Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.“He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.
But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.
As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.It always portended important war news.Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.
Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.
Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.
Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.
What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.
Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.
“Six men are on a hill—a general and his staff. Below, in the gray fog of a winter morning, an army, which has left its entrenchments, is moving upon those of the enemy—creeping silently into position. In an hour the whole wide valley for miles to left and right will be all aroar with musketry stricken to seeming silence now and again by thunder claps of big guns. In the meantime the risen sun has burned a way through the fog, splendoring a part of the beleaguered city.” –Lt. Ambrose Bierce
Of the six men on the hill with Bierce that morning, when he wrote his memoir he was already the sole survivor. Today there are none; even their children’s children are few and far between. That fifteenth of December, the hills surrounding what is now downtown Nashville erupted in a massive bombardment as the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union hilltop forts burst forth against the starving and shoeless troops of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Although outnumbered and lacking the abundance of munitions and supplies the Federals enjoyed, the Rebels initially resisted the massive blue onslaught. On the far right flank of Hood’s army, the men of Cleburne’s division Confederates repulsed an attack by the valiant but green regiments of the United States Colored Volunteers. The USCT troops entered the railroad cut there only to encounter a withering fire from above.
Elsewhere, the Rebels were not so successful. General Thomas, the Federal commander, launched a massive assault against the Confederate left flank, throwing all of Wilson’s Cavalry Corps out in a wide enveloping maneuver, backed by masses of infantry. The Army of Tennessee, ill-clad, ill-fed and outnumbered, was overwhelmed. Where affluent suburbanites now throng Green Hills Mall and the surrounding boutiques and bars, thousands of warriors in blue and gray fought to the death that day.
One by one, the Confederate redoubts fell to the Union tide, as the Army of the Cumberland relentlessly drove the Rebels back.
The following day, the sixteenth, the Johnnies continued to put up a resistance, but as the day wore on the weight of numbers began to tell and finally the once proud Army of Tennessee fell before the onslaught.
Confederate regiments and brigades that had fought toe to toe with the Yankees at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Atlanta now fell dead, fled in disorder or surrendered. For the only time in the entire four years of war, a Confederate field army was thoroughly and completely defeated.
Stanley Horn, a pioneering historian of the war in the western theatre, described the Battle of Nashville as the “Decisive Battle of the Rebellion.” While later historians have not always been in agreement with Horn, there is no denying the magnitude of its success. Contrary to what one recent scholar said of Gettysburg, it was Hood’s Autumn Campaign and the Battle of Nashville which were in fact “the Last Invasion” by the Confederacy.
Most modern historians have regarded Hoods invasion as doomed from the start; certainly it was a desperate gamble. John Bell Hood himself described it as a “Forlorn Hope.” But despite all the mistakes by Hood, the broken promises made to him by Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard, the fact is that he and his men came very close to destroying at least part of General Thomas’ army at both Spring Hill and Franklin. Moreover, if historians regard the Battle of Nashville as a forgone conclusion, the Lincoln administration–and in particular General Grant–did not. The prospect of taking Nashville and its treasure trove of munitions and supplies, would have emboldened the entire South and enabled Hood to march on the Ohio Valley and beyond–a prospect that sent shivers down the Federal’s collective spine.
It may be true to say that the Civil War was won in the East in April of 1865; but it is equally true to say that the Civil War was lost in the West the winter before, at the Battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864.
This edition of the Late Unpleasantness deals not so much about any specific person or event of the Civil War as it does about the search for the truth of what really happened between 1860 and 1866. That may seem a simple task; after all, every week another book comes out about what happened in the first fifteen minutes of the second hour of the first day of Gettysburg; or of how General Grant won the war single-handedly; what a great guy Lincoln was and how he freed the slaves.
Yet, as any Civil War buff worth his salt knows, or should know, determining what actually happened in the chaos of battle is not a simple task, nor is the consensus of leading historians about some leaders and their actions necessarily based on fact, but rather on inherited opinions which have come to become accepted as truth. I will confess to have been as guilty of this latter fault as some of the more famous writers whose books have gone on to become the “bible” on certain battles and leaders.
