Valley of Ghosts

By Emily Winters

 Pennsylvania, 1777

Snow covered the frozen ground in a glistening blanket, so white that it seemed almost too pure to be on earth. A cold wind bit at Caroline Wheelock’s cheeks as she walked with her younger sister to the market. She pulled the hood of her light blue cloak closer to her, silently cursing this dreadful winter. As the small clapboard building came into view, Caroline heard a loud thumping sound coming from over the hill.

“Carrie—” Mercy whined, “what is that noise?”

“I don’t know,” Caroline replied, intently listening as the thumping noise morphed into a louder beating as whatever it was came closer…

“Let’s not stop, let’s go get the bag of flour as Mother said,” Mercy insisted, tugging on Caroline’s cloak.

“Hush.”

The sound was clear now, distinct. A snare drum, beating in a marching rhythm.  Bum bum bum. Bum bum bum. Caroline saw a striped flag as they moved up the hill, the shrill sound of a fife ringing in her ears. The Continental Army. The townspeople immediately began to pour out of their log farmhouses, running to meet their beloved army. Caroline grasped Mercy’s small hand and began to walk toward the marching troops, feeling giddy with excitement. Her sister tried to pull away from her, attempting to yank her hand away.

“Come on, Mercy! The army is passing though Valley Forge! Can you imagine?”

“Mother told us—”

“We shall get the bag of flour on the way home,” Caroline replied, determined to catch a glimpse of her army. How fortunate we are!

Caroline and Mercy joined the crowd that was gathered on the sides of the snow-covered road, watching as the Patriot Army came ever-closer. Caroline could hardly contain her excitement—she felt like whooping and cheering like the men in the crowd. She clapped instead, deciding that it was the proper and ladylike response that Mother would be proud of. Just as suddenly as the cheering began, it came to an abrupt halt. Everyone in the crowd stared as the soldiers began to pass by, right in front of them.  When she saw, she immediately wished she hadn’t. They wore no coats. Threadbare shirts and breeches. No hats. Many of them without shoes. Caroline felt her stomach turn as she saw the bleeding feet of one man, his footprints staining the pure white snow in bright crimson. This was not how she’d pictured them. Her grand army was a pitiful one. Behind the soldiers came officers riding astride half-starved horses whose ribs protruded from their sides. The officers themselves rode with their heads bowed, hunched over and huddling inside their thin blue uniform coats. Caroline felt sick to her stomach. This cannot be real.

“Carrie, please let’s go,” Mercy whispered, her eyes wide in fear. Caroline looked down at her, taking her little sister’s hand and silently leading her away from the crowd, away from the misery.

“Mother, the soldiers have no shoes and were marching half-naked—”

“Caroline Wheelock! Why did you allow Mercy to witness such a terrible scene? I instructed you to fetch me a bag of flour and come home straight away,” Mrs. Wheelock fumed, her hands firmly crossed over her chest, eyebrows raised. Caroline crossed her own arms in determination.

“I purchased the flour after we departed from the crowd,” she replied, handing her the bag wrapped in brown paper.   Mrs. Wheelock uncrossed her arms and took the heavy bag, sighing wearily as she did so. Her facial expression immediately changed; her mouth creased into a frown, her eyes drooping with fatigue and sorrow.

“Carrie…” she trailed off, and Caroline could tell by the tears gathering in her eyes what she was thinking of. She bit her lower lip, feeling the deep pain inside her heart. Father. Caroline watched as her mother left the room, her green striped skirt swishing against the wooden planks of the floor.

The soldiers of the Continental Army began construction on their winter quarters soon, determining that the small farm town of Valley Forge would be the place where they would wait for spring. Troops began to chop down trees for cabins and firewood, the noise being heard day and night. Many times, Caroline could hear the chants of “We want meat! We want meat!” coming from their camp, the ghostly sound sending chills through her. Tears welled into her blue eyes each time the pleas filled the night, imagining the starved and half-frozen men in her mind’s eye. Their ribs protruding, limbs frozen…

Snow crunched under the pressure of Caroline’s footsteps as she walked, carrying a package of ham in her arms. The sun was just beginning to peek over the hills, its faint pink and purple hues starting to light up the sky. She took in a deep breath, feeling the chill of the air tickle her nostrils. Mother had given her permission to do this, and for that she was glad. Otherwise, she would have probably snuck it over herself. As Caroline neared the rows upon rows of small cabins, she began to see men watching her. Some nodded their heads in greeting; others merely stared at the package she carried. Fires were burning, soldiers huddling over them in an effort to keep warm. One man in particular caught Caroline’s eye, and she stopped, staring, her stomach feeling immediately queasy. The poor man was wearing nothing but filthy rags, sitting on the icy ground, one of his legs having turned black from frost bite. Caroline felt her meager breakfast beginning to climb up, and she quickly left the scene, bent upon finding the officer’s quarters. The larger cabin lay at the end of camp, surrounded by tethered horses. She knocked upon the door with determination, hoping that someone would come to it. Creaking, the poorly made wooden door opened, revealing a young man with a bright blue uniform coat and light brown hair tied back with a ribbon. Caroline swept her finest curtsey.

“Sir, I come bearing a gift for the soldiers. My mother sent me with this package of ham, asking that you please receive it. I know it will only feed a few, but…” she trailed off, thinking that perhaps she was rambling. She held out the package, silently praying that he would take it. The young man broke into a grin, lifting the wrapped ham from her arms.

“Your village is full of such kind people. Thank you, miss….”

“Caroline Wheelock.”

