The Lost Diary of Eli McCabe
by Valentine J. Brkich
The following pages were taken from the diary of Eli Augusta McCabe (1846-1921). The diary was found inside a time capsule that was recently opened in McCabe’s hometown of Beaver, Pennsylvania. McCabe was a Civil War veteran who served with the 77th PA Volunteers in the Army of the Cumberland, which took part in the Chattanooga Campaign in the autumn of 1863.
Although his diary was placed in the time capsule in 1916, five years prior to his death at age 75, McCabe never spoke a word of the story you are about to read, possibly because he was worried about the reaction to it.
The following pages cover a period of 10 days in the late fall of 1863, after the 77th’s participation in the Union Army’s victorious assault on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, Nov. 24, 1863, under the command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. McCabe and a small group of men had gone in pursuit of some fleeing Rebel soldiers when, after taking two prisoners, became disoriented and lost within the thick, mountainous terrain. What happened to them over the next seven days is both disturbing and unexplainable; it has never been made public until the recent unearthing of McCabe’s diary.
There is no way to prove that McCabe’s story is true; however, there is no way to disprove it, either, since the following is the only surviving record of it. We will let the reader decide for him- or herself.
November 24, 1863
I write this in the early morning, the light from the fire illuminating the pages in the stark darkness of this moonless autumn sky. It has been a long day, but a blessed one just the same, as we pushed the Rebels from the heights of Lookout Mountain, which they had wrongly believed to be impregnable. Yet no mountain, no matter how tall, shall prevent us from doing the Lord’s will and bringing the end to the actions of this traitorous southern confederacy.
The others in my group — John, William, Silas, Richard, and Matthew — are all getting some much needed rest while I keep watch on our Rebel prisoners—two boys from North Carolina and a Cherokee. They gave us a good chase through this thick Tennessee wilderness, but alas, in the end they surrendered due to exhaustion and, most likely, to save themselves from inevitable doom. The boys don’t worry me much. They are young, and whatever inner fire brought them into this fight is all but extinguished. But the Indian is another story. He is quiet. Too quiet. He has yet to fall asleep, and I can’t help but think he’s contemplating his escape. He seems almost fearful and keeps looking out into the darkness, possibly in the hopes of a rescue party. But rest assured, no such salvation awaits him, for the enemy is already in full retreat and will soon enough succumb to the superior force of this Army of the Cumberland.
The darkness tonight is stifling and like none I’ve experienced before. Even the wild creatures that most certainly haunt this oppressive wood seem to have fled or remain hidden within their secret havens on this eerily black and quiet November’s eve. Tomorrow it will be good to leave this forsaken wilderness and reunite with the Army as we push onward to crush this rebellion once and for all.
November 25, 1863
No trouble with the prisoners last night. I was thankful to get a few hours of sleep after Matthew took over my watch. John and Silas went out at first light this morning to see if they could get a fix on our position. There’s a sizable ridge just west of our camp, so they headed off that way to climb it and see if they could locate the battalion. Meanwhile the rest of us have been making breakfast, tending to camp and keeping our eyes on the prisoners. The two boys from North Carolina don’t say much of anything, but they sure can eat. By the looks of them, I’d say they haven’t had much of anything to eat for quite some time. The Cherokee stayed awake all night and did not relax until sun up. After that he fell right asleep. He hasn’t made a peep, neither. Not that I care if he speaks at all. I’ll just be happy to be free of all three of them once we get back to our regiment.
It’s just around mid-afternoon now and still no sign of John or Silas. Matthew thinks we should send someone to go off and see if we can locate them. Perhaps they are lost or hurt. However, the rest of us agree that it’s best to just stay put for now. They’re bound to turn up soon. No use in risking anymore of us getting lost in this infernal wilderness. And there may be still a few Rebel stragglers about, waiting in ambush. It’s too risky as long as we have these prisoners to look after. My guess is that John and Silas simply decided to do a little exploring. They’ve always been the adventurous type, and such is their way.