In my research for The Paranormal Presidency, for example, I made ample use of the Historical Society of Illinois online Lincoln Papers as well as the Library of Congress’ ample resources as well as numerous other primary and secondary sources. Not much new here; all well worn territory insofar as Lincoln scholars go. Yet my take on those same sources and on Lincoln the man clearly does not square with the dominant consensus which generations of Lincoln scholars—one might more properly call them hagiographers—have arrived at. I, like his scholarly acolytes, regard Lincoln as a great President; but where I differ is that I do not ignore or disregard evidence where it does not square with the received views of him that have become academic dogma.
Disputes over certain campaigns, battles and leaders are nothing new; some have been going on since before the war was over. However, two recent books raise old issues and to varying degrees promise to throw a new light on what we thought was established fact.
Stephen Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, has stirred no little controversy among Civil War enthusiasts and scholars. Hood the Younger makes no bones about his revisionism regarding General Hood’s military career and takes aim at several well respected historian’s previous work on the subject. His work has been criticized as biography; in fact, it is not a biography per se, but explicitly a work of historiography. Mr. Hood has gone back into the primary sources and his reading of them varies considerably from previous writers on the subject. He has weighed their arguments in the balance and found them wanting.
While I leave it up to Civil War enthusiasts to read his book and decide for themselves how well Stephen Hood has succeeded in his task, I will cite incident which caused me to begin to question the consensus views on General Hood. When Jefferson Davis sought General Lee’s views on appointing John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Lee replied that in his view, Hood was “all lion and none of the fox,” and I have even seen the statement footnoted with the source cited; so it must be true, right? Except, that Lee never actually said that. As Stephen Hood reveals, that phrase was coined after the war and whether true or not, it was not Lee who said it. On checking the citation, I found it did indeed go back to the Lee/Davis correspondence about Hood, but nowhere in those messages does that phrase attributed to Lee appear. A minor point, admittedly, but it is a cautionary tale about accepting authority at face value.
Another new work takes aim at that icon of the Union cause, General Ulysses S. Grant, questioning the accepted narratives of the battles for Chattanooga and Grant’s claims to being the mastermind of that campaign. In the past Grant has been the subject of criticism, but in recent decades the consensus of historians has been generally favorable to him and have generally accepted Grant and his supporter’s version of his campaigns with little question. However, in General Grant and the Rewriting of History, Frank Varney disputes that consensus, at least insofar as the war in the west is concerned.
There are many, myself included, who feel that Grant has been given a pass by many historians on a number of points. In my forthcoming work on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, in researching the context behind Bierce’s service with the Army of the Ohio and with the Army of the Cumberland, I found much of Bierce’s critique of Grant to be well founded and largely grounded in a greater debate in the postwar era over the credit and blame for the bloodletting at Shiloh. Bierce’s criticisms of Grant were well known, although his overall assessment of Grant was generally positive.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga have also been the subject of much controversy over the years, with much blame and praise being disbursed by various historians. The modern view of Grant and Sherman as the heroes of the campaign has generally been the dominant narrative however. So Varney’s revisionism had been initially received in some quarters as a much needed correction to the record. Varney takes eminent historians to task for shoddy scholarship. While I reserve final judgment on Varney’s work and encourage others to also make their own assessment, from what I’ve read so far, it is Varney’s scholarship which has been found wanting. Civil War bloggers have checked several of his citations, backing his criticisms of what other historians have written, and in too many cases have found them in error or just plain bogus.
General Grant’s Personal Memoirs were very well written and his narrative has been often taken at face value by generations of historians. There remains much about Grant’s career that requires a more critical review of the facts. It remains to be seen whether Varney was up to the task or whether that remains for others to do.
Christmas 1864 Richmond. Christmas is traditionally a celebration of abundance and cheer, but as Dickens pointed out in his famous Yuletide tale, for many it can also be a time of want and need. The South had seceded to much jubilation and overweening confidence. They would lick the Yankees in a few months and then the Confederacy would be independent and everyone would live happily ever after—except the slaves, of course. Well, by Christmas of 1864, Confederate confidence had waned drastically, with Richmond under siege and Southern forces in retreat on all fronts.
