During my extensive research for Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, strangely enough, I never came across references to any ghostly sightings of Robert E. Lee, the venerable commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and central figure in the pantheon of the Lost Cause.
Curiously, however, at least three of the homes the general lived in life have had verified accounts of them being haunted by one or another Lee family member. While I devote an entire chapter to Lee’s haunted homes in Dixie Spirits, I thought I’d update that with a blog and post some photos to go along with it.
When one thinks of General Lee and his family, one naturally thinks of a dignified Southern gentleman coming from an honored and venerable First Family of Virginia (FFV for short).
While Lee always conducted himself with dignity, his venerable family was chock full of scandal, extending through several generations. His father, for example, the war hero Light Horse Harry Lee, while a hero of the American Revolution was also something of a hell raiser. A gambler, a drinker and much else, he was constantly in debt–at one time he was even thrown into debtor’s prison. After Light Horse Harry died, his widow and children were left destitute and dependent on the charity of other family members–and they too had their scandals–notably their relative “Black Horse” Harry Lee, who was guilty of a dalliance with his wife’s sister.
The best known Lee home is, of course, Arlington, now located in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery. Seized early in the war, it became a last resting place for Union war dead. The mansion itself is also an abode of the dead–who at times get a mite restless. Several Lee family ghosts have been sighted in here.
Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lees, was built in the early 1700’s and so it naturally has several generations of Lee ghosts, including old “Black Horse” Harry who had an affair with his wife’s sister while his spouse lay sick abed.
Then there is the “Lee Boyhood Home” in Alexandria, Virginia. After their father died deep in debt, Robert and his mother had to move about to their financial situation. Nonetheless, General Lee always had fond memories of this place and it was here he returned briefly right after the surrender–and who knows he may still be there. Numerous sightings have been reported, both as a private residence and as a public museum.
There are a few other old Virginia manse’s associated with the general—all of them reputedly haunted. For more on the tragic haunted history of the Lees see Dixie Spirits, chapter 31.
You may also take a tour of the homes; most are open to the public for the price of admission.
Let me relate a tale, for those with a nose for a good ghost story and told by one who knows it to be true, about the Ghost of the Cupola.
I was recently informed that some summer tour guides in Nashville, who may have heard the story third hand, have embellished it with fabricated details, saying the Ghost of the Cupola is Rachel Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson. Given the fact that she died decades before the Capitol was built and never even lived near the downtown area, that is a curious piece of fiction to come up with. Rachel may very well haunt the Hermitage, but she doesn’t haunt the Capitol. So for native Southerners and tourists alike, let me set the record straight.
In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I told about a number of different ghosts which inhabit the Tennessee State Capitol. I obtained them from different sources, including some people who have worked there at various times. I also recently did some freelance work which led to me visiting the venerable building on a daily basis. Although I saw none of the spectres I have reported on while there, it did give me a better perspective on its hallowed haunted halls.
The Civil War ghost of the Tennessee State Capitol—The Ghost of the Cupola–I learned about after Strange Tales went to press. Regrettably, since then I have not had the opportunity to update that chapter, so I post it here in the blogosphere for your edification and enlightenment.
For those not familiar with downtown Nashville, Tennessee, the state capitol building is the big old Grecian temple which sits atop Capitol Hill in the heart of the city. At one time it was the highest point in downtown and no other buildings were taller. These days the Nashville skyline is constantly changing, so glass and steel are replacing limestone and marble at the pinnacle of the skyline.
The top of Tennessee’s Capitol building is adorned with an ornate cupola with glass sides, on top of which sits the flagpole where the United States flag flies daily. In February of 1862, however, another flag flew there—the Confederate flag.
In the early part of 1862, a Yankee army under General Grant defeated the Rebel army defending Forts Donelson and Henry, the twin bastions on the state’s border which stood watch over the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively. Back then the area was called Land Between the Rivers; today it is a fisherman’s paradise called Land Between the Lakes (thank you Corps of Engineers).
In any case, when the two fortresses fell, a panic ensued upriver in Nashville and all those planters and planter’s sons who had been such militant secessionists fled the city, their carriages loaded with all the loot they could carry. In some cases they fled taking their slaves with them and left their wives and children behind exposed to the dangers of the barbarian Yankee horde. So much for Southern chivalry!
Yankee gunboats steamed up the Cumberland unopposed and, arriving at Nashville, pointed their big guns ominously at the city. Yankee troops also soon arrived in large numbers to occupy the city. Needless to say, the first place they went up to was the capitol to haul down the detested Rebel flag.
Jogging double-quick time up the hill, the color-guard, their sharp steel bayonets a gleaming in the sun, made their way up the broad steps of the capitol. Once inside the building they made their way through the abandoned hallways of the legislature, then finally found their way to the rooftop entrance and climbed inside the cupola.
A narrow, winding wrought-iron staircase inside the cupola led to the flagpole at the top.
As they neared the top of the spiral staircase, the Yankees suddenly found the way blocked by an elderly gentleman. He was the last legislator left in Nashville, all the other Secesh politicians having already fled.
Unlike the other politicians, this fire-eating Secessionist refused to leave—to all and sundry in the city he said that he would rather be dead before he would see Old Glory fly over the capitol.
There on the stair he stood, armed with an antique flintlock. He boldly proclaimed to the barbarian Yankees: “you’ll raise that flag over this building over my dead body!”
Before the young Union officer in charge of the Color Guard could answer, a shot rang out from behind him on the narrow twisting stair.
The old Rebel clutched his chest, then tumbled down the stairs. The color guard climbed over him. On that cold day in February, 1862, Old Glory flew over the Tennessee State Capitol; Nashville was, unwillingly, back in the Union.
Nowadays, other than to raise and lower the flag, do maintenance workers in the Capitol have much cause to go up into the cupola—nor do they wish to. Whenever workers are up there they generally have a very eerie feeling, like someone is watching. They do their repairs and hastily leave.
On more than one occasion, however, state workmen have seen a gray mist hanging around the top of the spiral stairs. The cloudy image is indistinct, but one senses a hostile presence there. No one has ever been hurt up there—at least not by any spectre, but long time employees in the capitol know exactly what it is—the ghost of the dead Rebel state senator, still barring the way to the top. For him the war will never be over.