The sun has gone behind the hills now, and it won’t be long til dark, yet John and Silas still have not returned to camp. Something must have happened. Something bad. I’m sure of it, as are the rest of the men. Silas has always been a little irresponsible. But John, well, you can always count on John. He may only be a private, but in the short time he’s been with our company, he has proven himself a leader. When the lead is flying, you know John is gonna stick by you and give those Rebs hell. My assumption is they got picked up by one of the Reb cavalry units roaming around and harassing the main Army. There’s just no way they’d get lost. Not them two country boys.
Anyhow, I discussed it with the rest of the men, and we’ve decided to stay put for one more night and then head out at first light. The way we figure it, if we head due east we should be able to pick up the tracks of our regiment and then catch up to them in a day or two at most. I don’t like the idea of leaving Silas and John behind, but we can’t afford to fall too far back from the main body of the Army. Not while we’re in enemy territory, especially with the extra baggage we’ve picked up.
Speaking of which, the Cherokee finally woke up a little bit ago. Slept most of the day. Since then he and the Carolina boys have been whispering about something. I don’t trust any of them, but we got them tied up nice and tight, so I’m not too worried about it. It’s strange, though. Whatever they’re talking about has got them all looking scared as can be. Good. If they’re scared of us, hopefully they’ll behave until we can catch up with the others.
November 26, 1863
It’s been a long night. The sun has just come up over the horizon, but not one of us I dare say had a moment’s rest. Not even the prisoners.
It all began right around midnight when I was awakened by a deep, guttural growl not far from our camp, the likes of which I have never heard before. The sound aroused Matthew from his slumber as well. When I asked if he thought it might be a bear, he said he was confident it wasn’t. Maybe a mountain lion, he said, although it sounded much larger than any other wild cat he’d ever come across in his many years out in the wilderness.
Then we heard the beast crashing through the undergrowth, and I tell you I would not have been surprised if an elephant had emerged from the wood, the noise was so great. The sound woke the rest of the men from their slumber, including the boys and the Indian. Richard asked them what they thought it might be, but the three of them didn’t speak a word. They just looked at each other as if they were keeping some secret from us.
The woods grew eerily silent after that. Even the crickets ceased their incessant chirping. After almost an hour had passed, we believed the beast to be gone. But then another growl arose from the blackness of the forest, and we knew it was still somewhere nearby. By this time we were all at full alert, our weapons loaded, ready to ward off any sudden attack, which we were certain was imminent. Meanwhile, the two young Rebs looked terrified. The Cherokee, too, appeared apprehensive, but there was something within his countenance that told me he knew what was out there in the darkness. So I approached him and told him that I believed he knew the source of the inhuman growls and demanded that he break his silence. The Indian looked back at me sternly, and after a few moments said in broken English that it was the Kecleh-Kudleh, the Hairy Savage. I had never heard of such a beast, and I asked him to describe it. But the Cherokee, whose name I discovered was Waya, meaning Wolf, said that this Kecleh-Kudleh was some type of spirit—half-man, half-beast. He said all the Cherokee know if it. They fear and respect it, for in the wilderness it has no rival. Even the mighty bear and panther give way in its presence.
I stood silent for some time looking into Waya’s eyes as I considered his story. Both Matthew and Richard, however, scoffed at this explanation, dismissing it as foolish Indian folklore. William, though, was not so quick to pass judgement. He said that he too had heard tales of hairy men of the forest, giant men with incredible strength who haunted the woods back near his homestead in northern Pennsylvania. He said his grandfather claimed to have come face to face with such a beast while hunting elk, and afterward never again ventured into the forest alone.
Just as Matthew began to ridicule William for believing his grandfather’s ghost story, a roar erupted from within the surrounding wood, and this time it seemed to be coming from all sides. The four of us moved closer to the fire, our weapons cocked and ready. But nothing came. Meanwhile the two boys pleaded with us to untie them so that they could defend themselves. We denied their request but helped them move closer to the safety of the fire. Waya, however, remained where he was. No weapon or fire, he said, could protect us from the great spirit Kecleh-Kudleh.