The following memoir was written by Varina Davis, the wife of former Confederate president, Jefferson C. Davis. She contributed it to a newspaper in that hotbed of Secessionism, New York City, in 1896. While she had the advantage of hindsight, it is enlightening as to conditions in the Confederate capitol nonetheless. So be your Christmas happy or sad, may this serve as a reminder of how they managed in the last winter of the Civil War:
“…Rice, flour, molasses and tiny pieces of meat, most of them sent to the President’s wife anonymously to be distributed to the poor, had all be weighed and issued, and the playtime of the family began, but like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky came the information that the orphans at the Episcopalian home had been promised a Christmas tree and the toys, candy and cakes must be provided, as well as one pretty prize for the most orderly girl among the orphans. The kind-hearted confectioner was interviewed by our committee of managers, and he promised a certain amount of his simpler kinds of candy, which he sold easily a dollar and a half a pound, but he drew the line at cornucopias to hold it, or sugared fruits to hang on the tree, and all the other vestiges of Christmas creations which had lain on his hands for years. The ladies dispersed in anxious squads of toy-hunters, and each one turned over the store of her children’s treasures for a contribution to the orphans’ tree, my little ones rushed over the great house looking up their treasure: eyeless dolls, three-legged horses, tops with the upper peg broken off, rubber tops, monkeys with all the squeak gone silent and all the ruck of children’s toys that gather in a nursery closet.
Makeshift Toys for the Orphans
Some small feathered chickens and parrots which nodded their heads in obedience to a weight beneath them were furnished with new tail feathers, lambs minus much of their wool were supplied with a cotton wool substitute, rag dolls were plumped out and recovered with clean cloth, and the young ladies painted their fat faces in bright colors and furnished them with beads for eyes.
But the tug of war was how to get something with which to decorate the orphans’ tree. Our man servant, Robert Brown, was much interested and offered to make the prize toy. He contemplated a “sure enough house, with four rooms.” His part in the domestic service was delegated to another and he gave himself over in silence and solitude to the labors of the architect.
My sister painted mantel shelves, door panels, pictures and frames for the walls, and finished with black grates in which there blazed a roaring fire, which was pronounced marvelously realistic. We all made furniture of twigs and pasteboard, and my mother made pillows, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases for the two little bedrooms.
Christmas Eve a number of young people were invited to come and string apples and popcorn for the trees; a neighbor very deft in domestic arts had tiny candle moulds made and furnished all the candles for the tree. However the puzzle and triumph of all was the construction of a large number of cornucopias. At last someone suggested a conical block of wood, about which the drawing paper could be wound and pasted. In a little book shop a number of small, highly colored pictures cut out and ready to apply were unearthed, and our old confectioner friend, Mr. Piazzi, consented, with a broad smile, to give “all the love verses the young people wanted to roll with the candy.”
A Christmas Eve Party
About twenty young men and girls gathered around small tables in one of the drawing rooms of the mansion and the cornucopias were begun. The men wrapped the squares of candy, first reading the “sentiments” printed upon them, such as “Roses are red, violets blue, sugar’s sweet and so are you,” “If you love me as I love you no knife can cut our love in two.” The fresh young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention to the reading, while with their small deft hands they gined the cornucopias and pasted on the pictures. Where were the silk tops to come from? Trunks of old things were turned out and snippings of silk and even woolen of bright colors were found to close the tops, and some of the young people twisted sewing silk into cords with which to draw the bags up. The beauty of those home-made things astonished us all, for they looked quite “custom-made,” but when the “sure enough house” was revealed to our longing gaze the young people clapped their approbation, while Robert, whose sense of dignity did not permit him to smile, stood the impersonation of successful artist and bowed his thanks for our approval. Then the coveted eggnog was passed around in tiny glass cups and pronounced good. Crisp home-made ginger snaps and snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve. The children allowed to sit up and be noisy in their way as an indulgence took a sip of eggnog out of my cup, and the eldest boy confided to his father: “Now I just know this is Christmas.” In most of the houses in Richmond these same scenes were enacted, certainly in every one of the homes of the managers of the Episcopalian Orphanage. A bowl of eggnog was sent to the servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.
