Monday, October 18, 2010

A tale of the Ghosts of Gettysburg

Ghosts can be found wherever tragedy left its mark, where men’s and women’s lives ended so quickly that their spirit may not even realize that they’re dead, where soldiers, so focused on duty, still patrol the front lines of long-finished wars.

This week we're sharing historical ghost stories from wars past.
Enjoy this excerpt from Ghosts of War

Chapter 14 - Gettysburg

War: United States Civil War (1861–1865)
Dates of battle: July 1–3, 1863
Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Participation: 97,000-man Union Army of The Potomac under
General George G. Meade against 75,000-man Confederate
Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee.
Casualties: Over 51,000

[W]e can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
—President Abraham Lincoln, excerpt from the “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863

In the database of our collective psyche, we simply cannot cross-reference “ghosts” and “war” without seeing one word at the top of the list: Gettysburg. Certainly there have been no bloodier three days in American history, and only the weapons of mass destruction the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II rival the loss of life in such a short time period during an act of war. But the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took only minutes with the aid of a single atomic weapon dropped on each. Gettysburg’s carnage was brought with cannons, muskets, pistols, swords, and even bare hands at times. Today the impressions, the history, and the ghosts are all that remain of the carnage.

For the Union Army of the North, Gettysburg was a critical victory considering their recent losses at the battles of Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 13, 1862 and Chancellorsville, Virginia, May 1–5, 1863. At both battles, Confederate General Robert E. Lee outmaneuvered his Union opponents, though the North initially held the upper hand in each conflict. Lee left the Northern Army humiliated. In early summer of 1863, General Lee proposed to the Confederate government that an invasion and victory in Pennsylvania—on enemy soil—would break the back of the Union Army, bring an armistice, and, ultimately, Southern independence. But Gettysburg was not the predetermined site for this historic and potentially war-ending battle to take place. So how did the infamous battle get here?

It must have been the shoes.

In the first two weeks of June 1863, the Confederate Army—now divided into three corps by General Lee—moved north through Virginia, across the Potomac River, into Maryland, and then Pennsylvania where they raided and plundered the livestock, food, shoes, and other supplies from towns they encountered along the route. The Southern troops were so in need of basic supplies that their tattered and torn uniforms, swollen and callused feet, and partially emaciated physiques made certain units look like the army of the undead. They were fighting to be free of the Union, but as they invaded deeper into the North, they also fought for their very survival. Word of the invasion spread quickly to the Union Army in the south, who raced home with renewed vigor as their homeland was now being invaded. For the Union Army, there was an opportunity to cut off the Confederates from their home base and finish them off in Pennsylvania. Both sides were betting the war on this invasion. General Joseph Hooker, who led the Union Army, was panicked at the thought of taking on General Lee’s army that currently outnumbered his own. President Lincoln knew Hooker was no longer the man to lead the Union soldiers, so he accepted Hooker’s resignation on June 28. Major General George Gordon Meade was promoted (much to his surprise, considering he was fourth commander of the Army of the Potomac and others had more seniority) because of his impressive record as division commander and his superior tactical skills.

Meade and his men were heading into southern Pennsylvania and were in a position to potentially separate two of Lee’s Confederate Corps and strand the southern army in the north. On June 28, Lee learned of the Union Army position and progress from a spy—he immediately sent scouts to amass his divisions.

So what about the shoes? The legend says that Confederate Major General Henry Heth and his division marched toward Gettysburg on June 29 because he was chasing an alleged mass supply of shoes in town for his men. Historians point out that Gettysburg had only a few shoemakers—no more or less than any other town of that size (Gettysburg’s population was approximately 2,400 people in 1863)—and there was never a large supply of shoes. But the shoe story may still hold, because it is possible Heth may have used the shoe excuse after the battle was over as his reasoning for charging into an enemy position and starting a battle that handed a devastating loss to the South. But Heth marched his men into the sights of John Buford’s Union cavalry division, who had arrived the day before on word the Confederate Army was marching close by. Buford decided Gettysburg’s hills and ridges offered the best position to hold off his enemy, so he sent word to Major General John Reynolds, who was commander of the Union Army’s first infantry division in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Buford called for the reinforcements and in doing so determined the epic battle would be fought in Gettysburg.

On July 1, Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Company E fired the first shot at Heth’s Confederate marching mass of gray. Lt. Jones retreated to Buford’s front line on Herr Ridge and the battle was on.

By the end of July 3, more than 11,000 soldiers were killed, 10,000 more were either missing in action or captured, and 29,000 were wounded. Confederate casualties are estimated between 25,000 and 28,000 and Union casualties totaled 23,000. The streams near the battlefields literally ran crimson with the blood of the dead and wounded. The battle was one that could never be forgotten; historians, preservationists, and the myriad of ghosts insist on that.

Ghosts have become synonymous with Gettysburg. Sightings have occurred for more than a century. Many have heard of people spotting phantom divisions of Civil War soldiers marching through Devil’s Den or the Wheatfield. The witness assumes they’re seeing some kind of reenactment that so often takes place in Gettysburg—but the division soon disappears.