Almost three hours have passed now, and there have been no further growls or other sounds from the surrounding woods. Hopefully whatever creature or creatures made them have moved on. There have been no more signs of the mysterious beasts since that dreadful moment when after hearing, and feeling, the thunderous roar, we were all certain that attack was imminent. The four of us discussed our situation and have decided we have no other choice but to make haste and leave this place at once, lest we get too far removed from the rest of the Army. Silas and John’s fate is still unknown, but we can only hope they are alive and well somewhere, even if they have fallen into Rebel hands. However, now I worry that perhaps they crossed paths with whatever beast is lurking out there in this foreboding wilderness.
Matthew has volunteered to go ahead alone and scout out a route for our departure. William offered to join him, being that there is safety in numbers, and in light of our mysterious and frightening encounter last night. But Matthew declined, he being the bravest of our group and the most accomplished woodsman in our entire regiment. He feels he can move more swiftly and safely alone. In the meantime the rest of us will tear down our camp and prepare to move out upon Matthew’s return.
Midday is almost upon us and still no sign of Matthew. It is not like him to stray from his word, and he assured us he would be gone no more than an hour. Now the situation has become quite worrisome, as three of our best men have disappeared without a trace. Fortunately there has been no further sign of the creatures. Yet, I cannot help but feel like we are being watched. I keep peering out into the thick underbrush fully expecting to see someone or something looking back at me. But possibly I have let my imagination get the best of me.
Richard, William and I had a lengthy discussion about our predicament, and we have decided it is imperative that we head out with all due haste, despite the fact that Matthew has yet to return. We can no longer afford to wait. Our supplies are running low, and the rest of the Army has almost certainly moved on by now. Furthermore, none of us believes it a good idea to remain in our current location and risk another encounter with the beasts from last night. We can only hope we do not encounter them again after leaving this place.
It is now near midnight, and I have drawn first watch. The rest of the men are asleep. We made good progress east toward what we believe is the direction of our regiment. However, there is no way to know for sure. Luckily there was a full moon overhead to light our way through this foreign territory. I am confident that tomorrow we will be united with the rest of our men. I only hope that Matthew, Silas, and John have somehow found their way back into friendly hands.
It is a tranquil, quiet night here in our new camp. Yet I cannot help but wonder what lurks out within the darkness around me. Hopefully we have put some distance between ourselves and our mysterious visitors. But as long as we are in this foreign land, I will not feel completely at ease.
One of the Carolina boys is calling to me…
Richard just took over on watch, but I am having trouble falling asleep. I had a long conversation with one of the Carolina boys, whose name I learned is Samuel. Before the war he lived a quiet life on his father’s tobacco farm. He and his brother Robert, our other prisoner, enlisted shortly after the outbreak of hostilities hoping to find adventure, something they lacked in their everyday lives. But like most men in this war, I believe Samuel and Robert have gotten more than they ever bargained for.
He seems to be a fine boy, Samuel. It is unfortunate that fate has placed him on the wrong side of this bloody affair.
November 27, 1863
Richard is gone! When I saw him last, just after he took over watch, I saw nothing within his countenance that would have suggested he was about to abandon us. Yet, when I awoke this morning, there was no sign of him. I cannot imagine what would have inspired him to take leave of us now, especially when we are in enemy land and so close to rejoining our regiment. Neither William nor the prisoners heard anything last night to arouse them from their slumber. If some wild beast would have come into camp, surely one of us would have heard something, and Richard would have most likely fired his weapon. He is not one to be easily surprised and taken without a fight. His disappearance is most disturbing, especially since it is now up to just myself and William to watch after the prisoners and find our way back to the army.
