Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Gettysburg ghosts

Two documented stories

Recently, I’ve learned several lessons of Providence from the Battle of Gettysburg. And, on the lighter side, I’ve also learned a few rollicking ghost stories! :-) No, no…I’ve never seen a ghost, nor do I want to [unless it fits a clear divine plan], but I find some of the Gettysburg stories compelling.

I’ll share a couple stories, and then talk about metaphysical implications. [For those of you who know me, I wouldn’t want to ruin your day by ignoring metaphysics, lol!]

Every year the Battle of Gettysburg is reenacted by thousands of dedicated re-enactors, who take vacations and personal time to pay tribute to the great battle fought there -- three fateful days in July 1863. Many of these re-enactors experience paranormal events: sounds of drums, crackling of muskets and crashing of cannons in the distance, sights of campfires and lamps in the night, ghostly figures on horseback and shadowy lines dressed for battle, fellow ‘re-enactors’ who suddenly just disappear into thin air.

Mark Nesbitt, former ranger from Gettysburg National Park, tells one such story from 1981, on the 118th anniversary of the battle. A large re-enactment was planned, and carried out on July 1, 2 and 3 -- just like the original battle. Here is the story in Mark’s words:

A friend of mine who is as serious a re-enactor as one can get. Who, in fact, actually makes the reproduction uniforms from originals that he has studied, was participating in the mock battle of July 2, 1981. He is a collector of original weapons, accoutrements and clothing, and studies them almost under a microscope to make sure the clothing he reproduces is completely authentic. He is well known among re-enactors for his knowledge.

The day was incredibly hot and humid even for Gettysburg in July. The men were soaked to the skin and covered with grime and powder stains from the re-enactment. But, as uncomfortable as they were, they seemed to appreciate it since that was the way it was for their ancestors who fought 118 years before.

The day was drawing to a close and camp duties were over. My acquaintance and a comrade, still dressed in the uniform of Union soldiers, took a walk on the battlefield to cool off in the misty twilight. They reached Little Round Top, the scene exactly 118 years before of some of the most savage fighting in the Civil War, now part of the gentle National Military Park where visitors come to ponder. They climbed the small hill and sat on the slope to watch the sun set magnificently over the South Mountains to the west.

Perhaps there were some moments of contemplative silence between them as they looked out over the now peaceful valley between Little Round Top, and Devil’s Den and Houck’s Ridge. It doesn’t take much in the cool evening, sitting on that historic hill to imagine scores of troops surging back and forth, leaving bloody heaps of bodies like gory footprints through the wheatfields and pastures. Through the valley -- now named by someone who knew it well, the Valley of Death -- meanders a small stream. Once hailed as Plum Run, it was re-named after the battle “Bloody Run,” for the few horrible hours in American history that it literally ran red with the blood of the men who were wounded and crawled to it for succor.
Being familiar with the battle, they probably could have named some of the men who fought there, on the slope before them, 118 years ago almost to the hour. No doubt they thought of Joshua Chamberlain and his rugged men from the rocky coasts and forests of Maine, who fought with the desperation of men in the last ditch -- which is exactly where they were at: the very end of the entire Union line -- and died that way as well.

Looking out over the valley, perhaps they thought of old Lieutenant Colonel Bulger, commander of the 47th Alabama, silver-haired, shot and bleeding through the lungs and slumped down by one of the trees and left behind as his men were driven back. A young, upstart of an officer from a New York unit demanded his sword or he would shoot him. You may kill and be [darned],” the old man wheezed, unafraid of neither the youngster or that much older imposter, death.

They could have remembered Confederate General Oates’s comment that the blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks. Looking just beyond Houck’s Ridge, they may have seen in their minds’ eyes courageous Colonel Edward Cross who, despite his week-long, recurring premonitions of violent death, still strode at the head of his men into the hissing maelstrom, black handkerchief tied bandanna-style around his head rather than the customary red one he always wore into battle, called out to him the promise of promotion: “Cross, this is the last time you’ll fight without a star.” “Too late, General,” replied the morose colonel, already resigned to his fate, “This is my last battle.” He was cut down to bleed and die amongst the rapidly reddening stalks of wheat.