One of the more predominant locations for sightings is at Iverson’s Pits. It was at a stone wall on the side of Doubleday Avenue where Brigadier General Henry Baxter and his brigade stopped an entire North Carolina brigade led by General Alfred Iverson. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers were cut down before they could advance on the Union brigade. The fallen were buried in a mass grave at a nearby farm field that became known as Iverson’s Pits. In 1873, the mass grave was exhumed by a Confederate memorial association who took the remains to North Carolina for reburial. Locals insist the association didn’t (and likely couldn’t) find the remains of everyone, and every year on July 1, the ghosts of those who weren’t taken home to North Carolina rise from Iverson’s Pits and march the fields before disappearing into the ether. But ghost sightings here don’t only happen on July 1.

On September 5th of 2000, then-38-year-old David Hoover was visiting Gettysburg for four days. He made a stop on a self-guided tour at Iverson’s Pits around 1:45 p.m. and even recalls what he was wearing—a khaki baseball cap, gray shirt, and blue shorts—potentially looking similar to either Union or Confederate at a quick glance. I spoke to Hoover about his experience there. “After passing through the barrier of several feet of cornstalks, I reached a wide-open field,” he said. “I looked over at the cornfield to my left several yards away and I noticed an area that was only sporadically strewn with corn, and I headed in that direction.”

Once Hoover arrived at the clearing, he said he saw some of the corn stalks wavering in front of him. At first he thought it was the wind or some animal, but soon he saw something else. “I put my camera to my eye to take a photo,” he said. “As I looked through my viewfinder, I saw two black objects side-by-side. I lowered my camera to make sure it wasn’t something on my lens, but there they were—about 20–30 feet away in the middle of the clearing. I took one step backward with my right foot; as soon as it touched the open field behind me, the two objects seemed to grow in size, as if they were coming in my direction. I fumbled with my camera, and as I did, the two objects seemed to turn quickly outward, as if back-to-back.”

He explained how the two black objects shrunk again and then disappeared into the underbrush. “Just seconds after they had started moving, I could hear the sound of rustling leaves on the ground and the hitting of the stalks in the direction of where the objects went.” But this wasn’t the end of Hoover’s unexplained experience at Gettysburg.

Shaken after the initial encounter, Hoover laughed out of relief, then snapped a picture of Iverson’s Pits before heading back to his car, being careful to watch for animals in case some critter had stirred the cornstalks earlier. He said, “I began to walk back parallel to the field to where I had initially entered. After one or two steps, I noticed something in the corn out of the corner of my eye. I turned and looked, and it was the figure of a soldier moving parallel with me. He was perhaps 20 feet away. I immediately stopped. He kept going, accelerating and gliding as he went on his way to where my only access back to my car was. He was wearing a full-brimmed hat and looked like he had a knapsack on, and he was holding a rifle at port-arms. His color was mostly black, but a grayish-blue seemed to come and go as he moved. The same happened with his outline¬¬—at times it was full, then it would nearly disappear, then would grow back to full-size. I could hear him hitting the stalks, not just as a man walking or running through them, but as loud as a man swinging at them with a baseball bat. All of this time, not a single stalk was moved or stirred by him gliding through them. The sound was as if someone were chopping them down. Because it also sounded as if it was strong enough to take a person’s head off, I ducked my head down and away, and said, ‘Relax, man!’ At this point, I had forgotten about my camera, an error which I regret to this day. I may also have been subconsciously wary of possible reprisals from this apparition at having his picture taken. It might have been 20 or 30 seconds until this figure finally disappeared. I crouched down and looked into the stalks and thought I could see bluish-gray trousers with a wide, white stripe down the side. They were untucked and hung freely on top of black shoes. This part may have been my imagination, because the image was gone as quickly as I had seen it.”

Hoover figured the specter was one of the fallen Confederate soldiers, so he announced to the presence that he was in fact born in North Carolina and now lived in Florida. He was having trouble finding his path through the tall corn stalks and back to his car, so he asked for help. “I said, ‘Will you let me pass?’” He said, “A few seconds later, I heard that rustling sound again to my right, as the corn leaves near me moved. Then it stopped. I paused, then made my decision; I spoke out, ‘I’m coming through. Hold your fire.’ About halfway through, I lost my way along the broken path, and while looking for it, I was also glancing to my right, hoping that the swinging sounds and the force behind it wouldn’t come back. I soon found it, made it to the marker, and as I walked slowly into the clearing between the corn, I said back over my right shoulder, ‘Thank you.’ I didn’t panic, but once I reached the 88th Pennsylvania Monument, I sat at its base for about 30 minutes to collect myself. I kept looking at the ground and then to the corn where I had seen it all, trying to make some sense of it.”

For David Hoover, Gettysburg offered him one of the most profound experiences of his life. He practically touched history. Iverson’s Pits is by no means the only hot spot in town. Sachs Bridge is another supernaturally active location.

