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.
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.