Sunday, November 28, 2010

Southern Civil War Ghosts (Part I)

We have shared the incommunicable experience of war…
--- Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Soldier’s Faith”

From the rocky shores of Maine to the deserts of New Mexico, from the white columned plantations of Georgia to the halls of the Capitol in Washington, the American Civil War was experienced across the nation in a myriad of ways. From soldiers gasping their last on the battlefield to widows sobbing softly at home, the whole of the population was touched by this war and the South, more than any other place in the country, saw the brunt of battle. Like the physical scars that still mar the landscape and buildings throughout the South, the war left spiritual scars as well in the form of activity that is still experienced today.

While the South still contains many of the great battlefields of this war, such as Manassas, Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Cold Harbor, there are many smaller places that saw the effects of war. There is no doubt that the great battlefields of the Civil War are haunted, but for this entry I’d like to concentrate on those smaller, lesser known places where the spirits of this war are still felt.

Pope’s Tavern
203 Hermitage Drive
Florence, Alabama

Pope's Tavern, 1934 by W. N. Manning for the Historic
American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Considered the oldest building in the town of Florence, Pope’s Tavern, which has served as a tavern and later a private home, is now a museum. Following a skirmish between Union and Confederate forces in downtown Florence, the building became a hospital serving the wounded from both sides. It continued to be used as a hospital until the end of the war, serving wounded soldiers from battles nearby such as Shiloh and Franklin in Tennessee.

Many of those working in and visiting the museum have experienced spiritual activity that is most likely linked to the tavern’s days as a hospital. One of the bedrooms which is known to have been used for surgeries during the war, leaves some visitors with the sensation of terror and fear. Others have heard moans, agonizing screams and have smelled the odor of blood. Knocking, disembodied footsteps and odd popping sounds have also been heard throughout the museum.

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
Olustee, Florida

In February of 1864, Union forces set out from occupied Jacksonville, Florida with the intent of making inroads into the state to cut supply lines, free slaves and possibly recruit African-Americans for service in the Union army. Heading west towards Lake City, the Union forces under Brigadier General Truman Seymour encountered entrenched Confederates under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan at Olustee Station near Ocean Pond. Among the union forces involved in this battle was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first and most well known African-American units.

Fighting through thick forest of palmetto and pine, the almost equally pitted troops (5,000 Confederates versus 5,500 Union troops) fought throughout the afternoon of February 20. The Confederates repulsed the Union troops and inflicted heavy casualties, causing the Union to lose some 40% of their forces (203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing, a total of 1,861 men) while the Confederates lost about 20% of their forces (93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing, a total of 946 casualties in all). Union forces retreated to Jacksonville after being beaten back.

The battlefield, preserved as Florida’s first state park in 1912, is home to an annual reenactment and re-enactors have had a number of odd experiences primarily involving full-bodied apparitions. One of the more interesting of these was an encounter between a re-enactor on a horse and a spectral Union soldier. The spectre appeared and tripped the horse throwing the rider. Before the re-enactor could recover, he was smacked in the face by a rifle butt. Looking around, the shaken re-enactor searched for evidence of the soldier who tripped him, no footprints or any evidence was found. While no other documented encounters have been as violent, many have seen apparitions of soldiers.

Western & Atlantic Railroad Tunnel
Chetoogeta Mountain
Tunnel Hill, Georgia

Northwest entrance to the Western & Atlantic RR tunnel.
Photo by Civilentiger, 2003, courtesy of Wikipedia.
As the railroad spread its tentacles throughout the nation before the tumult of the Civil War, a route was needed from Augusta, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Numerous obstacles stood in the way, but the biggest was Chetoogeta Mountain. Plans for a railroad tunnel dated to the second half of the 1830s, but work did not commence until 1848 with work completed two years later. The new tunnel was instrumental in Atlanta’s growth as a railroad hub and was a strategic feature for the Confederacy to protect during the Civil War.

The tunnel’s strategic importance led to a series of skirmishes being fought here leading up to the Battle of Atlanta. Following the war, the tunnel remained in service until 1928 when a new tunnel was built a few yards away. The old tunnel became overgrown with kudzu and was largely forgotten until 1992 when preservationists fought to save the tunnel. It is now the centerpiece of a park that features reenactments of the skirmishes fought at the site.

Like the Olustee Battlefield, it is often re-enactors who have encountered anything supernatural at the site. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of documented accounts of spirits at Tunnel Hill. At least four books and a handful of good articles document the high levels of activity at this site. Accounts include the apparitions of soldiers seen both inside the tunnel and around it. Ghostly campfires, disembodied screams, spectral lantern light and the smell of rotting flesh (minus the presence of actual rotting flesh) have all been reported by re-enactors and visitors alike.

Battle of Olustee. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 27
     November 2010.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University
     Press of Mississippi, 2004.
     these years.” 22 June 2009.
Glass, Debra and Heath Matthews. Skeletons of the Civil War: True
     Ghost Stories of the Army of the Tennessee. Debra Glass, 2007.
Kotarski, Georgiana C. Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley.
     Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2006.
Lapham, Dave. Ghosthunting Florida. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy
     Press, 2010.
Pope’s Tavern Museum. City of Florence, Alabama. Accessed 27
     November 2010.
Underwood, Corinna. Haunted History: Atlanta and North Georgia.
     Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2008.
Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel. Tunnel Hill Heritage Center.
     Accessed 28 November 2010.


  1. Thanks for the shout out! I enjoyed your article. I actually had a fellow faint at Pope's Tavern on my annual Ghost Walk Tour. He also experienced the feelings of terror and sadness felt by the soldiers who suffered there during the Civil War.

    The book is available on Amazon in both print and digital download form if any of your readers are interested.

  2. Your article on the Tunnel Hill ghosts is interesting in that I am a founding member of the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation and I conduct the tours of the tunnel. Always of interest are the spirits that inhabit the tunnel, the Clisbe Austin House, aka "Meadowlawn," and the battlefield. The spirits in the tunnel can be felt as one walks through the tunnel, they turn on our motion censor lights when no one is there, then prevent the lights from working sometimes when people are in the tunnel. They have also mysteriously appeared in pictures when there is no one to be seen and dogs have been known to not only bark at the sites where spirits have been felt or seen, but to also refuse to continue through the tunnel.
    On the battlefield there have been many sightings, a friend of mine saw an entire company of WBTS soldiers walking across the field about 2:00 a.m. or so the weekend of our reenactment in 2009, but there were no soldiers on the field at that time. The figures took a path across the field that precisely followed the path of an old road bed that was plowed up back in the mid 1980's when the road was relocated to the edge of the field, and the man who described the soldiers path had not been to the site prior the 1995 and knew nothing about the old road bed, and there is absolutely no evidence of the road bed across the field to be seen today.
    Schedule a group tour of the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center and tunnel and ask for me and I will take you through the site and tell about the history, and the spirits, that "live" in the area. Bring a digital camera, you just may be astounded by what appears!