More disturbing news. As we were packing and preparing to move out, William came across Richard’s Spencer carbine in the underbrush not twenty paces from camp, and the weapon had somehow been broken in two. Who or what has the strength to break solid iron? We also discovered what we believe is one of Richard’s brogans along with what appears to be a faint trail of blood, although we cannot be sure.
Everyone is perplexed by the situation, save for Waya, who is most certain that Richard — and most likely Matthew, Silas, and John — has been taken by the one he calls Kecleh-Kudleh, the so-called hairy man of Cherokee legend. But there must be some other more rational explanation. What, I do not know.
I presume it is now close to midnight. It has been a trying day, to say the least. This is the first chance I have had to write. Where do I begin?
We moved out just after noon. William and I both agreed that, considering the evidence, Richard had not deserted us but rather had fallen victim to some bloodthirsty creature stalking these godforsaken woods. Therefore, there was no reason for us to delay a minute longer, and we continued our journey toward the south west.
About an hour later, I began to have that feeling again as if we were being watched. William too felt ill at ease and feared that we were walking straight into a Rebel ambush. It was then that the first rock flew into our group, just barely missing the Carolina brother Robert. At first we thought little of it, but then another stone struck William in his side, and we knew it could be no coincidence. We immediately took cover in the underbrush thinking attack was imminent. But, alas, none came. We did hear movement on either side, though, as well as some distinctly animal grunts. William and I were perplexed. Once again the Cherokee insisted that it was the great Kecleh-Kudleh. I still was unsure, however, having seen no sign of any large beast within the thick foliage. We held our position and had our arms at the ready.
For the rest of the day we heard nothing. That is, until sundown, when the hellish growls began once again. Then we knew the beasts had returned and that we were surrounded. It has been two hours hence, and William and I are still on guard and expecting the worst at any moment.
It has been quiet for some time now. As I sit here writing in the light of the full moon, William and the prisoners are finally getting something to eat, sharing the last of our rations—a few pieces of salt pork and some hardtack. I have no appetite, however, and am enjoying the last of my cigars while I try to make sense of the past few days.
Could we truly be the prey of some monstrous, savage man-beast as the Cherokee claims? Or have we allowed our imaginations to get the best of us with the mysterious disappearance of our comrades? I tend to lean toward the latter of these explanations. Still, it is impossible to deny that we are being stalked — hunted, if you will — by some wild creature or creatures whose identity remains a mystery.
William approached me just a few moments ago and suggested it might be in our best interest to release the prisoners and continue on alone. I told him I agreed, seeing that it will allow us to move more swiftly as we continue eastward to reunite with our Union brethren. We are out of rations and can no longer provide for them. I do not think they will be any threat to us, unarmed as they are. And I would think they would be more intent on finding a way out of this wilderness and safe from our beastly pursuers. We will not leave them completely defenseless, however, and will permit them to take their knives for protection. At first light, we will direct them to go westward and then, after a sufficient amount of time, we will continue on our way, alone.
November 28, 1863
Just before dawn we approached our Rebel prisoners and informed them of our plans to set them free. We believed they would be quite pleased with this news, however, their reaction was quite the opposite, at least with the two brothers, Samuel and Robert. After contemplating our plan to give them their freedom, the elder brother approached William and me and declared that they would prefer to remain with us. It was clear that they did not feel safe venturing out on their own as long as those strange beasts were still roaming the woods.
During this time the Cherokee Waya did not say a word and his expression did not betray whatever emotion he was feeling regarding our plans to free him or the brothers’ decision to remain as our prisoners. When I asked him to share his thoughts, he told me that it didn’t matter either way. He appeared stoic and resigned as he continued to gaze out into the surrounding woods. Very strange indeed.
In light of our situation, we have decided to free the men of their bonds regardless of their choice to remain in our group. I do not believe at this point that they will be a danger to us, and we will be able to move at a quicker pace with the three of them untethered. Furthermore, we may need their assistance should the mysterious beasts return and choose to attack.
The sun is just barely over the horizon now, and we are moving out. May God be with us on this day.
