Friday, October 26, 2012

Ghosts--Seriously (Part 3 repost)

This post originally ran in March 2010. I figured it would be a timely re-post for Halloween this year.


Ghosts--Seriously (Part 3 of 3)

This may be the "Big Rock" mentioned later in the post, just inside the treeline at the right center of the shot, immediately to the right of the large oak.

A closer view of the rock; it's about 6' high. Photos by the author, 9 March 2010.

My home sits along the route the Confederates used on their way both to and from Gettysburg in 1863. This post concerns a series of odd--dare I say ghostly?--personal experiences as I run along a particular section of road, between the villages of Marion and New Franklin, perhaps 5 miles from my home. This is where the 17 mile long Confederate "wagon train of the wounded" passed on its way back to Virginia.

Following the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee entrusted the conduct of the wagon train of the wounded to Brigadier General John D. Imboden, to try to get the wounded of the Army of Northern Virginia safely back home. Imboden was a gifted writer and left behind a detailed and chilling account, excerpted here. He starts with his orders from General Lee:

We must now return to Virginia. As many of our poor wounded as possible must be taken home. I have sent for you, because your men and horses are fresh and in good condition, to guard and conduct our train back to Virginia. The duty will be arduous, responsible, and dangerous...You will re-cross the mountain by the Chambersburg road, and then proceed to Williamsport by any route you deem best....

Imboden explains the logistics:

About 4 P. M. [Gary: this was on 4 July, the day after the 3-day battle ended] the head of the column was put in motion near Cashtown, and began the ascent of the mountain in the direction of Chambersburg. I remained at Cashtown giving directions and putting in detachments of guns and troops at what I estimated to be intervals of a quarter or a third of a mile...the entire column was seventeen miles long when drawn out on the road and put in motion.

Then Imboden reveals the awful nature of the gruesome caravan:

After dark I set out from Cashtown to gain the head of the column during the night...For four hours I hurried forward on my way to the front, and in all that time I was never out of hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. Scarcely one in a hundred had received adequate surgical aid, owing to the demands on the hard working surgeons from still worse eases that had to be left behind. Many of the wounded in the wagons had been without food for thirty-six hours. Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed, and still oozing wounds. Very few of the wagons had even a layer of straw in them, and all were without springs. The road was rough and rocky from the heavy washings of the preceding day. The jolting was enough to have killed strong men, if long exposed to it. From nearly every wagon as the teams trotted on, urged by whip and shout, came such cries and shrieks as these: "Oh God! Why can't I die? My God! Will no one have mercy and kill me Stop! Oh! For God's sake, stop just for one minute; take me out and leave me to die on the roadside." I am dying! I am dying! My poor wife, my dear children, what will become of you?

Some were simply moaning; some were praying and others uttering the most fearful oaths and execrations that despair and agony could wring from them; while a majority, with a stoicism sustained by sublime devotion to the cause they fought for; endured without complaint unspeakable tortures, and even spoke with cheer and confront to their unhappy comrades of less will or more acute nerves. Occasionally a wagon would be passed from which only low, deep moans could be heard.

Adding another piece of the puzzle: in 1963, the 100th anniversary of the battle, the Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce published a soft-cover booklet entitled "Lee's Invasion--The Great Decision 1863." It included some anecdotes under the heading "My Grandfather Told Me--Personal Reminiscences 100 Years Later." One story stands out, submitted by Misses Carrie and Thelma Small of Marion, PA:

After the battle across the mountain, lots of the rebels came back to this section on their way to get home. This was the way they came and maybe they thought it was the only way back to Virginia. Two of the rebels died in the field and were buried opposite the Big Rock. When another reb was buried an Indian skeleton was found and buried back with him.

The 17 mile long wagon train of the wounded passed this way some 147 years ago. Along this section are several rock outcrops, any one of which could be the "Big Rock" of the Misses Small story. On occasion, when I have run along this stretch when it's quiet, say in the early morning or after dark, I actually sense a faint presence. It manifests itself as a sort of vague murmuring behind me, and a faint or imagined footfall in step with mine. But when I stop to listen, all I sense is an indistinct rustle that may only be the wind.

Then I resume my running, and the feeling returns that I am hearing faint footfalls or low voices.

Unlike my other local ghostly experiences while running (here and here), this is much more qualitative than sensory, and also a bit more disquieting. I was going to use the word malevolent, but that would be overstating. I do feel slightly uneasy here, but only slightly, and have never seriously considered altering my route to avoid this stretch of road.

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