At last quiet settled on the household and the older members of the family began to stuff stockings with molasses candy, red apples, an orange, small whips plaited by the family with high-colored crackers, worsted reins knitted at home, paper dolls, teetotums made of large horn bottoms and a match which could spin indefinitely, balls of worsted rags wound hard and covered with old kid gloves, a pair of pretty woolen gloves for each, either cut of cloth and embroidered on the back or knitted by some deft hand out of home-spun wool. For the President there were a pair of chamois-skin riding gauntlets exquisitely embroidered on the back with his monogram in red and white silk, made, as the giver wrote, under the guns of Fortress Monroe late at night for fear of discovery. There was a hemstitched linen handkerchief, with a little sketch in indelible ink in one corner; the children had written him little letters, their grandmother having held their hands, the burthen of which compositions was how they loved their dear father. For one of the inmates of the home, who was greatly loved but whose irritable temper was his prominent failing, there was a pretty cravat, the ends of which were embroidered, as was the fashion of the day. The pattern chosen was simple and on it was pinned a card with the word “amiable” to complete the sentence. One of the [missing] received a present of an illuminated copy of Solomon’s proverbs found in the same old store from which the pictures came. He studied it for some time and announced: “I have changed my opinion of Solomon, he uttered such unnecessary platitudes — now why should he have said ‘The foolishness of a fool is his folly’?”
On Christmas morning the children awoke early and came in to see their toys. They were followed by the negro women, who one after another “caught” us by wishing us a merry Christmas before we could say it to them, which gave them a right to a gift. Of course, there was a present for every one, small though it might be, and one who had been born and brought up at our plantation was vocal in her admiration of a gay handkerchief. As she left the room she ejaculated: “Lord knows mistress knows our insides; she jest got the very thing I wanted.”
For me there were six cakes of delicious soap, made from the grease of ham boiled for a family at Farmville, a skein of exquisitely fine gray linen thread spun at home, a pincushion of some plain brown cotton material made by some poor woman and stuffed with wool from her pet sheep, and a little baby hat plaited by the orphans and presented by the industrious little pair who sewed the straw together. They pushed each other silently to speak, and at last mutely offered the hat, and considered the kiss they gave the sleeping little one ample reward for the industry and far above the fruit with which they were laden. Another present was a fine, delicate little baby frock without an inch of lace or embroidery upon it, but the delicate fabric was set with fairy stitches by the dear invalid neighbor who made it, and it was very precious in my eyes. There were also a few of Swinburne’s best songs bound in wall-paper and a chamois needle-book left for me by young Mr. P., now succeeded to his title in England. In it was a Brobdingnagian thimble “for my own finger, you know,” said the handsome, cheerful young fellow.
After breakfast, at which all the family, great and small, were present, came the walk to St. Paul’s Church. We did not use our carriage on Christmas or, if possible to avoid it, on Sunday. The saintly Dr. Minnegerode preached a sermon on Christian love, the introit was sung by a beautiful young society woman and the angels might have joyfully listened. Our chef did wonders with the turkey and roast beef, and drove the children quite out of their propriety by a spun sugar hen, life-size, on a nest full of blanc mange eggs. The mince pie and plum pudding made them feel, as one of the gentlemen laughingly remarked, “like their jackets were buttoned,” a strong description of repletion which I have never forgotten. They waited with great impatience and evident dyspeptic symptoms for the crowning amusement of the day, “the children’s tree.” My eldest boy, a chubby little fellow of seven, came to me several times to whisper: “Do you think I ought to give the orphans my I.D. studs?” When told no, he beamed with the delight of an approving conscience. All throughout the afternoon first one little head and then another popped in at the door to ask: “Isn’t it 8 o’clock yet?,” burning with impatience to see the “children’s tree.”
Davis Plays Santa Claus
When at last we reached the basement of St. Paul’s Church the tree burst upon their view like the realization of Aladdin’s subterranean orchard, and they were awed by its grandeur.