It is now just an hour or two past noon and we believe we have reached the spot where our regiment was stationed just before the battle. There is no sign of the army here, however, and we are uncertain in which direction they have gone. We have decided to stop here and rest a bit before moving on. William and the boys went off in search of water and something to eat. I am here alone with the Cherokee. He hasn’t said a word to anyone since we left this morning, and seems to be praying silently, to what god I do not know. A stranger person I have never met. He seems at the same time perfectly at ease yet certain that we are the helpless prey of this man-beast of Indian lore. He is a most curious individual. I am inclined to inquire as to why and how he came to be involved in this bloody war, particularly on the side of the traitorous Secessionists. Yet I cannot get myself to approach him. It is not fear that holds me back, but rather something I cannot explain. I feel it is best to leave him be and instead concentrate on getting us out of these woods and reunited with our Union brethren.
We have had yet another setback. William lost his footing when he was out searching for food, and it appears he has broken his leg. Fortunately Samuel and Robert were with him and able to set a splint and carry him back to us. Right now the brothers are busy building a makeshift sled on which we hope to pull William as we continue our search for any friendly troops. If need be we will set up camp here for the night, however I am hoping to put a few more miles behind us before sundown. I would also like to move to higher ground, where I feel we will be safer and where we might be able to spot a distant campfire that might point us in the right direction. It is now solely up to me to get us out of this dire situation, and it is not something I relish in the least.
The sled is finished, thanks to the skills of the North Carolina boys. It took longer than we had hoped, though, and with the sun sinking toward the horizon, the consensus of the group is that we set up camp for the night. It would be too difficult and dangerous to attempt to move William across this darkened landscape. We managed to find a more defensible position on a ledge about halfway up the nearest hill, and I am hoping once darkness falls we might be able to spot the light from the distant campfires of the main body of the Army.
Waya still continues his mysterious behavior. He has, however, made himself useful gathering wood as well as what he claims are edible plants. He has also brewed some tea using the roots of one of the plants. I would much rather have some salt pork and coffee, but for now this will have to do. The plan is for me to take first watch. William believes he will be well enough to take the second shift. If something should happen, he will wake me immediately. I pray that we have a quiet night and that no alarm will be necessary.
It is now about halfway to dawn, and I have just turned watch over to William. It will be good to get some rest after this trying day. We did see what we believe to be a few campfires off in the distance. It does not appear to be the main body of our Army, but we think it may be the rear guard—a good sign that the rest of the Army isn’t far off. No signs of those terrible beasts so far. In fact, it is unusually quiet in the woods this night. I cannot lie, I will not miss this godforsaken wilderness in the least. There is something haunting and unsettling about it. I feel as if a thousand eyes are upon me. It is as if the forest itself is a living, breathing animal watching our every move.
That is all for now. I must get some rest for what I hope will be the final leg of our journey.
November 29, 1863
Kecleh-Kudleh is real. I would not have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes. I had not been asleep long before the sound of gunfire awakened me. I looked over at William just as one of the creatures overtook him, wresting his weapon from his hands and breaking it in two like a twig. Poor William fought courageously, but he was no match for the giant hairy beast, which snapped the poor boy’s neck before tossing him aside. The monster was terrifying—a huge, man-like creatre, with long, black hair covering every inch of his massive frame. I raised my weapon at the monster, but the gun misfired. As I struggled to reload it, out of the corner of my eye I saw another one of the great man-beasts attack young Samuel, knocking him unconscious. Robert tried in vain to save his brother, but the creature was too powerful. With one hand he grabbed and tossed Robert into a nearby oak. I raised my weapon and took aim at one of the monsters but held my fire as Waya flew at him, brandishing his long hunting knife. The Indian managed to thrust his blade into one of the beast’s arms before it grabbed him with the other and tossed him aside with ease. At this moment the other creature rushed me, but I was able to get off a shot which struck it in the left shoulder. Both of them seemed stunned by the blast from my weapon and turned to retreat back within the cover of the forest, but not before one of them grabbed hold of Samuel’s leg and dragged him off into the darkness.
