Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Haunted Battlefield of Chickamauga

Chickamauga National Park
(photo courtesy NPS)
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Civil War battlefields are some of the most haunted places in America. With so much fear, death, destruction, suffering and sorrow concentrated in one area, it would be a surprise if they were not.

For four long years, brother fought brother and families fought families. When the two sides clashed at Chickamauga, Georgia in September of 1863, the battle became the second bloodiest engagement of the entire Civil War.  For two days in September, almost 125,000 men fought fierce close-quarters and hand-to-hand battles. When it was over, there were 37,129 casualty's and the fields and woods were strewn with the dead and wounded. In some places, the dead lay where they died, stacked so high "a tall man couldn't see over them." After the battle, many of the dead were not found for days and many wounded died agonizing deaths as they lay unfound. For weeks afterwards, nameless dead combatants were buried in hastily dug trenches, sometimes Confederate laid next to Union, covered with dirt and soon forgotten.

Chickamauga Creek (the battlefield is now a National Park) is located close to Chattanooga near the Tennessee-Georgia border. The first Indian inhabitants of the area gave it the name Tsïkäma'gï . The Cherokee who came later continued to call it by that name and when the white man came along, they pronounced it Chickamauga. According to the Indians, the meaning of the word Tsïkäma'gï is "river of death." It is a name the area has surely earned. Over the years, untimely death seems to happen much more often here than can reasonably be expected. In 1898, Chickamauga became a training camp for soldiers headed for the Spanish-American war. Disease repeatedly swept through the camp, killing more men than died in the war itself. The woods and thickets over the centuries have been an unofficial burial ground for the Indians, Civil War troops and many other's. For some reason, many sick and disturbed people are drawn to  this place where they end their lives by their own hand.

Not long after the great battle, area residents began to report hearing strange things after dark - gun shots, soldiers marching, men moaning and crying out in pain, horrifying screams. Mysterious flickering lights were seen along with black shapes that disappeared when the viewer tried to get a closer look.

(photo courtesy NPS)
One day a lady dressed in a white dress showed up at the battlefield. She walked and walked among the grave mounds, over the blood-stained soil, across fields and into the woods. She was there to find the body of her husband, her childhood sweetheart whom she had recently married while he was on leave, just before he returned to his unit in time to fight in the battle. Years later, it is said she lost her mind there, beaten down by her grief. She supposedly refused to come back to her boarding room at night, refused to eat, and refused to leave the site. One day she wasn't there. No one saw her leave, a body was never found, but through the years and occasionally today, visitors who tarry in the park after dark report seeing a ghostly female apparition dressed in a flowing white dress wandering through the fields and woods, forever looking for the body of her lost love. Even in death, she has found no rest.

Another apparition seen over the years is a headless horseman. He is thought to be Lieutenant Colonel Julius Garesche, who was killed by a cannonball during the battle. He was well respected by his men and during a lull in the fighting, they buried him in a shallow grave on a nearby hill. A letter by General William Hazen described his remains when he found him - "I saw but a headless trunk; an eddy of crimson foam had issued where the head should be. I at once recognized his figure, it lay so naturally, his right hand across his breast. As I approached, dismounted, and bent over him, the contraction of a muscle extended his hand slowly and slightly towards me. Taking hold of it, I found it still warm and lifelike." Evidently, his decapitated ghost remains at Chickamauga, galloping through the woods at night.

Perhaps the most famous and often seen apparition is "Old Green Eyes," a strange, otherworldly creature, half man, half beast. He walks on two legs and has long, stringy hair reaching down to his waist. Some have reported him to have huge jaws with two long, sharp fangs sticking out. Others report him to be wearing some kind of dark cape around his shoulders and the cape appears to be blowing in the wind even when there is not even a gentle breeze.  The one thing everyone agrees on however, is his glowing, green eyes which shine in the dark.

It is one thing for visitors to announce strange, unexplained sounds and sightings, but when a down-to-earth park ranger admits to seeing a ghost, one has to take it rather serious. Several years ago, Edward Tinney, a chief ranger at the park reported, "One day at about four a.m., I went to check on some battle reenactors who were camping out in the park. I was walking near Glen Kelly Road when I saw a tall figure, over 6 feet in height, walking toward me. It seemed human, but at the same time, it wasn't. It had shaggy, stringy, waist-length black hair, green eyes and pointed teeth that resembled fangs. Feeling extremely threatened by this presence, I quickly crossed to the other side of the road. As he - or it - walked by me, he suddenly turned and kind of smiled at me, but it was a very devilish sort of grin. At that moment, a car came down the road and as its headlights hit the figure, it vanished right before my eyes."

(photo courtesy NPS)
A recent visitor, a Civil War buff and amateur military historian, had a run-in with Old Green Eyes. He emphasized that he was not in any way a believer in the paranormal, he was visiting Chickamauga Battlefield purely for the military history experience. It was just after sunset as he was heading back to his car to leave when he heard a low moaning sound from the woods he was walking near. Thinking someone was hurt, he hurried into the trees. He had no sooner reached the edge of the woods when he felt a strong sense of foreboding. Suddenly, he saw "this floating head with glowing, piercing green eyes which came bursting out of the trees! This thing wasn't scary - it was terrifying! I just yelled and ran like hell! When I got back to the road, I glanced behind me and saw nothing. I stopped and turned around and saw bushes moving just to the right of where I came running out, but nothing seemed to be following me. I ran the rest of the way to my parked car and sped out of there. I'll never forget what I saw and I doubt I'll ever go back there. I no longer discount the many stories of ghosts that haunt battlefields either."

Feel free to join the thousands of visitors who, during the day, come to Chickamauga Battlefield National Park with its tree-lined tranquil paths, stately manicured grounds with cannons, monuments, and other reminders of the War Between The States. Visit the museum, the visitor's center and go along on one of the ranger led tours. Just be warned though, it's probably not the kind of place you want to hang around in after the sun goes down.