Gettysburg “Ghostly” Experiences

Many of my readers might not know, but I’ve been fascinated with Civil War era history since I was a little kid.  Growing up I used to sketch freehand from paintings or pictures of civil war battles and would spend long hours reading books about the men who fought them, and why they fought them (some came out better than others, as I never had formal training and just did them because I enjoyed doing it).

Slavery, of course, was the biggest issue.  As any civil war historian will tell you, slavery was vital to both the north and the south, prior to the war, and President Lincoln was under pressure from all sorts of people–textile owners, slave traders, and other industries, as well as immigrants who feared losing work to freed slaves, in the north and slave owners and other industries which relied on slave labor in the south–to do away with his abolitionism.

But slavery wasn’t the only issue.  Only 1/3 of southerners owned slaves, and those who owned them had to be able to afford them, which meant the majority of the upper class in the south.  Your average soldier, the rank and file infantry, the cavalry, the artilleryman, didn’t own slaves.  Slavery, for the soldier of the south, was not the reason they fought the war.  It was, in essence, the right of their state to make decisions for itself.  State rights, you would hear among camps, and less government control over what they could and couldn’t do.  Of course, the economist would say it all goes back to slavery (because the government was saying, essentially, you can’t own slaves), but the soldier didn’t see it as something about slaves, and most were just concerned about how and in what way the government might try to control them next.

I say this because I once reenacted and did living history events at Gettysburg, sometimes every weekend, over summers, and in Virginia (the Shenandoah Valley).  This was, of course, many years ago, when I was younger and less concerned about the larger picture.   But even now as I read through texts, sometimes in their original languages, thousands of years old, I don’t forget about my love of the American Civil War era and the fun I had (for what seems like) so long ago.

This past weekend I went back to Gettysburg on vacation, and as has happened before my connection with that part of the past (and my past) was rekindled.  And this is perhaps where my blog post really begins.

I had a rather interesting set of experiences this weekend.  Many who know me know that I am not a believer in the paranormal.  I have written (in my book, even) of the fact that I believe Ghost stories, overall, to be cultural narratives, which are meant to teach life lessons, that is to say, while many people believe in them, the stories can be traced back to antiquity.  The story of the improperly buried soldier dates back to the Iliad and the Odyssey, the haunted house back to Athens in narratives from Pliny the Younger and satirists like Lucian, the stories where a ghost will attach itself to artifacts date back to ancient Greece as well and are repeated by Romans.  So to those stories of jilted lovers returning for revenge, or those spirits unable to rest because they have unfinished business.  All of these have a link to the past.  One can trace their history, their evolution, none stand free from their intertextual connections.

Knowing this, however, confuses me greatly, especially after this weekend.  Again, I stress that I am not a believer of souls living on after death, or hauntings.  So my story I am about to explain is about as confusing and specious to me as it is to you.  But here it goes.

The George George House as it is today.

On Friday night, we were strolling downtown and I had been telling some of the ghost stories I’d picked up over the years about the town.  We were fast approaching the George George House (yes, that is really the name of the owner at the time of the battle), the place where Gen. Reynolds’ body was laid for the night after he had been killed on the battlefield during the first day’s fight.  The body would be watched over by Mrs. George throughout the night and the next day, his body was transported back to his family in Lancaster.  Today the house is an Olde Tyme Photo place for tourists.  As the story goes, a few years back, someone was window shopping after the stores on the street were closed for the night, and decided to peer into the George George House, thinking it might be a good idea to get a picture taken the next morning.  For the two friends, they were quite surprised by what they say inside. Rather than the typical assortment of costumes, they saw a bed with a man, who appeared to be in a Union officer’s uniform, and a woman rocking beside him reading a book.  The women were rather intrigued by this spectacle and decided to come back in the morning.  When they arrived early the next day, they were disturbed to find that the inside of the house looked completely different.  When they approached the manager, they informed the two women that they didn’t have any setup like that and had not known why they’d seen what they had.

