The men began emerging as the fog lifted. Those on the top of the hill were clearly visible, their medals, brass accoutrements, and weaponry shone brightly in the sun. They fidgeted in not so clearly defined rows as they sat, leaned on their weapons, and clumped slightly to talk with someone next to them, upsetting the lines with their unmilitary discipline.
“Straighten those lines!” was shouted from beneath the fog, down at the bottom of the hill. Everyone stiffened with a quick haste, moving slightly left or right, standing up and attempting to smooth their uniforms, then locating their positions into a straight lines that rose up the hill from where the bellowing voice had been heard, and also parallel to the hill, making the ranks form colorful lines in both directions.
“Parade.” There was a hesitation. “Rest!” informed them of the position they should be in for the remainder of the ceremony. The clanking stopped quickly as they were all still, bits of their uniforms no longer swaying with their movements, as they should no longer be doing themselves. Few were.
“Do you want to be down here on the parade field?” the shout from within the invisible cloud returned. Several soldiers snapped into the position and froze. There were probably some still hidden within the fog that only the Sergeant could see from his position within it, an odd rattling was heard that quit abruptly.
The fog slowly disappeared, exposing more of the soldiers on the hill with each minute, from the top of the hill, down through the ranks, and finally to the shiniest of the soldiers, those with ribbons and medals that could not hold still, even though the higher ranking Non-commissioned officers held deathly still beneath them. Flashes of light stabbed everywhere with the slightest movement of the metal, piercing the fog like lightning through a cloud in every direction. As the fog disappeared the flashes of light lessened and the large men behind the fullest chests of medals were visible. The lines seemed to straighten themselves slightly as their faces panned over the ranks, looking for the slightest discrepancies in the formation.
“Move it, move it, move it!” was heard from the bottom of the hill, towards a corner of the parade ground. “Keep it in line!” was commanded. It wasn’t a military command such as those on the hill had been subjected to, but it was still an order.
There was a lot of scuffling, the shuffling of feet, and a vast amount of movement with no coordination of any kind. On either side of this rough and loosely clothed bunch of men was a double line of dressed soldiers, their rifles held across their chests, white gloves clasping the heavy wooden stocks near the triggers, and one hand higher up on the stock. The disappearing fog allowed the sun to sparkle on the long knives, the bayonets mounted on the ends of the long rifles, pointing very high into the air in a close and precise military formation on both sides of the less-than-disciplined group in the center.
“Single File!” was commanded at the beginning of the loose shirted group. The command-giver stopped suddenly as the ranks did also. A single line of the prisoners emerged from the front of the bunched men. On either side of him a single soldier strode with him. Their rifles dropped down to a horizontal position, fingers edged even closer to the trigger guards, then extended, covering them with a single finger that would easily slide inside of the guard and against the trigger itself.
With a spacing of just four or five feet, the line formed as it began its three-man-wide parade to the other side of the field, where the hill began and the soldiers stood at parade rest in lines fronted by larger men with cutlasses. Those wide blades were a threat to the center line of moving men, as they were to anyone that could imagine them swinging during a battle, hacking off parts of their enemies, gashing their throats, chests, or any other part that would bleed profusely with such a wound as they would create. Most of the ranks had seen such a sight, as well as many in the line no longer wearing a uniform.
The expression of the line continued until it reached the row of cutlasses and stopped suddenly. Without a word another line was formed where they all had emerged onto the parade field. It also became a row of loose white-shirted men with flanking soldiers on either side of them. It ran alongside of the previously created three man line that now ebbed back and forth down its length, creating equal spacing so important to military formations. The bracketing soldiers established the distance required, and the men with empty hands movng until they were between their own two guards.
The procession seemed to be moving quickly, but the assemblage of three hundred men actually took a while to accomplish. They stood in six rows before the next command was given, one hundred men long in each row.
“Left.” The soldiers on the field stiffened, their rifles rose across their chests once again, insuring that no one would be stabbed or sliced during the next movements. “Face!” instantly the second filing of three soldiers each turned left. Even the non-uniformed center line of soldiers snapped into the new direction as though they were still a part of the military.
“Forward.” Sighs were heard from the ranks of the non-military, gasps of air, passion escaping their breasts. “Huh!” came the second half of the command. The precision wasn’t quite so precise as the center row had a hesitation before the first step was taken. A stomp by the soldier immediately behind them prompted them to quickly initiate the move. It was possible that they could hear the sliding of a single finger curling around and through the trigger guard, but they wouldn’t be asked afterward and no one would know one way or the other.