The orphans sat mute with astonishment until the opening hymn and prayer and the last amen had been said, and then they at a signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree to receive from a lovely young girl their allotted present. The different gradations from joy to ecstasy which illuminated their faces was “worth two years of peaceful life” to see. The President became so enthusiastic that he undertook to help in the distribution, but worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for into their outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he contented himself with unwinding one or two tots from a network of strung popcorn in which they had become entangled and taking off all apples he could when unobserved, and presenting them to the smaller children. When at last the house was given to the “honor girl” she moved her lips without emitting a sound, but held it close to her breast and went off in a corner to look and be glad without witnesses.
“When the lights were fled, the garlands dead, and all but we departed” we also went home to find that Gen. Lee had called in our absence, and many other people. Gen. Lee had left word that he had received a barrel of sweet potatoes for us, which had been sent to him by mistake. He did not discover the mistake until he had taken his share (a dishful) and given the rest to the soldiers! We wished it had been much more for them and him.
A Starvation Dance
The night closed with a “starvation” party, where there were no refreshments, at a neighboring house. The rooms lighted as well as practicable, some one willing to play dance music on the piano and plenty of young men and girls comprised the entertainment. Sam Weller’s soiry, consisting of boiled mutton and capers, would have been a royal feast in the Confederacy. The officers, who rode into town with their long cavalry boots pulled well up over their knees, but splashed up their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places where their dress uniform suits had been left for safekeeping. They very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into the pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many of them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country. These young people are gray-haired now, but the lessons of self-denial, industry and frugality in which they became past mistresses then, have made of them the most dignified, self-reliant and tender women I have ever known — all honor to them.
So, in the interchange of the courtesies and charities of life, to which we could not add its comforts and pleasures, passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.”
Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.
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.
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger,
to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” –Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine
For Civil War buffs in general, and those interested in the paranormal aspects of the Late Unpleasantness in particular, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is something akin to Mecca. The site of the most famous battle of the Civil War. For generations it has attracted both Civil War enthusiasts and average tourists by the millions. Compounded by its fame as a battlefield is its connection with Abraham Lincoln and his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.
Certainly, just for the history alone, Gettysburg is worth visiting, especially in this sesquicentennial—and even more this year, the 150th anniversary of both the battle and Lincoln’s speech. Having written about both Gettysburg’s restless dead and Abraham Lincoln’s own fascination with the paranormal, I would be remiss if I did not devote at least one blog entry to this holy grail of re-enactors, ghost hunters, and mainstream Civil War historians alike.
In Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War I chronicled a few of Gettysburg’s haunted locations; one is connected with Colonel Chamberlain and his famous defense of Little Round Top and another section deals with the phantoms of Farnsworth House. Farnsworth House is on most top ten lists of haunted hotels and what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer volume of paranormal activity. They offer ghost tours and have even added a re-enactment of a Civil War era séance–of the sort which both President and Mrs. Lincoln attended. For more on the Lincolns and Spiritualism, see Chapters 14 and 15 of The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
I could easily have filled the whole book with other Gettysburg spirits and encounters, but to be honest that field has been amply plowed by Alan Nesbitt and his series of pamphlets covering them. Alan was a tour guide at Gettysburg for years and collected a number of first hand accounts, as well as being knowledgeable about the battle itself. Greystone Productions, with whom I collaborated on the production of their video Ghosts of Music City, has also produced some a nice series of documentary videos on the subject as well; in fact they too have a store in Gettysburg. So why add to the congestion?
Well, it just so happens my daughter visited there last summer, while en route to attend a friend’s wedding. Like many visitors, she snapped several photos of her visit. Surprisingly, (or perhaps not so surprisingly) when she viewed a few of them later she saw some weird things had appeared on the digital shots. In one photo, taken at night but without a flash, she caught what definitely appears to be a gray apparition looking out of an upstairs window in the town. Unfortunately, whenever we have tried to enlarge it to make it more distinct, the autocorrect function in the digital camera kept trying to erase the image: so much for the wonders of technology. The image remains on the original, however.
She also took a series of shots looking out over the battlefield in the dark. Standing in one place, she took an overlapping sequence of them to form a panorama. To be honest, in nighttime there is little of the battlefield to see; what was interesting, however was that in several of the shots there appeared a cluster of white “orbs.” Now anyone familiar with both the paranormal and photography is familiar with this phenomena; orbs are thought to be a particular form of ghostly energy not normally visible to the naked eye; debunkers claim it is just dust reflecting back the light of a flash at night. Well, these photos were taken with low level light-sensitive camera; more importantly they were all taken from the same identical position, yet some photos had orbs, yet others didn’t. If it had simply been dust in front of the lens then all the photos should have come out exactly the same: they didn’t.
