A Civil War historian walks with the ghosts of Gettysburg

July 02, 1994|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Special to The Sun

One hundred and thirty-one years have passed since the bloody Civil War fighting at Gettysburg, but there are those who believe the battle has never ended for some of the 51,000 soldiers who were killed, wounded or missing in action.

"Acre for acre, Gettysburg is probably the most haunted place in America," says Mark Nesbitt, a writer and historian who has collected about 150 stories of spectral sightings in this small Pennsylvania town that has been his home for more than two decades.

Inspired by these prolific hauntings and the popularity of ghost tours in other historic areas, Mr. Nesbitt recently trained a group of guides and began offering candlelight walking tours that feature frightening tales from two of his books, "Ghosts of Gettysburg" and "More Ghosts of Gettysburg."

"The ghost tours are fun," he says. "This is the most unusual tour you're going to get in Gettysburg this year. You'll go away with an understanding of the rich folklore of the area."

Numerous reports of phantom regiments, ghostly horsemen, 19th-century soldiers mysteriously appearing in photographs and other Civil War apparitions have led to speculation that the spirits of the casualties were so disturbed by the savagery of those first three days of July 1863 that they remained in this world to continue the fight for a divided nation. There's even talk that exorcisms have taken place here.

"There are lots of strange things that happen here," says Mr. Nesbitt, a 44-year-old expert on the Civil War whose circa 1940 house stands on ground over which Union soldiers retreated on the first day of battle.

"I wish I could explain them but I can't."

While some of the stories in the book have been passed around and retold by many different people, others are firsthand accounts of ghost sightings from the files of Charles Emmons, professor of sociology at Gettysburg College who has been collecting such stories since the 1970s.

"I've seen enough myself to believe that something is going on," Dr. Emmons says. "I find that very few people hoax."

Dr. Emmons -- who has written a book on ghosts and ESP, and taught a course in the sociology of unexplained phenomena -- interviewed some of the eyewitnesses himself. Other reports were gathered by his students.

"I'm always skeptical," Dr. Emmons says. "But I think it's important to know if there is life after death and if there are other dimensions. I don't think there is anything trivial about these subjects. I think they're exciting. . . . The people who bother me are the ones who won't look at the evidence.

"There is an increasing percentage of people who think ghosts are real," he says. "People who die violent deaths are liable to show up as ghosts and there was a lot of violent death at Gettysburg. Also, there's a universal belief that if you die an unfulfilled life your spirit will wander around before moving on. There ought to be a lot of unhappy spirits in Gettysburg because of the battle."

The books and the tour are grounded in the history of the battle, says Mr. Nesbitt, who has written six other books and also does research for historical artists producing Civil War prints. For the ghost books, he researched the site of each story and related its history along with the haunted tale.

"These stories are history," he says. "All I'm doing is telling the stories. . . . and recording things that I think should be recorded."

Ghostly images

The "Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tour" begins in the Center Square and proceeds past purportedly haunted dwellings through the town -- which was once all battlefield -- to the campus of Gettysburg College, where many unexplained events are said to have occurred.

From the college have come reports of a Confederate sentry still keeping watch from a cupola high above campus. There's also the tale of an elevator -- in the administrative offices building now called Pennsylvania Hall, which was first built in 1837 -- that bypasses the first floor and carries passengers instead to the basement where the doors open to reveal ghostly images of crude surgery being performed in a Civil War hospital.

The walking tour does not include the Gettysburg National Military Park itself, but Mr. Nesbitt's books tell of chilling visions and sounds -- the groans of wounded men, orders shouted in the heat of battle -- associated with sites there including Devil's Den, Spangler Farm, the Valley of Death and Iverson's Pits.

Theories suggest the spiritual uproar resulted from a "vibration" left behind by the tremendous emotional energy expended during the battle, Mr. Nesbitt says. Others have suggested that when death is sudden and unexpected -- as it was in the Battle of Gettysburg -- the victims don't realize they are dead and are transported to "another dimension."

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