Ahead was a line of newly buried posts, freshly de-limbed and de-barked, mostly four or five inches in diameter, all perpendicular to the ground, nearly as straight as the lines of troops running to the top of the hills surrounding the parade field, their imperfection only allowed for the slight bending and twisting of the wood itself and the knobs where there branches had been hacked off for the last three days. Other than this, they formed a nearly perfect line, and nearly vertical stature. Several times they had been reburied slightly deeper, or were shortened by much effort with an axe, so that the tops of them formed a nearly straight line across the tops of the severed ends high in the air. These wooden soldiers stood silently, waiting for the bodies that would soon be attached to them.
“Accused. Halt.” The moving lines stopped. “Step. Forward.” The ragged shirts fluttered as the men took a few steps right into the posts ahead of them. “About. Face.” As the condemned stepped forward the long blades of the bayonets were lowered once more and angled inward so that they were nearly touching their charge as they turned, forming a triangle that would result in the immediate death should the accused step in any direction but backwards against the post.
A line of men without uniforms ran quickly behind the row of posts, stopping when they were one at each post. Without commands they pulled the arms and hands behind the posts and began tying them together with a single strand of leather. They were skilled and the fastening was accomplished in seconds at each post. As quickly as they finished they ran back along their route and continued far from the parade field. They turned in a bunch and faced the row that they had just attached to poles, safely off to the side.
On the other side of the grouping of active men and soldiers, the line of non-uniformed men were given rifles, without bayonets. The soldiers between them and the men now secured to the posts stepped out of the way quickly, joining their ranks behind the newly armed men. Yet another layer of men stepped between the row of rifle-bearing soldiers. These carried the single shot pistols, knelt just behind the men with rifles, and allowed a clear field of view by the uniformed ranks of rifles immediately behind them. In effect, there were three weapons pointed at each newly armed man, at extremely close range.
“Ready!” everyone with rifles lifted their rifles changed their direction of fire. The front row picked out the captured victim ahead of them. The right soldier of each guard also moved their rifles to align with the chest of the man ahead of them tied to a post. With a half step forward the ends of their rifles were beyond the ears of the front row of riflemen, saving them from being deafened by the muzzle blast. The left guards kept their bead on the chest of the armed man directly ahead of them, as close as the bayonets would allow. The pistol bearers kept their guns leveled at the stomachs of those nearly touching the shirts with their pistols.
Everyone was nervous as it was expected that several guns may turn to aim at the guards behind them, rather than shooting someone who may be a friend, and certainly a fellow soldier just days earlier. The redundant guards would end that possibility quickly should it be attempted.
“Aim!” everyone stiffened and the guards flinched, believing for a moment that their targets were turning to fire upon them. Fortunately no one turned, and none of the guards pressed their triggers back, starting a cavalcade before the command was given.
“FIRE!” instantly the fog had been replaced by the thickness of smoke along the firing line. Heavy thuds were heard from across the field as bullets struck bodies. “Uungh.” Grunts were heard from the assaulted men who hung from their tethers. Screaming began; calls for mothers, relatives, wives, or even their children. Most of these were short lived as blood flowed down their bodies, across their faces, and bubbled up from their throats, choking them in their final pleas for forgiveness.
Mercifully the cloud of smoke from the discharged weapons blew towards the mostly dead men, obscuring them from the living. The ranks on the hills stood quietly, stifling gasps of horror seen before the smoke had crossed the field. They were fortunate in that they had seen bloodier scenes in actual combat, and most had seen worse in hand-to-hand combat.
Pieces fell from the dead and wounded, arms shattered by ricocheted bullets, misaimed bullets, and severed chunks of bone and flesh flying in all directions from the terrible speed and force of the projectiles smashing into them. The most fortunate of all were those that were killed outright by the double row of firing across the grass, by the soldiers as well as the other executioners.
The guard was nervous as they waited for the smoke to clear. It was only a few feet at the most, but the double row of weapons put out a smoke screen that rivaled the night for obscurity, differing only in color, pitch white instead of pitched black. Slowly their nearly invisible targets came back into view.