As a reenactor, I had stayed about 50 yards away, encamped on Cemetery Ridge at the Quality in, for nearly every weekend during the season.  I have occasionally looked into the window, skeptically, and never experienced anything.  Not a thing.  On Friday night, however, after I finish telling this story, I jokingly looked into the window again, expecting to see nothing.  But what I saw really shook me, and I have no explanation for it.  When I looked into the window, I saw two figures standing on the inside of the doorway, leaning against the frame, staring into the room.  I could make out faint light, like candlelight, but nothing more beyond them.  I didn’t bother to look any closer because I had already jumped back.  The figures remained there.  My first thought was that the employees were there at the door, but it was already after 9:30 in the evening and the store had been closed for hours at that point.  My next thought was that maybe the owner had placed manikins at the door; not with the intention to scare someone, but perhaps he had them outside displaying some of his uniforms.

I refused to accept what I had seen and made a note to return the next day to find out what it was.  I’m not one to just accept anything at face value.  The next day I did go into the shop and looked around, including in the back room, and didn’t see anything.  All of the uniforms were on hangars and on display racks, and I also noted that the only way in and out would be the front door, so in order for there to have been manikins there, the owner would have to move them into place before closing the door and locking it.  I asked anyway, and of course the owner knew I was asking because I had seen something.  He explained to me that people experience things all the time in the house; it was just one of the odd things about the place.  He didn’t offer any explanations or suggest anything supernatural; simply that people often see or hear things they can’t explain.  I told him my story and he wasn’t at all surprised. I was still uncomfortable with the experience.

Skip ahead to later that evening.  I had to see if the owner was telling the truth; after all, who isn’t to say he hides the manikins and brings them out after hours before he leaves.  So I went back around 9pm again.  The store was closed, the lights were out, but we could all see flashes of light inside the building through the windows.  It looked as though the camera flash was going off; but when I mustered up the courage to look in, it looked more like light that was moving throughout the inside of the building.  That was all I needed to see and I booked it.  I’m still a little freaked out about the whole ordeal.  I have never had an experience like this before and I had been on the battlefield, at night, with full authentic gear on, and never had a single experience.  Yet this one weekend, it was as if a plethora of events occurred around this house.  And I had been the witness to it.

Some clarifications: The street was dark, I was not seeing reflections from other light sources outside the building.  I am positive.  I started looking around when I first saw the flashes.  The company with me also witnessed the flashes, though they did not look in the window on the night I saw the two figures.  It is possible that this is all part of a grand scheme by the owner (though I don’t want to accuse the owner of that since that could be taken as slander); there might have been a set-up on Friday night inside the door and there might have been a light set to go off at certain intervals in the building on Saturday night.  It’s possible; of course it is.  Maybe it was a someone in there taking pictures.  Who knows, but I looked in and what i saw didn’t look like any sort of camera flash I’ve seen.  And I have considered, for the past two days, what might have happened.  I have second-guessed myself continuously.  I just don’t know what to make of it.

I don’t accept, however, that what I witnessed was spiritual–I didn’t see a ‘soul’, and I don’t think that what I saw was anything paranormal, in the sense that I could interact with it and it with me.  But I did see something and I saw it clear enough that it has really left an impression on me.

8 Responses

  1. Very interesting, man!

    I would be interested myself in checking this place (and others) out, out of sheer curiosity.

  2. I’ve never witnessed anything like that but have heard numerous similar stories from friends. Fascinating…

  3. Tom,

    Have you ever visited Shiloh? It is out in the middle of nowhere so you don’t see all the signs of modern development that you do around the Gettysburg battlefield. I was there on a April morning last year that was very like the day of the battle and it was easy to imagine myself back in 1862. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but I found the experience extremely moving. I can only guess how I would have felt if I had been there at night.

    I also know how moving it was for me at Gettysburg when I stood on Seminary Ridge and looked across the Emmetsburg Road at Cemetery Ridge and imagined Pickett’s brigade looking at the same sight. As a reenactor, you have no doubt thought through and contemplated that battle many times and I have no doubt that being there is a much more intense experience for you than it is for me.

