The Real Ghosts of Gettysburg

by markacres on April 8, 2010 · 2 comments

By Mark Acres

Visitors to Gettysburg quickly learn about the battlefield’s ghosts.

Every tourist shop and book store carries a goodly and growing number of books and pamphlets about various hauntings on the hallowed ground. The ghost business became the principal profession of one former Gettysburg park ranger in the past decade, and more than one ranger today claims to have had unexplainable experiences on the field, especially at night. “Ghost hunters” pose such a threat to battlefield preservation that controlling their activities on park grounds at night consumes quite a bit of the park security staff’s energy, and has forced the adoption of new night time park closing regulations.

Some visitors to Gettysburg experience sights, sounds, and feelings that they can’t explain. One cannot ignore that fact.

I well remember a fine summer afternoon in 1998. I was touring Gettysburg with my close friend Bernie. A first-time visitor, Bernie eagerly tramped the field, fascinated like a young child with a new hobby, soaking up what historical data I could provide him, my words mingling with the sights and smells and the feel of that hallowed earth beneath his feet. On our first day, while our wives pursued their own sightseeing, Bernie drove the two of us to the parking area between Plum Run, right by the “Slaughter Pen,” and Devil’s Den. I hopped out of the car on the passenger side, anxious to tell what I knew of the many stories about this place. I turned to Bernie only to seem him standing – no, rather, leaning – against the side of the car, his face suddenly pale. He drew deep heaving breaths and tears began to trickle down his face from red, weepy eyes. My first thought was a heart attack – we were both large men in our late forties. Bernie stood a good six-foot-three and weighed over 260 pounds. He had only recently quit a heavy smoking habit and had had a pacemaker for several years. I ran to his side, fearful that he would fall, uncertain what to do.

Bernie supported him self against the car with his left arm and extended his right toward me, his palm raised up to my face, his head shaking back and forth. I knew to back away, that he was alright but needed a moment. I waited, glancing around, trying not to stare. The afternoon sun played off the dry rocks of Devil’s Den and the boulder strewn bed of Plum Run; shimmering heat waves wriggled upward from the paved parking lot.

Bernie at length drew another deep breath, stood up away from the car, and wiped his cheeks with the back of one big hand. When he spoke, his voice came out a husky rattle.

“What happened here, “ he asked.

Not wanting to pollute his experience with new information, I stifled the urge to launch into a story about the fight for Devil’s Den. Instead, I simply responded, “Why? What happened to you?”

Bernie said that as he stepped from the car, the most profound feeling of sadness he could remember overcame him, a sadness that plunged him into despair. He could not tell from whence this feeling came nor why. It was a sudden, inexplicable, overwhelming sensation of grief coupled with utter hopelessness.

Bernie is not a man given to such outbursts of strange emotion. He is a Master’s level behavior specialist, a respected professional in his field. Those who know him respect his intellect and his judgment. He is neither superstitious nor gullible. To this day he remains convinced that in some inexplicable way the violent events of July 2, 1863 in the wet rocks of Plum Run stream reached out to him. Those events invaded his mind and wrenched his heart. For a few brief moments, he felt what the Confederate soldiers who struggled and died there had felt.

Ghosts?

Countless stories much more graphic than that of Bernie’s experience fill Gettysburg lore. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of credible witnesses have experienced apparitions in the fog that often shrouds the field, seen the campfires of the dead glowing through the night in Spangler’s Wood, or heard the tramping of 15,000 ghostly feet across the broad expanse of open ground leading to The Angle on Cemetery Ridge. The tourist industry fuels and thrives upon this fascination with the supernatural, with spectral soldiers, trapped souls, and the despairing wounded who re-experience their own death night after dreary night, soaking the very soil of the battlefield with their sorrowful energy.

Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t deny all the tales and can’t claim to explain them. I love a good ghost story as much as the next person. But I don’t believe ghost stories and I don’t believe in any of the Gettysburg ghosts they describe.

Why?

Because I have met the real ghosts of Gettysburg.

The real ghosts of Gettysburg are still flesh and blood. They come from all over the country, and a few even come from foreign shores – just like the immigrants who fought on both sides in the great battle. They come, drawn to the Gettysburg field by an irresistible tug, a longing to experience what the soldiers who fought here experienced, and to make those experiences – joyful and painful, elating and tragic – live again both in themselves and in the minds of others.

My colleague Kip May has captured digital images of some of these ghosts.

Ghosts in the Fog

Here they linger in the foggy background, awaiting food to fuel them for the rigors of the dawning day. We can barely distinguish their shapes in the thick fog, but already we can see that these particular ghosts are Union men. They gather near their stacked weapons and the hint of flame from the morning fire, a fire struggling against the clingy wetness of the air.

In the foreground their daily rations await. For each man, a potato, an onion, a candle, some slab bacon, and a hardtack biscuit. This is real food for real men of real flesh and blood. And so in the photo it juts forward from the ghostly world of the past, reaching through the mists of time into our very real present experience. Or, perhaps it stretches from our present back toward those ghostly men, back into the past, like an offering of food to the dead on the Mexican Dia de los Muertos.