And those doing the targeting were not so lucky as the visitors and the soldiers on the hills surrounding the deadly field. As they steadied their vision on their targets the bullets hit their marks and they could see the direct consequences of the leaded assault on bodies. They could see two bullets entering the chest or the abdomen of their individual target, the blood spurting outwards towards them, then the vibrations that shook the whole body, causing waves that spread outward and violently shook the heads on the ends of deadened and limp necks.
Some feared that those heads would be snapped off by such violence, while others witnessed this very thing happening as a slug struck the neck, severed the spinal column, and left the body with only flesh to keep the head from dropping to the ground. The severity of the lead hitting bone was too powerful and heads flew off to land on the ground a few feet away.
Even with witnessing just lesser wounds, some of the executioners dropped to their knees in anguish, fearfully knowing that they would soon replace those on the posts. Although their view of the slaughter was very temporary before the cloud of smoke hid it from them, it was enough to weaken their knees quickly. Rifles clattered as they landed on the ground with them. They were given a moment of peace by their guards, only because they had disappeared from sight as quickly as the smoke obscured them, mere feet in front of them.
While the shots still echoed back and forth across the surrounding hills, the group of leather binding men ran back into the field as soon as it was visibly possible. This time they ran with knives held in their hands and stopped in pairs at each post. A quick slash was taken across the leather band that they had previously tied between the hands, and the pair dragged the mostly lifeless bodies around the posts and deposited them on and near the piles of branches and bark peeled from the posts.
A shout was heard and the focus changed for the working men. Initially they began releasing and moving the bodies of the posts closest to their arrival from the side. This was changed to beginning in the middle of the line of posts, clearing the center posts first. After hauling several bodies into the brush piles, a man stepped into the open field between the firing line and the posts, and nodded his arm as he counted a cleared area in the center up to fifty.
“Good.” He shouted to those removing bodies, as his count reached twenty-five. They walked quickly back to their staging positions, thankful to be clear of the carnage. They stepped high over bodies that were only removed halfway to the brush, some tripped slightly as the smoke still hung around to burn their eyes and make it difficult to avoid the bodies and parts lying about.
As quickly as they departed the center of the firing line was urged forward. “Move along.” was heard as some were lifted back to their feet from kneeling positions. The bayonets were now nudging them in the back to urge them forward. The right side soldiers for each man were much more severe and forceful as they knew what lay ahead of them. They worried that men would become sickened and attempt to return to their knees. It would be increasingly harder to get them to continue if they did, and short of stabbing them in the ribs with the knives, they couldn’t really get them to move without putting down their weapons. That they would not, and could not do for any amount of time. They would be better to continue the thrust and kill the man outright as he knelt, the danger of not doing it was known and expected.
Fifty made it to the other side, and were summarily tied to the posts. Being robust men, the leather bearing men had returned once more to do their job, having halved the necessary amount of them this time. The soldiers returned to the firing lines directly behind a newly grouped and armed row of men. Behind them were the pistol-bearers, a contingent of men who reloaded fifty of the empty rifles, and the left side soldiers who also reloaded their own expended rifles.
The extra soldiers on each end reloaded, then stood at attention along the firing line on either side of those still readying for the second volley of executions. The rifles butts of their long rifles sitting on the ground as they faced the poles for a second time, but not expecting to continue firing themselves.
The tying men stepped quickly, slipping in the gathering pools of bright red blood that was already mixing itself with the dirt. Some of it sank into the loose dirt around the poles, leaving just a dark stain, but some of it was already congealing as the sun began baking down on the death-filled field. That made it especially slippery as a foot tore off the thickened layer on top and everything moved across the top of the still liquid puddle underneath it. Most of their pant legs were spattered red, some as far as up to their knees as the blood was splashed and spattered.
“Fire!” the second volley was announced and a second line of men drooped and fell apart at the poles. They were surrounded by more men than necessary this time, having only half as many casualties as before, still with a hundred men waiting to tie, cut them loose, and drag their bodies to the rear of the posts.
But more were needed as the scene became more disgusting and retched. After the double line of killings, the nervousness and sickened riflemen began getting careless with their aim, more sensitive to the victims, and poorer shots. Arms began to fly around much more than at the first volley, shot off with at the elbow or mid-humerus as rifles slid to the side while they were being reluctantly held in the air. Weakness as well as disgust caused eyes to close, arms to fade, and shots to be errant.
