Southern hauntings were regular fare around camp fires and his feeling of nameless dread had only mounted since opening the door. With slow, deliberate steps, Masterson began to back out of the room.
He felt light-headed and the temperature around him seemed to spike. He could not breathe and the moonlight dimmed into an enveloping darkness.
When Private Masterson awoke, he was surrounded by Union officers and doctors. They looked at him with equal parts curiosity and fear. When he asked, dazed, what had happened and where he was, the doctors mutely nodded to the soldiers, who led him out of the tent to view the scorching flames of the mansion-turned-hospital he’d so recently occupied. Masterson hung his head, sadly. Such was Sherman’s thanks.
Masterson was led back to the tent where his commanding officer, slowly and carefully, probed the Private’s recent memories. At the end, he shook his head and tried to explain.
The Army’s march overtook the wounded scout division and they’d quashed the bulk of the locals with all due efficiency. While searching for the remaining Confederates, they’d stumbled upon the Mansion. But when they sent men inside, they found it all but empty. The cots and medical instruments told them what it had been used for, but there was little trace of the nurses or patients until they’d reached the second floor.
There, working with grim, single-minded determination, they’d found Masterson, moving corpses from a wheeled bed and stacking them in a small, red room like so much timber. He’d been unresponsive to direct orders and it wasn’t until he’d unloaded the last body that he even glanced up at the Union soldiers who stared, horrified, at him.
Despite their guns, Masterson, they said, slammed the door to the red room closed and sprang at his fellow Union boys with surprising speed. One man got a lucky shot off and grazed Masterson’s skull, knocking him unconscious.
The Private listened to the tale with an expression of disbelief and terror. He asked, with a dry voice, who’d given the order to burn down the mansion.
His commanding officer bit down on his thick cigar and puffed bilious clouds of smoke, troubled. He locked Masterson with slate-colored eyes and cleared his throat. He had given the order, he explained.
He mopped his brow. When the soldiers, he said, had opened the door to the red room, there was no trace of the bodies that had been stacked in it. Just a hot, moist exhalation.