Many, many other visitors to Gettysburg report similar strange encounters, some far more dramatic than my daughter’s.
As Colonel Chamberlain said, “bodies disappear, but spirits linger.”
Christmas 1864 In the span of a year things had changed radically. While the North had not yet won, and the ultimate outcome was not yet certain, everywhere it seemed that Union forces were advancing inevitably onward to a final conclusion.
Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president, left a vivid portrait in the besieged capitol that last Christmas of the war. For her, the deprivations of the children were what pained her most: “For as Christmas season was ushered in under the darkest clouds, everyone felt the cataclysm….but the rosy, expectant faces of our little children were a constant reminder that self-sacrifice must be the personal offering of each member of the family. How to satisfy the children when nothing better could be done than the little makeshift attainable in the Confederacy was the problem of the older members of each household.” In the city was an orphanage for children of soldiers killed in the war and for those already short of everything, a special effort was made to provide them with some sort of Christmas cheer. The Davis’ house servant, Robert Brown volunteered to make by hand a doll house from scratch, “a sure enough house, with four rooms,” he called it. It would be a “pretty prize” for the “most orderly girl” among the orphans.
On Christmas night in Richmond they held a “Starvation Dance.” Officers rode into the city from the front—not a far distance anymore—and changed into formal military attire for the event. In “full toggery” they entered into the dance with bright-eyed young belles, whom Varina tells us were, “fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country… So, in the interchange of the courtesies and charities of life, to which we could not add its comforts and pleasures, passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.”
Far to the west, the Confederacies last field army was seemingly on the offensive, bottling the Yankees up in the strategic stronghold of Nashville. The Rebels, under John Bell Hood, had built siege lines and were shelling the Yankees within the city—and their own folk too. That December, among the barbarians in blue besieged by the Rebels, was a young staff officer, named Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce. He was dashing and handsome and brave, but with a talent for sarcasm—and after the war proved to have a talent for writing as well. In the early part of December, as life settled into a routine within the besieged city, the Union officer had time to ponder the what his foes felt about their relatives caught in the city with the Yankees: “I sometimes wondered what were the feelings of those fellows, gazing over our heads at their own dwellings, where their wives and children or their aged parents were perhaps suffering for the necessaries of life, and certainly (so their reasoning would run) cowering under the tyranny and power of the barbarous Yankees.”
Holed up in the Lawrence Mansion, overlooking Granny White Pike, Bierce and his fellow staff offers did not want for either the necessities—or a few luxuries for that matter. Old “Pap” Thomas’s army was ensconced behind a belt of fortifications and were sitting on a mountain of supplies. Despite the large number of troops stationed within, the Federals had ample resources at their disposal. The same could not be said for their ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-supplied besiegers. In truth, as the days dwindled down in December, it became clear that General Hood had the Yankees just where old Pap Thomas wanted them.
Finally on the fifteenth of December, General George Thomas unleashed an onslaught against the Rebel army the likes of which had not been seen before in the war. Over two days pounding, the outnumbered Confederates resisted bravely but their cause was doomed. It was a battle of annihilation; by the end of the battle the Army of Tennessee was in tatters, demoralized and had virtually ceased to exist as an army. It was said that the road southward that Christmas was marked in red—the trail the bloody feet of the shoeless Rebel survivors left in the snow as they fled back to Alabama. For the Union troops it was a joyous time; but it was a cheerless holiday for those Southern troops still alive to mark its passage.
The victory at Nashville was indeed a welcome relief to Lincoln that Christmas; but the President also soon received a welcome gift from another quarter. On December 22, Sherman occupied the port of Savannah and wired Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
There could have been no greater contrast this Christmas between North and South. While the North could look forward to the New Year with hope and good cheer, in Dixie, except among the long suppressed loyal white population and African Americans on the verge of liberation, this Christmas was a hard one with a future that seemed dim indeed.
Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.