“Miss Wheelock. I will see to it that this gets to a few hungry men,” he said, balancing the package. “This is most needed in the hospital cabins.”

Caroline was about to curtsey once more, when the idea came to her like a bolt. Hospital.

“Sir…what must I do to volunteer as a nurse?”

Mother told her she was crazy. She was just impulsive, like always. She was “much too pretty to volunteer in such a place.” But many women of Valley Forge had volunteered to work, some as washerwomen, others as cooks and nurses. The kind officer had placed her under the wing of Mrs. Davis, whose husband was a soldier in the Patriot Army. She’d told Caroline that she had travelled with the army since her husband joined, caring for the sick and wounded as a battlefield nurse.

“John, it’s time for your soup,” Caroline announced pleasantly, sitting down in a wooden stool with a warm bowl in her lap. The small drummer boy, John Waterman, looked over at her, eying the soup with hungry eyes.

“Thank you, Miss Wheelock,” he said weakly, parting his dry lips. Caroline dipped the silver spoon into the bowl, then feeding it to the boy with steady hands. She thought that surely John would get well soon; he had been ill for weeks, but it seemed that he was starting to gain his strength back.

“My pleasure,” Caroline said, dipping her spoon once more into the bowl.

“You know,” John said, “you remind me of my mother. She’s the kindest person—”

Suddenly, Mrs. Davis came from behind Caroline, touching her gently upon the shoulder.

“There is to be a foot amputation. On George Miller. We have no more morphine… you may exit if you’d like,” she whispered into her ear. Caroline looked up, her stomach turning at the very thought. Yet…

“I cannot leave John. He has not finished his soup.”

Mrs. Davis frowned, whispering softly in her ear again, “Keep him calm.”

A few minutes later, dreadful blood-curdling screams filled the hospital cabin. The cries were screeching, haunting, inhuman. Men began to groan in their cots, some screaming in terror along with the poor amputee, wailing and moaning like haunted spirits. Caroline’s stomach began to churn, and she was certain she would vomit.

“Miss Wheelock, oh, Miss Wheelock, please make him stop!” John wailed, covering his ears with his small hands. Tears flowed down his ruddy cheeks in rivers, his body trembling. Caroline reached out and wrapped her arms around him in an effort to comfort the boy, she herself beginning to weep.

“It’s all right, John. Shhh. Just close your eyes,” she said to him, wishing there was something—anything—she could do. The screams of the amputee ceased, probably because he’d fainted from the intolerable pain. Yet the moans and cries of the terrified soldiers continued on.

Strands of Caroline’s dark brown hair hung loosely around her face, having slipped out of the round-eared cap she wore. A few weeks had passed since the amputation, and the poor soldier had died of gangrene. One day he was there, and the next he was replaced by yet another man with a frozen foot. Caroline changed the man’s bandages, carrying a small conversation with him before fetching John Waterman’s daily soup. She then walked to his small cot, seeing him laying there asleep. Caroline frowned. Instead of getting well again, the boy had become worse over the past three days. She gently shook his shoulder, feeling sweet relief as the boy opened his green eyes.

“Good afternoon, John,” she greeted.

John did not reply. Instead, he simply stared at her with those emerald eyes. Caroline dipped her spoon into the soup, raising it to his mouth. But John turned his head.

“You must eat,” she urged. “You cannot get well unless you eat.”

“No,” came his low whisper. He turned his head back toward her, meeting her gaze. “I am going to die.”

Caroline dropped the spoon back into the bowl, her heart falling into the pit of her stomach.

“You mustn’t say things like that. Here, eat,” she desperately urged, holding the spoon back up to his lips.

“I just want to rest. Just…rest,” John whispered, closing his eyelids and relaxing his head against the pillow. Caroline placed the bowl on the floor, grasping his hand.

“I will stay here with you, but you have to stay with me, too,” she whispered. He will be fine. He’ll see. He will wake up hungry and…

“Mother! Mother!” came a cry. Caroline’s eyes snapped open. She still clasped John’s small hand, and she felt the cold clamminess of his palm. He was calling out for his mother.

“It’s all right, John. Shhh,” she whispered calmly, touching his forehead. He was burning with fever.

“Mother, oh Mother,” he said softly, looking into Caroline’s face. “I’m sorry, Mother.”

Caroline’s eyes brimmed with tears, her heart breaking. Why is this happening?

“It’s all right, my boy,” she replied, smoothing back his hair. John’s eyes were locked on her, but not seeing her. He was speaking, but not to her.

“Mother,” he said again, “I can see…I can see Him, Mother.”

“Who?” Caroline asked, “Who do you see?”

A soft rattling sound. Then nothing.

“John?” Caroline squeaked, tears choking her throat and blurring her vision. She laid her head on the boy’s arm, sobbing bitterly.  She felt numb, her mind not processing, her heart shattering. She suddenly felt a soft hand upon her shoulder and a voice whisper, “He’s gone. He’s gone.” Caroline glanced up, seeing Mrs. Davis.

“Gone? Gone…” she mumbled, the words sounding empty and hollow. Mrs. Davis pulled her up, forcing Caroline to let go of the drummer boy’s hand. She stood by as two men came and carried the little corpse away to be buried with the others. Numbly, she watched as two more men carried another soldier inside, setting the cot in John Waterman’s place.

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Emily Winters is a senior English major at Union University in Jackson, TN. Her concentration area is creative writing, and she plans to teach English at the secondary level. Emily has been writing since the second grade, her stories going from short narratives about her dogs to larger historical Christian fiction works.

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