Ghosts of Gettysburg: 150 Years Later
by Marlon Heimerl – HalloweenCostumes.com
In nearly two and half centuries of U.S. history, no single event claimed more American lives than the Civil War. Each bayonet brandished, bullet fired and cannon detonated was fixed to kill an American after all.
Recent adjustments count American Civil War deaths at roughly 750,000, outpacing any other U.S. military engagement by a long shot. Take the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates of the 116,516 and 405,399 American casualties from WWI and WWII respectively (in battle and non-theatre), and their combined 521,915 deaths are still greatly eclipsed by Civil War losses.
In fact, by taking another step and tossing in American deaths (battle and non-theatre) from the American Revolution (4,435), the War of 1812 (2,260), the Mexican War (1,733), the Korean War (54,246), Vietnam (90,220) and the total number of hostile deaths in the “Global War on Terrorism” (5,078), the combined total of 679,887 deaths in all other major American wars still doesn’t graze Civil War losses.
Bloodiest of the Bloody
Amid such unimaginable destruction, emotional suffering and physical torment, it’s no surprise that many Civil War sites are heralded as paranormal hotspots today. It certainly fits the mold of prevailing paranormal theory that so many grizzly deaths in one location may fuel the likelihood of a haunting.
Prolific casualties at sites like Gettysburg and Antietam make them stand out as testing grounds for this theory. With an estimated 51,000 deaths, the Battle of Gettysburg stands ahead of the pack in terms of lives lost. While the Battle of Antietam’s claim-to-fame – an estimated 23,100 battlefield deaths in a single day – are formidable and represent the most blood shed in a single day of American battle, the sheer immensity of losses at Gettysburg makes it hands down the bloodiest battle in American history.
The Grizzly Scene
Imagine it is July 1, 1863. You are a Gettysburg local, when the sounds of war begin to fill the air.
The battle time population of your small town is no more than 2,400 people. For three days, the smells, sounds and chaos of battle bombard the senses.
You find yourself in a unique place where advancements in weaponry greatly exceed advancements in medicine. Sickness runs rampant as men bite down on bullets and amputated limbs fester in disorderly piles. By July 4, 1863, the smell of gun smoke is replaced with the odor of 51,000 dead men, hot under the July sun.
As you open your door, corpses outnumber the locals by roughly 21 to one. Under such disparaging conditions, the logistics of burying the dead alone make proper burials difficult. Nameless faces, hastily dug graves, wells filled with discarded limbs and enough bodies to fill three quarters of the superdome mar the landscape. So many lives cut short in their prime – you begin wonder if peace can be obtained this way.
Gettysburg 150 Years Later
Fast forward one hundred and fifty years. You arrive in Gettysburg on July 1, 2013. With some distance, it becomes clear that if ghosts exist at all, they certainly stand a high chance of lingering in the hallowed fields and woods of Gettysburg.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the Battle of Gettysburg – an auspicious day to say the least. As a paranormal enthusiast and history buff, you tingle with excitement. If certain paranormal theories hold true, activity should be higher than usual; especially in cases of residual hauntings.
As you set out, names like Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Gettysburg orphanage, the Jennie Wade House and Triangular Field streak through your mind like specters. But what can you hope to see?
The research you conducted on top haunts in Gettysburg leading in to the trip holds promise, telling tales of incredibly active sites dotting the countryside and city. Your first stop – Little Round Top – is something too surreal for words.
Little Round Top
Since gaining the upper ground is critical in battle, Little Round Top, Big Round Top, Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill, 140 to 200 feet above the surrounding countryside, each provide a valuable vantage point. From there, you can feel the power, the importance and the significance of these hills in July of 1863.
Perhaps the hills strategic value weighed into a fabled battle-time paranormal encounter between Union soldiers and someone much unexpected; as described by Charles Wetzel in Haunted U.S.A:
“The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment had been ordered to take a hill called the “Little Round Top,” but they couldn’t find it. Suddenly a man riding a magnificent white horse and wearing a three-cornered hat appeared. He drew his sword and led the way to the hill, where the Mainers held a crucial position during the battle. The identity of the man on horseback was never in doubt; George Washington, dead since 1799, had returned from the grave to help save the country.”
If this is indeed true, then perhaps the gravity of the events of Gettysburg was already tugging at the veil, revealing goings-on from the other side?
While you don’t honestly expect to see the ghost of George Washington atop Little Round Top, as you scan the area, you swiftly shift your gaze in search of another ghostly legend that seems somehow less farfetched. According to author Dennis William Hauck, if you are lucky, a headless officer on horseback may be seen from Little Round Top – his appearance speaking volumes about the violence of his death (perhaps decapitation by cannon fire). You snap as many pictures of the Hilltop as you can, before moving onto your next destination.
Not too far off, your next stop is the site of one of the most iconic images from Gettysburg – the picture of a Rebel sharpshooter, posed after his death (rather disgracefully) by photographers in Devil’s Den for a more dramatic effect.
As you gaze upon Devil’s Den – a pile of boulders that according to Wetzel was used by Texas sharpshooters to fire upon Union soldiers atop Little Round Top – you wonder if perhaps the legends are true.
“Scruffy, rifle-toting phantoms have been appearing there ever since.” writes Wetzel.
You look about, running your hand on a stone. Mark Nesbitt, author of Haunted Pennsylvania: Ghosts And Strange Phenomena of the Keystone State, comes to mind.
He wrote of two separate sightings in the area “of a man with shoulder-length hair, bare feet, ragged unkempt clothing, and a floppy hat.” Interestingly, Texas sharpshooters who died in Devil’s Den during the battle match just that description. To think, 150 years later, they still may be steadying their mark, you feel an urge to move on.
