Our senior editor talks about her new book, “Haunted U.S. Battelfields,” the perfect read for a creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky All Hallows Eve.
By Mary Beth Crain
I’ve always been intrigued by the paranormal, which, along with an interest in the Civil War, made me jump at the chance to author a book about haunted battlefields. What I discovered as I was writing it is that there’s basically no way you can discount the existence of ghosts, on or off the battlefield. There are way too many documented accounts of phantom-sightings by unsuspecting tourists, battlefield park workers and others, not only all across the U.S. but everywhere in the world where people died either in, or as a result of, violence.
My research travels took me all the way from the French and Indian War to World War II, with stops at the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, Little Big Horn, the Alamo…it was quite a ride.
The most haunted battlefield in the U.S. is, hands down, Gettysburg. In fact, it’s considered the most haunted place in the U.S., period. Practically every tourist or resident there, it seems, has a tale to tell about seeing a ghost, whether at Gettysburg National Military Park or in the town of Gettysburg itself.
There’s the infamous Devil’s Den, an area of intense fighting and carnage, where a Confederate infantryman has appeared time and again, and a friendly, raggedly-dressed young man regularly pops up out of nowhere, helping tourists to take photos, and just as suddenly vanishing when they turn to thank him.
There are haunted hotels like the Cashtown Inn, a former Civil War hospital, where spirit whisperings and moanings have been reported, and a ghost enjoys turning lights on and off and locking guests out of their rooms. Check in to the Farnsworth House, where Lincoln supposedly wrote his “Gettysburg Address,” and you could be one of the many tourists who comes across a beautiful, mysterious woman in the ballroom, in a Civil War-era gown, dancing around the room, as if to an invisible orchestra, and then vaporizing into thin air.
Apparitions of Union and Confederate soldiers have been seen in the railroad station, post office, streets, shops—so often, in fact, that they’re practically taken for granted. One psychic who visited the area proclaimed it ridiculously haunted. “There are so many spirits around here that if you could see them, you’d be saying ‘Excuse me,’ every two seconds because you’d always be bumping into one!”
The Alamo wins the award for the next most haunted site in America. I devoted three whole chapters to that one. Countless tourists and workers there have reported seeing a strange little boy dressed as a child might have been in 1836, peering mournfully down from an upper story window and evaporating before their eyes. There’s a famous ghost in frontier garb who’s always dripping with water, like he’s been out in the rain, even on sun-baked 100 degree days. Ghosts continually roam the gift shop, the barracks, and the chapel. At one nearby hotel, there have been so many ghost sightings that the owners demand that the paying guests treat the non-paying ones with respect, not fear, because “the spirits are quite well-mannered.”
A lot of these accounts of the paranormal are fairly standard. But a few are so fantastic that if there hadn’t been numerous witnesses to them, I’d have shrugged them off as hallucinations, pure and simple. Two of my favorites concern the haunted Hessian portrait at Pennsylvania’s General Wayne Inn, and the apparition of the entire Battle of Shiloh at New Orleans’ historic Beauregard-Keyes House.
In 1775, the British purchased some 30,000 Hessian troops from the German state of Hesse-Cassel and shipped the men off to America, to fight in the Revolutionary War. After the war, many Hessians settled in and around Pennsylvania—during and after life. To this day, Pennsylvanians report seeing the shadowy figures of Hessian soldiers, flitting in and out of the woods, barns and other parts of the countryside, seemingly looking for peace. But the most popular Hessian watering hole was the old General Wayne Inn of Merion, PA, which, until it closed in 2001 and re-opened as a synagogue, boasted at least eight Hessian phantoms—the most outrageous of which resided in 200-year-old oil painting!
This painting—a portrait of a Hessian officer—was located on a wall in the main dining room. Everyone who saw it remarked on its “creepiness.” The officer was handsome and haughty looking, with cold, glinting eyes that seemed to follow you, people said. It turned out, however, that it wasn’t only the eyes that followed you.
The old caretaker, a guy we’ll call Willie, was cleaning the dining room one night when the portrait started to move and shift, and the officer began to assume a three-dimensional form. Willie wisely bolted, but because he loved his job, returned the following night, to do his routine cleaning. He was scared silly, of course, but figured he’d give it one more try. This time, however, when he glanced up at the portrait, he was horrified to find that while the background was intact, the officer was missing. In his place was just a black space.
“I looked around,” Willie later recalled, “and I saw him. He was standing in the corner, in the same exact uniform that was in the painting. The blue coat, white breeches, gold cap. He was tall, skinny and mad as hell.”
Willie turned to leave, but the Hessian began striding after him, yelling something in German. The old janitor flung his mop at his ghostly assailant and ran out of the inn and as far down the road as he could before he collapsed. He never returned to the General Wayne—even though the next day, the Hessian was back in the portrait, and there was no sign of any disturbance.
If this one isn’t wild enough for you, how about the ghost of General Pierre Gustave Toutant de Beauregard, the dapper Confederate commander who never forgave himself for losing the Battle of Shiloh? It seems that the General haunts his old haunt, the Beauregard-Keyes House of New Orleans. But there’s more. During the night, the ballroom of the house is suddenly transformed into a phantom re-enactment of Shiloh, complete with the sounds and smells of battle!
Horrified residents of the Beauregard-Keyes house have reported seeing a misty landscape of trees, a river and hills that resembled an impressionist painting, with exhausted, bedraggled soldiers frozen at silent attention. Then, to the sounds of crashing of gunfire and piercing screams, limbs begin flying through the air and men fall, ripped apart by cannon shot. The bloodbath goes on until the first rays of dawn appear, at which point the scene fades away and the ballroom returns to normal.
You don’t believe in ghosts? Well, maybe “Haunted U.S. Battlefields” will change your mind. Check it out—and keep the light on.
Comment on this essay here.
Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate.
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