Built in 1854 by David Spooner, the bridge was commissioned at a cost of $1,544 and was originally called Sauck’s Bridge. The 100-foot covered bridge crosses Marsh Creek and connects the Townships of Cumberland and Freedom, and it served as a critical retreat route for half of Robert E. Lee’s army on July 3 and 4 as the Southern army filed out. But the bridge also has a darker side—three men were hung from the rafters of the bridge, and a field hospital where many wounded soldiers drew their last breath was also nearby—lending to the ghostly reputation the area has now.

Today, the red-painted covered bridge is a quaint image set across the water and at the edge of the woods. Only foot traffic is allowed to cross the historic landmark now. The clip-clop of horses and the metallic grind of wagon wheels is long gone, but certainly not forgotten.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 8, 2004, Stacey Jones, founder of Central New York Ghost Hunters, and members of her group were visiting Sachs Bridge as part of a Gettysburg ghost investigation. I spoke to her about her experiences there. She described the night as unseasonably warm considering it was early May, and the night was clear, but that quickly changed. “All of a sudden this fog came in,” Jones said. “And then we started seeing lights.”
“What kind of lights?” I asked.
“They were coming from the field across from Sachs Bridge. These orange lights were coming from the ground and going up in an arch about 12 feet in the air and then coming back down again. That went on for quite a while in this fog. We stood there and watched it and then we started hearing horses [she imitated the nasally, lip-flapping sigh of a horse] and then we started hearing rumbles—the only way I can describe it is like a cannon being shot from far away. That lasted about 20 minutes, and then the fog disappeared and everything stopped.”
Stacey and her team returned to Sachs Bridge around 10 p.m. that same day and had a second encounter. After an hour of taking photographs, video, and trying to obtain spirit voices on audio tape, Jones and six others from her group sat on the stone wall that separates Sachs Bridge from the open field where they witnessed the strange lights the night before. She felt that sitting quietly offered the best opportunity for experiencing something supernatural. Her hunch would soon be proven correct. “We turned everything off and the only thing we had going were tape recorders,” she said. “After about 15 minutes I started seeing shadows in the field—they were between 5 and 6 feet tall and they were moving in the grass. Then one of my other people piped up and said, ‘Do you see those shadows?’ And I figured, okay, it’s not just me. So we stood there watching this and then the lights started again—the lights were arching from the grass. Meanwhile, this cold came in—it had to be in the high 70s that night but that cold made it feel like 30 or 40 degrees. And the cold would come in and then leave and then come in again. Then everybody else except me started to smell flowers. So people are smelling flowers, we’re watching the shadows and seeing the lights, and then it got quiet again. There were no more shadow people and no more lights, but we heard men’s voices out in the field.”
“Could you hear what they were saying?” I asked.
“We couldn’t make out what they were saying; all we could tell was that they were male voices. And we could hear movement in the tree line. At this point I thought someone was out there trying to mess with us, so one of my people went out and walked out there with a flashlight, but there was nobody there. The voices came right up beside us on the tree line and then things got quiet and we started hearing the horses again. The horses were coming from the other side of the bridge, and then we heard a growl right behind us where the water was—it sounded like a man growling. I turned and said to my people, ‘Did you hear that?’ And someone in my group said, ‘What, that growl?’ And we hit the ground running and we jumped in our van to leave.”

The aftermath of the battle at Gettysburg was hellish. Bodies, spent weapons, and carnage were strewn everywhere. Tillie Pierce was 15 years old at the time of the battle, and she published her memoir of the battle 26 years later. On July 5, 1863, Tillie and some of her friends went to Little Round Top to survey the post-battle field. She wrote:
As we stood upon those mighty boulders, and looked down into the chasms between, we beheld the dead lying there just as they had fallen during the struggle. From the summit of Little Round Top, surrounded by the wrecks of battle, we gazed upon the valley of death beneath. The view there spread out before us was terrible to contemplate! It was an awful spectacle! Dead soldiers, bloated horses, shattered cannon and caissons, thousands of small arms. In fact everything belonging to army equipments was there in one confused and indescribable mass.

The ghosts who haunt Gettysburg came from the south and they came from the north. Brothers and kin were locked in mortal battle against one another in the once-quiet fields of this rural town. Their spirits have proven President Lincoln correct—we never will forget what they did here, where they walked, and why they died.

About the Author:

Jeff Belanger has been studying and writing about the supernatural for regional and national publications since 1997. He’s the founder of, the largest supernatural community on the Web, and the author of more than 10 books. Belanger lectures throughout the United States and has appeared on more than 100 radio and television programs worldwide, including The History Channel, The Travel Channel, Living TV (UK), The Maury Show, The CBS News Early Show, National Public Radio, The BBC, Australian Radio Network, Coast to Coast AM, and The ‘X’ Zone. He currently haunts Massachusetts with his wife, Megan, and daughter, Sophie.

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