In the distance they could see the Peach Orchard. Perhaps they thought of young corporal Thomas Bignall, Co. C, 2nd New Hampshire, who had, along with others of his company, been issued the hideous Gardiner’s explosive mime ball. An artillery shell struck his cartridge box driving the 40 or so rounds of explosive bullets into his body and igniting them. For nearly half a minute his friends watched horribly transfixed as the bullets continued to explode within his quivering body in its prostrate dance of death.

From the scrub brush just down the slope they heard a rustling and saw a soldier of the Federal persuasion emerge from the bushes on the rocky hillside and begin wearily climbing toward them amid the lengthening shadows and cooling air.

Hello, fellows,” he said with an excellent northern twang. “Mighty hot fight there today, weren’t it?” My friend and his associate agreed as to the heat of the day as well as smiling at the authenticity of the man’s kit. Sweat stained his indigo hat and black grime still blackened his mouth and teeth from where he had bitten numerous cartridges to pour their powder down the barrel of his musket.

They were about to compliment him upon his authenticity when he reached into his cartridge box and pulled out a couple of rounds of ammunition. “Here,” he said. “Take these. You boys may need ‘em tomorrow.” He gave them a strange, wizened look, then turned and began making his way back down the slope of Little Round Top.

My friend and his companion watched for a few seconds as the stranger began his descent of the slope back into the evening. Rolling the cartridges over in his hand, my friend looked at them more closely, and remarked at the incredible amount of work it must have taken to produce such authentic-looking cartridges. They seemed to be original: Tied, folded correctly, with just a hint of beeswax for lubrication, in every way seemingly an exact replica of Civil War era ammunition. Then he felt the minie ball inside each one. Re-enactors are forbidden by organizers and National Park rangers to carry either ramrods or “live” rounds onto the field of a re-enactment for safety purposes, yet these contained the minie ban rolled within.

They looked down the slope on Little Round Top into the Valley of Death but could no longer see the soldier. A few yards down the slope he had simply vanished into the gathering, pale mists which at Gettysburg have that distinctive shape of long, strung-out lines of infantry mustered in formation.

My friend still has the ancient rounds of ammunition, treasured yet somewhat confusing mementoes of a small hole between worlds, a tiny glitch in the seeming, but often illusionary continuity of time. [1]

Nesbitt recounts numerous sightings of ghostly horsemen around the battlefield, and on roads leading to and from. One of the stories that can be traced with certainty comes from a Gettysburg Police officer. In Nesbitt's words:

A member of the Gettysburg Police Department told me of his experience late one night, at the High Water Mark in the early 1970s. Though some parts of the battlefield are officially closed to visitors after 10:00 p.m., local law enforcement officials would sometimes enter the battlefield roads on quiet nights so that they could be a stone’s throw from their patrol duties and still be able to catch up on some paperwork.

Settling down with a cup of coffee and his forms, this particular officer had parked at the famous “Angle” in the stone wall where Southern valor passed its most trying test. Pickett’s Charge -- or Longstreet’s Assault, depending upon which historian you talk to --had punctured the Union line at that point.

During the assault, by practical necessity, only a few Confederate officers were allowed to ride their mounts because of the perfect targets they would make. Those who did ride were shot down in the titian mist that rose from the fields in front of the stone wall.

The officer was deeply into his work before he paused for a minute. He looked up to see some sort of movement out in the darkened fields across the wall. As another minute passed he realized that it was a man in uniform on horseback, riding up to the wall only a dozen or so yards away.

The officer knew that the National Park Service had obtained horses the year before and was successfully using them for both historical interpretation and law enforcement. He even knew one of the rangers who rode, but couldn’t tell as he waved to the late night equestrian, whether it was his acquaintance or not.

As if oblivious to the of the officer’s wave and even of the presence of a police patrol car, the mounted man continued to scan the once ghastly, darkened fields. The officer said the horse and rider stood several minutes, then, still scanning the night, slowly he rode off into the darkness.

Later, the policeman confronted his ranger friend and asked him why he didn’t acknowledge his presence when he was off on his midnight ride. Confusion crossed the ranger’s face as he listened to the story. It wasn’t him that took the horse out on a midnight ride. Nor, to his knowledge had any other ranger; the horses were on a full, strict, daytime riding schedule, and to his knowledge, needed their rest and were not allowed to be taken out on dangerous night-time rides by anyone.

