Shadows From The Past


June 20, 1993|By WAYNE HARDIN

"I was foolhardy enough to try to spend a night in the fort by myself," says Robert Crickenberger.

When he tells how he paid for his folly, his story makes dark nights at Fort Lincoln in Point Lookout State Park seem foreboding. One can begin to understand why some visitors say that tormented souls wander Point Lookout State Park.

"In 1983, I was in front of the guardhouse stacking wood," says Mr. Crickenberger, 40, of Chesapeake Beach. He's a veteran park volunteer and head of Company E of the 20th Maine, a Civil War-enactors group whose labor restored the old fort.

"A hand came down on my shoulder," he says. "I spun around. No one was there. At the same time, the lantern I was using for light in the guardhouse shattered.

"I spent the rest of the night in my truck."

At this site on the tip of St. Mary's County, as far south as Southern Maryland goes, 3,384 Confederate soldiers died of malnutrition, exposure and disease. From August 1863 to June 1865, the land held a prisoner of war camp built by the Union forces. Fort Lincoln, a mile and a half inside the park, was one of three built to guard the prisoners.

In a camp designed for 10,000 men, as many as 20,100 were kept here at one time. More than 52,000 passed through. They lived in tents. They had only a blanket for warmth and little wood for fires. In summers, mosquitoes attacked from the marshes. With inadequate medical care, the prisoners suffered smallpox, yellow fever, malaria, scurvy, dysentery, whooping cough. Nine men a day died. On winter mornings, some were found frozen to the ground.

After the war, the buildings were torn down. Point Lookout lay deserted for years. People didn't want to visit a place of so much misery.

Then in 1962, the state purchased 500 acres, including the fort and the prison camp site, for Point Lookout State Park. The land, on the peninsula where the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay join, lies low and marshy with brackish Lake Conoy in the middle. Park visitors -- 325,000 last year -- mostly come to fish from a 700-foot pier, to camp and watch birds and lie on the beaches.

But several campers and others have told rangers about seeing things they can't explain. And some of the rangers have their own tales of the weird.

"I was always skeptical" of the ghost stories, says Park Ranger 1st Class Mike Brown, 38, who is also a park re-enactor. For special events, he dons a blue uniform and shoulders a .58-caliber Springfield rifle to give his interpretation of Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood of Baltimore, a Medal of Honor winner who served as a Point Lookout guard as a member of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops. He's grounded in history, but his own Night of the Gray Ghost tested his skepticism.

Ranger Brown was on duty, driving his patrol car on the park causeway south of the old camp on a moonlit night in November 1988.

"I saw a man walking in the high grass beside Lake Conoy," says the ranger.

"He was wearing a gray Confederate uniform with a bright white shirt. He was gaunt, about 60, and seemed to be gliding along. I made a U-turn but he disappeared."

Says Park Ranger Robin Melton, who is in charge of the park's museum and visitors' center, "It's a spooky place. After hearing all these stories, you expect something to pop out at you."

It wasn't always so. Before the Civil War, Point Lookout was a popular resort; the conflict ended area tourism. The federal government leased the land in 1862 and built a hospital for Union troops on the tip of the peninsula. After the Battle of Gettysburg, a 20-acre prison with wood walls 14 feet high was constructed north of the hospital.

Today, erosion has claimed most of the 20 acres that once contained the settlement. The hospital and most other buildings are long gone, but near the entrance to the park, enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, visitors will find two monuments to the Confederate prisoners who died here. One was erected by Maryland and one by the U.S. government. Some POWs are buried here in the Point Lookout monument grounds.

And deep in the park, visitors can find a reconstructed, L-shaped section of the prison pen wall. A ranger's help may be needed to locate the landmark; on this foggy day, Ranger Brown, accompanied by trainee Charles Simmons of Dundalk, walks from the main park road to the board fence near some scrubby pines.

"This was the southwest corner of the prison pen," the ranger says.

Crossing a muddy ditch on a board, they continue on about 100 yards and enter Fort Lincoln, with its moat and thick dirt walls. It was restored mostly by the 20th Maine re-enactors with help from Frederick Community College students. In the quiet, the Potomac laps on one wall, which is fortified with riprap to keep the river away.

"Point Lookout is the darkest place I've ever been," Ranger Brown says. "In winter, I've never felt wind so cold."

For information about Point Lookout State Park and park events, please call (301) 872-5688.


Ranger Don Hammett's pamphlet, "True Tales of the Bizarre and Unnatural," is sold at the park's center. It contains several Point Lookout tales, about:

* Footsteps heard in empty corridors of the Point Lookout Lighthouse. The footsteps never have been explained.

* A man who runs across the road in the same direction at the same place during the day, not far from the original Confederate cemetery.

* A kitchen wall at the Navy-owned Point Lookout Lighthouse, near the Civil War hospital, that one night began to glow. The glowing area grew from the size of a dinner plate to 4 feet across.

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