    I don’t doubt how real the experience was for you, but I suspect that the suggestibility of the human mind is sufficient to account for it. I think I am a little jealous though.

  4. Vinny,

    I have not been to Shiloh, but the Shenandoah Valley is just as amazing; in 1862 there was a whole campaign there, and at night it gets eerily still and clear and in the morning, especially in the fall, it can get cold and brisk and the wind bites. It’s quite amazing. I can understand why the Virginians fought so hard for it.

    I don’t know how jealous you should be though of my experience. It’s haunted my thoughts since. Not at all an easy thing to cope with; especially not for a rationalist. And you might very well be right about the suggestibility of the human mind.

  5. I know that the intensity of my experiences seems to depend on how much I know about the historical events. My wife and I went to Paris in April and we drove out one to day to visit the WWI battlefield at the Somme. While that was interesting, it didn’t have as deep an effect on me because I haven’t read as much about the first World War as I have about about the Civil War and I didn’t know the same kind of details about the Somme as I did about Shiloh. At Shiloh, I already knew a fair amount about the ebb and flow of the battle and the key locations and events before I went there. At the Somme, my knowledge was much more general. Of course Shiloh was only a two day battle and the Somme went on for months.

    I haven’t had the chance to visit the Virginia battlefields yet, but I will put the Shenandoah Valley at the top of my list next time I get out that way.

  6. I think this kind of thing is probably more common then you think. I agree with Vinnyjh that the mind is very susceptible to suggestion. Remember, the mind only wants to justify what it believes. You dress in the period, re-enact the period, and share the stories of the period, I’d be more surprised if you DIDN’T see anything. The closest example I could give was when my close friend died 7 years ago. My mind had become so used to her presence and seeing her often that I would swear that I would see her walk by a doorway, or hear her walking in the house. It wasn’t her. it wasn’t her ghost, it was my mind fucking with me.

    Here’s my question though. Didn’t you have your cell on you ? You couldn’t take any pictures ? lol

  7. That’s just it Jake, I never saw anything while I was in period attire. Ever. And I had looked in that window often when I did reenact. Nothing at all was there except the normal photo supplies. But when I looked in this past weekend, I know what I saw. Now, granted, maybe it was the owner messing with passersby, but I can’t reasonably conclude why he would want to scare people off. And then there were the flashing lights. And both I and my girlfriend saw them. It was not something imagined. And why would I imagine something different than what the ghost story had been? I didn’t see a bed or a caretaker…I saw two individuals, inside the door, looking in at something.

    As for the camera, I did not take a picture of the two figures because (a) I was in a state of shock at what just transpired and (b) I didn’t have the guts to stand there any longer than I had to. Either way my iPhone doesn’t take very good night pictures, and all someone would have seen was black. This was 9:30 at night and the sun was already set, and the street, while lit, wasn’t bright enough for the filters in the camera to process anything inside the dark house. I don’t know why I didn’t get a picture of the flashes. Probably because I was too freaked out to stand there and start taking pictures.

  8. You wouldn’t have to be in attire. You’ve had past experience in the attire. Remember that our minds can’t tell the difference between a thought it has now, and a thought it had before. You’re there. You’re mind is assembling not only your experience but your thoughts on the experience as well. Keep that in mind as I continue to explain.

    As for the owner scarring people off ? I’d think that would cause people to come back and look for it or show their friends.

    As for the flashing light ? Again, maybe the manager? Maybe a reflection from a source that you didn’t notice ?

    Think about it this way. Your mind has created a narrative based on not only your experience but the ghost stories that have been told surrounding your experience. Then you witness some events that coincide with that narrative. Your mind WANTS to accept the narrative. So you become a little freaked out because you don’t want to accept the narrative that your mind is trying to justify. This only intensifies the feeling because fear is PART of the narrative. So you’re left feeling off center. Think of it as a form of cognitive bias. If you hadn’t been aware of the ghost stories you may have taken each thing that happened and given it a different perspective.

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