Incredulous, the Gettysburg Police Officer was left pondering what it was he had seen so distinctly across the wall once fought over by American Cains and Abels. [2]


And, a third vignette which I heard secondhand:

A lady decided to walk the mile of Pickett’s charge with her young daughter. For anyone who has walked these fields, the sense of destiny and sorrow is unmistakable. The energy is palpable. As this woman walked, she was overcome with these strong emotions: inner tears, mingled with respectful awe…of the human blood poured out like water.

But her young daughter was undaunted, and ran ahead of her mother, carrying a Confederate battle flag that she had just purchased in a gift shop. The girl shouted with glee and carried the flag forward, her mother following.

Impulsively, the girl planted the flag in the ground and turned back to her mother with a smile. The mother smiled back, and strode forward to pick up the flag. But as she leaned down to get the flag, in the corner of her eye she sensed movement.

She looked to her side and rear, and gasped! For there, in the bright sunlight of that summer day, rank upon rank of shadow forms moved with her, in battle-dress file, following the flag up that fateful hill…

Physics, metaphysics and implications

What can be said about stories such as these? Are they just stories -- people’s imaginations playing tricks on them…in stereo?

Or could they really be seeing, hearing and sensing glimpses of another world?

As I understand physics, it seems as if there might be something legitimate in these sightings. Einstein showed us that time is related to density of matter: time is relative to gravitational pull. There are places in this universe where we could go, with our current physical bodies, stay there one year, and come back to earth only aged one day in earth time. This is not a question; it is fact. These places are not only theoretical, but observed.

Einstein’s legacy is that he proved that matter is a form of energy, matter is condensed energy. From a Christian standpoint, we knew this all along. In the beginning God spoke the worlds into existence: Everything that is is founded upon the Word of God: Divine energy precedes and creates all matter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…all things were made by Him [the Word] and without Him nothing was made that has been made” [John 1:1f]. And, "By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God's command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen." [Heb. 11:3].

Einstein showed this in physical terms: all matter really is a form of energy. And, Louis De Broglie went one step further and proved that matter has related to it a wave length and a frequency of that wave, a certain number of wave cycles per second.

Einstein and De Broglie reveal two counterintuitive laws of physics: 1. Physical matter is not matter, in essence; and, 2. All matter, including you and me, is made of wave particles.

Time is a dimension -- a dimensional wave, as it were. In our current bodies, we can only move one way in this dimensional wave: forward. For us the tide of time goes one direction. That is the way God has set it up. But for a person not bound by his or her body, released back to pure energy by death [only pure soul and spirit], time would stretch out back and forward and sideways. It is in this light that Jesus speaks of Abraham and Moses as living and speaking even as He is speaking, even though they have been long ‘dead.’

Theoretically then, in death, the human person is released to the time wave in ways that living humans are not. If allowed by God, that person could interact with human time in a non-linear manner.

Now, it appears that God does not usually allow such interaction, at least in a two way sense. Two facts that bear this out: First, God commands us not to seek contact with the dead [implying that such contact is possible]. Secondly, the Book of Hebrews sets up a construct whereby our earthly existence is viewed as a racetrack of life, with the saints of the ages filling the grandstands, watching us run, cheering us on…this circle-track of life.

Even though we cannot see those who have departed in faith, apparently they can see us, and interact [in some limited manner] with our current time.

There are many implications here, but back to the issue: Does this shed any light on the subject of ghost activity, such as Gettysburg?


Perhaps for us the time wave is not as linear as we supposed, in all places. Perhaps the human spirit imprimaturs itself into space/time at moments of great action or agony, and when this wave rolls over itself, we see there the past, dimly replayed…awesome actions on a cosmic screen, or scroll. Or, perhaps God allows the human spirit some latitude in this time wave after it leaves the body -- for these spirits, it would not be 142 years since Gettysburg, but only a moment…a fraction on the time where a thousand years is but a day, or a mere watch in the night.

At the very least we can say that those who have departed are not gone, but only moved to a different dimensional reality -- a reality bounded and formed by the grace of God, the same God who spoke us into existence in the first place.

“God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” Jesus said. Meaning: It is impossible for anyone who relates to God to be dead, categorically.

Of course, the lesson for us is not to get caught up on visions or apparitions of the dead, but on the meaning of their existence, what such glimpses would tell us about current life and life to come.

