The Fort Smith National Cemetery in Sebastian County, Arkansas played an important role in the western expansion of the United States. By the early 1800’s, white settlers were moving into the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1805. As the settlers moved onto land inhabited by the Indians, tensions naturally began to rise. The U.S. Army began building military posts to protect the settlers. Fort Smith was the first and most western of these forts. As a wild and lawless town grew around the fort, it became the last “civilized” place for outlaws, bandits, and renegades to acquire supplies before entering Indian Territory.
In 1823, out of the 200 troops stationed there, 51 died and the first official cemetery was created and dedicated on the site just outside the stockade where there had already been 3 burials. In 1824, Fort Gibson was constructed and Fort Smith was closed. Between 1824 and 1838, when the army returned to re-open Fort Smith, a number of men, most of whom died due to the lawlessness of the town, were haphazardly buried there. The army rehabilitated the cemetery and began overseeing internments.
When the Civil War began, Confederate forces took over the fort. When the Union forces re-captured it in late 1863, over 475 Rebel soldiers, most of them men who had fallen in battle, had been buried in the expanded cemetery.
The war ended in 1865 and by 1867, the bodies of so many fallen Confederate soldiers had been removed from hasty graves dug on battlefields and reburied in the Fort Smith cemetery that it was increased in size to over 5 acres. It was officially made a National Cemetery in late 1867 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Over the years, the cemetery has been expanded to cover over 33 acres and include almost 14,000 burials. Probably the most famous person buried here is Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge.” During his 21 years in Fort Smith, he sentenced 160 men and women to die with a noose around their necks. 79 of those 160 actually met their fate on the gallows.
During the 1860’s, as the bodies of more and more soldiers who had suffered horrible deaths during battles were being dug up from their resting places and reburied in the cemetery, stories began circulating of strange sounds emanating from the grave yard at night; cries of anguish, sometimes a painful scream, and a persistent rumor of hearing what sounded like a young man crying out for his momma. Sometimes strange, bobbing lights would appear, float around the headstones and then vanish. Soldiers who were assigned night duty of standing guard at the cemetery’s gate refused to do it alone and would not enter the grounds.
By the early 1900’s, it seems things in the cemetery began to settle down. Although still spooky after dark, stories of the unexplained sounds and lights virtually ceased. In the late 1990’s however, for some unknown reason, it seems the forever occupants of the Fort Smith cemetery became uneasy. Once again, strange lights began to be seen floating around in the dark. Cemetery caretakers began reporting tools left amongst the graves overnight would be moved when they reported back to work the next morning. Sometimes the tools would simply be moved from one side of a grave marker to the other side of the same marker and other times a rake or shovel would be moved several graves away from where it had been left.
In 1998, on a cold December night, one of the groundskeepers had been performing maintenance work around Isaac Parker’s grave. He had left a spade and clippers next to the grave when he had been called away to help on another task. It was dark when he returned alone to retrieve his tools and put them away in a shed. After gathering up the tools, he turned away heading toward the shed when he heard something behind him. Thinking it was just a leaf being blown along the grass, he didn’t think anything of it. A few steps later though, he realized the noise had not gone away; in fact, it seemed now like it was the footsteps of someone following him. He pulled a flashlight from his tool belt and turned it on as he quickly turned around. Illuminated by the flashlight stood an old man with white hair and a white beard, wearing an old-fashioned black suit. The man was just standing there looking at him. The groundskeeper asked him what he wanted and the man began moving his lips as if he was talking, but there was no sound. It was then the groundskeeper realized that in the beam of his flashlight, he could see right through the man to the headstones directly behind him! Dropping the flashlight and the tools he had retrieved, the groundskeeper ran directly to his car without looking back and sped home.
Having worked and been in the Fort Smith Museum and having seen the pictures of Isaac Parker numerous times, the groundskeeper had no doubt the eerie apparition had been the Hanging Judge himself. The story goes that when the groundskeeper came in the next day, his salt-and-pepper colored hair had turned completely white. He told his supervisor of his encounter and then, with trembling hands, gave him his letter of resignation and walked out.