Rosa Carmichael and Gettysburg Orphanage (a.k.a. the National Soldiers Orphans’ Homestead)
Dark history abounds in one part of Gettysburg for reasons outside of the battle itself. The next site on your list – an orphanage once headed by Rosa Carmichael – is one such place. You get a sinking feeling in your gut as you enter the fabled basement of the site.
The orphanage in Gettysburg was the source of injustices suffered by children at the hand of an abusive headmistress, Rosa. Julie Griffin, author of Ghostly Photographs, visited the orphanage herself and spoke about Rosa’s ill treatment of the orphans.
“Rosa was known to have abused some of the children in her care by placing them in shackles in the basement or in the outhouse, and hiring older boys to beat the disobedient ones with a stickâ€¦ Being in the cold, damp, confined area intensifies how restrictive this place would have been. After only a few minutes in there I wanted to get out of this space.”
Indeed, prolonged imprisonment in a dark, musty basement just might do the trick for creating something residual and unexplainable. The tightness of the room makes you feel uneasy, so you pack up shop for an encounter with a happier spirit at the Jennie Wade House.
Jennie Wade House
Knowing that a trip to Gettysburg would not be complete without paying a visit to Jennie Wade, you set off on a search for the ghost of the only civilian killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.
In an ironic and unfortunate turn of events, the story holds that Jennie (Virginia) Wade, did everything she could to stay out of the fray. When on July 1, 1863, Confederate shells from the west began to explode on the village, Jennie was eager to get out of harm’s way.
In The True Story of “Jennie” Wade: A Gettsburg Maid, author John White Johnston writes, “The commotion and serious danger resulting from these concussions suggested to the house holders that they either betake themselves to their cellars or leave for points of safety, quite naturally in the section of the town to the south, as the battle was on the north and northwest.”
Johnston goes on to explain the remainder of Jennie’s sad tale. Believing she was fleeing for safety, Jennie left for the home of her sister near Cemetery Hill. As day faded to evening and Jennie settled into her sister’s house, it became clear that the battle lines moved and in so doing, placed Jennie’s “safe haven” squarely in the line of fire. The night grew long, and in time July 1 slipped over the horizon to reveal a July 2 sunrise.
Soon Union sharpshooters took up posts around the brick house, taking Confederate fire. That afternoon, a 10 lb. Parrot shrapnel shell fired from Oak Ridge struck a brick wall on the south side of the house; though fortunately, it did not detonate. The remainder of the day was filled with fighting around the house, and sleep that night was not easy to come by.
Near 7 a.m. on Friday, July 3, Confederate sharpshooters continued their firing at the north windows of the house. One hour later, while cooking in the kitchen, Jennie Wade was struck and fatally wounded by a Confederate sharpshooter firing from the Rupp Tannery office through the North door.
Falling dead “without a groan,” it’s natural to assume that Jennie was anything but ready for her death. To this day, her house is frequented and the hole from the bullet that claimed Jennie’s life can still be seen in the North door. You feel sad for the poor soul, caught up in the whirlwind of battle, and move along to one last site before the day is done.
As seen on Parnormal.About.com, a 2001 video shot by Tom Underwood of the next destination – Triangular Field – offers what some have called “one of the most compelling ghost videos ever recorded.” In the video, orbs and wispy figures move in and out of frame and at times, seem to resemble the contours of a shoulder or head from a disembodied entity.
Nebitt tells of a bloody skirmish that ensued in Triangular Field, perhaps adding credence to the visions seen on Underwood’s video:
“A part of Smith’s New York Battery held the top of Devil’s Den, and their guns swept the Triangular Field. Several assaults by Hood’s Texans failed to dislodge the guns or the Union infantry that backed them up. Then Benning’s Georgians tried to take the field. Alongside the Texans, they were successful, but not without great cost. Benning’s brigade had well over five hundred casualties, many of which occurred during the fight for the Triangular Field.”
With such a concentration of casualties, ghostly sightings or not, you feel an auspicious chill run up your spine. As you take a final look over the fields and hills, you stop for a moment and ponder the contrast. How could such a beautiful, pastoral place be witness to something so dark without being changed forever?
A House Indivisible
The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg will be a spectacle for historians, paranormal enthusiasts, patriots and people from all walks of life. Whether the Anniversary will yield more ghostly revelations is yet to be determined. Yet perhaps that is less important than simply remembering the lives the men of Gettysburg, and how they laid down life and limb for country 150 years ago.
As men in Union uniforms and the Confederate grey take to the field this July to send out cannon echoes from 150 years hence, it is important to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As the wind rustles through the grasses between cannon volleys, we remember the 51,000 men who were silenced forever so that liberty could live. Together, united, with our moral compasses intact, those present on July 1, 2013 can pay homage to the lives of the fallen, who certainly live on through us.
Gugliotta, G. (2012). “New Estimate Raises Civil war Death Toll.” The New York Times. Link
“America’s Wars.” (2011). Department of Veterans Affairs. Link
“Battle of Gettysburg: The Battle of Gettysburg and The American Civil War.” GettysburgFoundation.org. Link
Gettysburg National Military Park. “Scenic Vistas.” National Park Service. Link
Hauck, DW. (2002). Haunted Places: The National Directory: Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings, and Other Supernatural Locations. Penguin. Link
Nesbitt, M. (2006). Haunted Pennsylvania: Ghosts And Strange Phenomena of the Keystone State. Stackpole Books. Link
Griffin, J. (2012). Ghostly Photographs. AuthorHouse. Link
Johnston, JW. (1917). The True Story of “Jennie” Wade: A Gettysburg Maid. Link