The Past Reaches Forward

Their morning cooking done, these ghosts prepare for more serious action. On the right, a sergeant discusses with a corporal the likely course their unit must pursue today – perhaps skirmishing forward through the open field to their right. On the left of the picture, a solitary private, head covered against the morning damp, stares through a century and a half at us, wondering what strange implement it is with which we reach out to immortalize his soul in a string of billions of digits. In the foreground, the soldier’s gear pushes toward us, solid artifacts from the past bringing the past physically into the present. The canteen looks new, the knapsack clean, the cartridge box unused, but the hat and blanket roll have veteran status, and poking from behind the crown of the hat the barrel of the musket reminds us of the true nature of the business of this coming day.

Ghostly Dance

For these specters, darkness brings surcease from the strain of battle. Colorful music twangs from the banjo and the wash tub bass. Firelight leaps skyward to illuminate a celebratory moment, and a tin cup of “O Be Joyful,” soldiers’ moonshine, adds to the festive spirit. The songs are songs of freedom, songs of the Union, songs of the necessary duty of battle, and songs of the sadness of mothers, widows, and orphans.

The ghosts in these photos are Civil War reenactors, men (and many women) who donate their time to reenacting the lives of Civil War era soldiers and civilians. They present living history programs and demonstrations all around the United States. Rare is the Northeastern, Midwestern, or Southern community that doesn’t have a Civil War battle reenactment during the summer months. Individual Civil War reenactors – and there are thousands of them scattered throughout the US, Great Britain and even Australia – spend scores to hundreds of hours each year to learn battle drill, proper dress, and proper Civil War era behavior both on and off the battlefield – for example, at the many period fancy balls that are held, complete with punch, dancing, live music, and period manners. These individuals spend thousands of dollars of their own money on their uniforms, clothing, weapons, and equipment.

Reenactors are a vital part of the Park Service’s living history program at the Gettysburg National Battlefield. Almost every weekend during decent weather months various reenactment groups visit Gettysburg, setting up realistic Civil War military camps and presenting demonstrations of infantry, artillery and cavalry drill and combat. These men and women literally bring the Civil War to life again on the Gettysburg field.

The past is irretrievably gone. We cannot recapture it, any more than the middle aged man can recapture the naiveté and energy of his twenties, or the aging belle the fading beauty of her days of glamour. The past is dead. The soldiers who fought at Gettysburg – those who died and those who survived – now lie buried. The cannon, even those that still stand vigil on that storied field, are silent.

Not all the monuments of stone erected at Gettysburg, nor all the drawings, paintings, books, and films about the battle keep those three days truly alive. No. Gettysburg – the event, the battle, the violent, microcosmic encapsulation of the entire war – remains alive only thanks to our own consciousness of it. It is not the books, but our reading and discussing them, not the films but our viewing of them, not the monuments, but our visiting and pondering them, not the field itself but our treading it, not the battle but our reenactment of it, in body and mind, that truly lives, and it is in these things that the past can have a ghostly life of its own.

Some say ghosts endlessly relive, re-experience, a fixed moment in time, usually a moment linked to a specific place, and they say such places are haunted. Gettysburg is haunted. I know it is, because I have met the ghosts of Gettysburg. I am one of them, and as you are reading this, so are you.

(Photos courtesy of Kip May Photography, Bloomington, Indiana)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

CheathamHill April 9, 2010 at 7:30 am

your best ‘blog entry’ to date IMNHO….Five star ending 🙂
Though a good number of reenactors do more of a dis-service to history, there are the smaller number who attempt to portray it as accurately as one can 150 years later. But I agree…those like you..or I…or any other regular visitors to this blog or the hundreds of others CW related ARE those very ghosts you speak of.
Again, kudos….
I await eagerly your updated blogs daily. Great site

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j.d. January 25, 2017 at 2:25 pm

I am a mother, wife and never have had any metal disorders.I am Registered Nurse graduate and a person of science.
On a stifling hot day in August 2016 my 11yr. old daughter and I went out to Devils Den to have a look around. She went to play on a boulder and I sat with my legs hanging over the sides of an adjacent boulder.
I found myself singing “Dixie,”& hadn’t finished the first verse before I felt extreme despair & sadness come over me. This gloom intensified to impending doom.
These emotions were immediately accompanied by a feeling of a small projectile that penetrated the back of my cranian, entering at an angle on the right side, back of my ear appox.2cm behind my ear at mid height. Calling it a headache is a understatement.Never in my life before nor after, have i felt a pain in my head in which I did that day.
My child finished playing and stood in front of me and said,”Mom,whats wrong?” Apparently she saw a drastic change in her mother. I told her my head hurt, lets go. Upon walking back down to the creek where the car was parked, the pain subsided and within moments I felt “normal” again.
I imagined one would feel unimaginable physical pain when they get shot; however i know differently now. Granted,i felt great discomfort but the emotional longing to live was a much greater pain than the “grapeshot” i was “struck down” by.
One finds it incomprehensible until; It happens to you. I’ve a
hypothesis; they know who they can affect, whos susceptible and whos not.
I know that i felt, what i felt, for no apparent logical rhythm or reason. None of us have all the answers so dont be so sure to discount all the credible witnesses to this type of phenomenon. As I learned first hand; “truth is stranger than fiction.”

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