One victim had his head shattered by the sudden upswing of a rifle, its bullet entering the face and shattering the face as the bullet rattled around inside of the head, emerging back through an open eye socket. It hung forward now, intoxicating the men who tried in vain not to look at it while dragging it behind a pole, sickening them until they were unable to drag it any further and dropped it at the base of the pole, just slightly behind it. It helped a little that one of them was a butcher, accustomed to the blood and destruction of cattle.
A third round was fired, netting another twenty-five deaths, the repeated executioners, the last twenty-five not yet tied to a post, twenty-five rifled soldiers, and the most strong-stomached of those tying leather straps and removing bodies through the grass and gore.
The scene at the posts was truly hectic and hazardous. Several times men were sprawled out in the blood and retched goo, tripped by limbs, bodies, and each other in a haste to accomplish their task before getting disabled by their sicknesses. The smoke that cleared fairly well after the first volley was not clearing so well after the second and third cloud of it and began hanging around longer, the sun unable to cope with it as easily as it had the fog. It reflected out of the valley instead, heating the soldiers standing at parade rest on the sides of the hills. Having hills on three sides limited even the slight breeze, and the fourth side, inhabited by onlookers, thrill-seekers, relatives, and off duty men and women, stopped the little bit of moving air that tried to make it across the valley.
Instead the smoke made the shooting more difficult, burning the eyes and making the targets more obscured. The space between the firing line and the post line was narrowed until it was difficult to miss the chest of the victim. Instead, there was a danger of being assaulted by chunks of flesh and a spattering of blood while firing from such a close distance. The general closed the ranks, but kept in mind that the uniforms of his soldiers should not be dirtied by the expulsions of those condemned for not fulfilling their obligation as soldiers.
He shortened the procedure. Lining up the final twelve or thirteen members of the non-enlisted executioners at the same time, cutting out two steps, that of having six and then three targets and shooters. It was contrary to Washington’s orders, but he changed it out of necessity. During the last volley one of the condemned failed to fire his weapon, dropping it to the ground. He was executed by the piercing of a bayonet into the lower back. The blood spurted outward, almost getting to the boot of the soldier, but instead only dripped from the knife and into its mount on the end of the rifle. The impatience of the soldier was becoming frenetic in a haste to leave the horrific scene of the valley. His actions were not questioned.
Another had turned to face the soldiers behind him during the last volley of civilians, and was torn in half by several pistol shots at close range. His stomach opened wide to fling everything once inside of the man onto the ground and the closely firing soldiers. Uniforms were destroyed to the alarm and distain of the general. He was fortunately a long ways from the incident and his medals continued to shine when the sun finally pierced the smoky cloud.
Brass sparkled, bayonets sent flashes of light across the valley to the soldiers on the other side, and commands were echoing along with the flashes of light. Short bursts of rattling, boots banging together, and uniforms sliding against each other, sounded as the honor guard clicked to attention. Ranks closed, turned, and marched in lines away from the scene.
Only the drunkest of the visitors remained, but even they kept their distance from the worse carnage. The leather straps dangled from the pockets of one group as they pummeled bottles of alcohol, attempting to wash their throats and minds, their eyes and souls, of the horrible valley. They knew that after the military had departed the bodies would still be there. Their jobs weren’t over and two hundred graves were still being dug on the other side of the hill behind the line of poles. Carts were assembled, carts that might never be found useful again after today’s task.
A single line of bayonets filed past the carcasses just before departing as the last soldiers on the field. If movement was detected a quick thrust determined that they would finally die, not influenced by any body’s attempt to keep itself alive. None of those on the end poles still stood, their knees collapsing and letting the thongs of leather to slide down with the bodies. They were heaps of dead flesh that would have to be removed by the carts after being untied. This would be after very much of the alcohol would be gone to blurring eyes and thoughts.
No one was pleased by the result. Too many men were wasted, too many others would forever be influenced by what they had witnessed, some of them not in the intended way, finding death of any kind repulsive, honorable or otherwise. Some vowed never to repeat in this disgusting scene, especially if it were their own doing. Being a soldier and witnessing the same death and injury in the field of battle could never be as repulsive as this had been. Unfortunately the young soldiers would find out before the war was over.
Washington did not have to witness it to be convulsed at the very thought of it. His general had done his job reluctantly but honorably.