It has been an hour hence, and there has been no further sign of the hairy beasts. Robert is alive, albeit barely. Waya was stunned by his encounter with the Kecleh-Kudleh, but he seems to be otherwise unharmed. Presently he is tending to Robert and doing what he can to make the poor boy comfortable. Dawn is still a ways off, and I am fearful the beasts will return. I am no longer concerned with keeping the Cherokee prisoner and have given him my sidearm to use should we face another attack. Though, I am not sure if it will do any good.
The beasts are near. It is still dark, and we cannot see very far into the woods, but we have heard movement in the underbrush, along with other strange, unidentifiable groans and haunting sounds. Waya and I are both loaded and at the ready. Robert is gone, having succumbed to his wounds not too long ago. I pray we will not be next.
Waya is no more. It happened just before dawn, an hour or so ago. We were holed up in a small crevice waiting out the night when we heard what sounded like cries for help. Then, not twenty paces or so from our position, Samuel emerged from the woods crawling across the ground and moaning in pain. Waya did not hesitate and went immediately to the aid of his Rebel colleague. That is when the big one emerged from the darkened forest and with one powerful blow knocked the Cherokee to the ground where he lay motionless. Then another of the beasts emerged from hiding, approached poor Samuel, and stomped on him with such force it most certainly extinguished whatever life was left in him. The two monsters then picked up their now lifeless prey and vanished once again into the darkness. I am only writing this now because I am certain that they will soon be back for me, and I want to be certain that my fate is known.
To my dearest Rebecca, I have and always will love you. Please remember me.
December 2, 1863
Mount Pleasant Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Two days have passed since my last entry. I am grateful to be alive and in relative comfort. I still cannot believe I made it out of the Tennessee wilderness alive. It is truly a miracle made possible by our Good Lord and Savior.
As I sat in that crevice awaiting the return of those evil man-beasts, I could hear sounds in the darkness. My senses told me that the creatures were close by and about to make their final attack. In that moment I prayed to the Lord that he would take me quickly and with as little pain as possible. Just then one of the beasts emerged from the darkness, his huge, red eyes shining like a demon’s. He let out a terrible growl and began to move toward me.
But then there was a thunderous sound off to the left, and it caused the creature to stop where he was. The sound gradually grew louder and I realized that it came not from thunder but rather the hooves of horses. The man-beast didn’t wait to see what it was. Instead he turned to me, let out one last, terrible roar and then, like a specter, faded into the darkness of the forest. A moment later the horsemen appeared from around the side of the hill, and I came out of my hiding to flag them down. I had been saved.
I know not what manner of beast it was that hunted me and my men in that lonely southern wilderness. But I know it was not like any creature I have ever seen before. I have never seen any creature — man or beast — with such power and that could move so swiftly through the thick wooded landscape. Maybe that’s why Waya believed it to be some type of supernatural being not of this earth.
I have not told a soul the truth about what happened out there in the Tennessee wilderness. I only told my rescuers that we had gotten lost pursuing some Rebels and later became disoriented for lack of water. As for poor Silas, John, Matthew, Richard, and William, I will take it upon myself to write their families. Only, I will say that they lost their lives bravely and in the face of the enemy, which, in a way, is true.
I am not sure if I will ever tell anyone the truth of what happened out there. I doubt anyone would believe me if I did.
September 20, 1916
This will be my final entry in this journal. No one will read its contents again for a hundred years. I have never told a soul what happened to me and my men over 50 years ago now. If you are reading this a hundred years’ hence — if this wicked world survives that long — I assure you that every word of it is true. I do not know if the man-beast Kecleh-Kudleh still haunts the foothills of southern Tennessee, but I assure you that at one time it did. I swear this on the souls of all those who were lost in those woods all those many years ago.
— Eli Augusta McCabe, 1916
Copyright © 2016 Valentine J. Brkich