The significance for us, the earthly living, is to take renewed devotion to the Lord of Life, and purpose to live as unto Him, in new life, learning from those who have gone before…to live for great things, not lesser things. Perhaps this is what Lincoln intimated, in his words that still echo on those green Gettysburg fields:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

When the curtain is made thin, between the worlds, it is for us to learn the lessons of eternity.

Last week I dreamed of my father, who has been on the other side now, for two years. It was a powerful dream, a life-giving dream. In this dream, I heard my phone ring, and went to answer it. I started to pick it up…and was surprised, because the phone was exactly like we used to have in the old house. But I kind of shook my head, and answered it. Immediately…the voice on the other end shook me to my soul. “Booner Dan!” he said. It was Dad. His nickname for me was “Dan’l Boone,” taking my middle name and matching it with my prowess in the woods and on the field. Eventually he morphed it to “Booner Dan,” and that’s where it stayed! But this was him, calling me by his pet name…his voice so healthy, so strong, every fibre full of love: “Booner Dan!” “DAD!” I said, stunned. Even in my dream I knew he was calling from heaven. He laughed…so hearty and full of resonance…his lungs clear, no more cough or weakness or sickness. “Dad! How are you?” “It is so good to hear your voice!” “I’m doing well, son. I just wanted you to know that I love you and am pulling for you.” “I love you, too, Dad!” I said, through my tears. Still stunned, I asked a dumb question: “How’d you get my number?” He laughed again…laughter full of joy and love and comfort and understanding…and then static came on the line. I snapped awake, my cheeks wet with tears…the presence of love all around me. Just hearing his voice, the fullness of health and presence of love -- a gift beyond price…

In one instant heaven had reached to me, and I to heaven, and again the words of Christ echoed: “I am the God of the living!” “Live in Me!”

Never have I been so convinced of eternity.

And never have I been so convinced of destiny in history, past actions pointing to future glory.

As one has said, “Not only is the past part of us, the past is not yet finished.”


May ours be an abiding part, of this road that winds on, through us, into eternity!


UPDATE: More stories here.


Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Linked to it. Thanks!

Patrick O'Hannigan said...

I guess it's only fair to supply further thoughts, since you asked and this is interesting. First, great stories-- thank you for all of them. Second, like you, I think the Gettysburg ghost sightings are often legitimate. I do believe there are such things as ghosts. I'm not sure the explanation for them lies in physics, however artfully we speculate about energy and time. I do know that eternity is outside of time, and that Jesus bridged the gap between eternity and time. I also accept the Catholic vocabulary associated with the "church triumphant" (i.e., in heaven, or per the implications of Paul to the Hebrews to which you alluded, in the stands cheering us on) and the "church militant" (i.e., here on Earth).

There have been documented instances of saints who could bend the rules of space and time to which we're all subject. Anthony of Padua, for one, had the gift of bilocation. This gift or charism is very rare, but not unprecedented. After all, it comes from He who walked on water.

I suspect that folklorists who say ghosts appear to complete missions they're charged with might be on to something, however ill-defined. I've never seen a ghost, either, and know better than to dabble in the occult. As a Catholic I'm comforted by Christ's triumph (as you are, too, of course), and also by the thought that my own personal guardian angel protects me in the realm of the spirit. Angels and ghosts aren't the same, of course, but angels are far better equipped to "deal with" ghosts than those of us for whom body, soul, and spirit comprise a single package.

I'm rambling, but I think you can see that you and I are mostly on the same page here. Which is why I linked to what you said. Great stuff!

Loy Mershimer said...

Great thoughts, Patrick, and thank you!

You make a point which needs to be emphasized: the way to dealing with phenomena like these is not in human strength or wisdom. We are not to seek out these contacts, but rather to seek God.

God, in His order of revelation and kingdom, deals with them best. And, in God, any such contact will be blessed [e.g. the dream of my father, etc.].

However, humans being what we are, many people seek out contact in other means...which are not ordained, or blessed. In fact, warned against. All *ghosts* are not equal, we might say...

However, like you, I think there is a potential legit side to ghosts. God's order being what it is, though, if these are legit, they will not be contrary to physics. Hence my point in raising the physical issue -- not that this is the final word, by any stretch, lol.

Thanks again, and perhaps we can share more on the subject whenever we come across good articles.