I remember going to the cinema to see the film Gettysburg in 1993 with an ex-boyfriend. I went rather grudgingly. I mean, a war movie? Not even on the radar of a 24-year-old young woman. Give me Persuasion or an afternoon to binge-watch Disney movies. I dreaded an afternoon of spending four hours and 31 minutes — and even more minutes, if you count the intermission that the cinema generously included for those of us who had ordered extra-large Diet Cokes and couldn’t hold it past two hours — of staring at a screen with my mind wandering.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised at Ted Turner’s ambitious creation. I was utterly riveted by four and a half hours of intense human drama that hit me squarely in the heart. Of course the American Civil War was tragic, but I never really thought about it until then. It was a thing of the past to me. Yet here it was, springing to life in front of me. And I was hooked.
After that, I simply had to read the book on which the film was based, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. To watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War. My imagination was stuck in the Civil War, in Gettysburg, in Antietam, in Chickamauga, in Vicksburg…
Seven years later, I had moved to Colfax, California and was living in a house that had been built in 1938 and was, without question, haunted. By that time, intrigued but stubbornly skeptical, I began to wonder about the Civil War in the context of the supernatural. Surely these battlefields were haunted.
In the summer of 2000, I decided to take a trip back east to Pennsylvania to visit my aunt and uncle. The night before I left, I dreamed a vivid dream that the resident ghost of my home met with me in the back garden, in the middle of the night, and shook my hand to wish me good luck with her fellow ghosts in the spirit world.
I woke up in bed with my hand moving up and down, as if I was really shaking hands with the ghost. I awoke so stunned that I couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I was too frightened. I had to have my ex-husband go with me. (And I have a rule about marriage, never, ever let them see you pee or poop. It ruins romance.)
Once in Pennsylvania, with my young daughter in tow, my Aunt Margie and Uncle Geoff showed me the places that had only lived in my imagination until then. They knew about my obsession. We even kicked off the visit by watching the film Glory. We visited Harper’s Ferry and Antietam…and Gettysburg. Gettysburg twice. The first time was from a historical perspective and to participate in the wonderful Ghosts of Gettysburg walking tour (you must go!) created by the one and only Mark Nesbitt. We stayed in the Gettysburg Hotel.
When we returned a few days later, it was because I simply had to explore again, at night, and from a paranormal perspective, to know for myself if there really were ghosts.
This was back in the day, when not many people carried phones. I didn’t. I only had an inexpensive, foolproof Olympus camera that I had inherited from my Grampa. It was the kind of camera that you had to put 35 mm film in, and it wouldn’t advance at all until you took a picture. Any idiot could use it, even me.
That evening, before park hours ended, we wandered from place to place in the Gettysburg battlefields. When we parked and explored the Peach Orchard, I took photos. As the minutes went by, it became obvious to me that I could smell tobacco…cigars. But not…not like any cigar I have ever smelled before. The closest example I could think of is smelling a cake made from a store-bought cake mix, and then smelling a homemade cake, made from scratch ingredients. The cigar aroma was like the from-scratch cake.
I took pictures in the Peach Orchard until I came to the end of the roll of film, and then I put in a new roll. I took a couple of pictures, and then we moved on from the Peach Orchard to the Wheatfield.
Geoff stayed in the car with my little girl, but Margie and I wandered toward the infamous Wheatfield, quiet now, but once scene to carnage and the worst of humanity.
I felt a little…sheepish…as I stood there at the edge of the field and spoke aloud to whatever spirits of soldiers might (or might not) be lingering there. After I said hello to them and asked them if I could take some pictures, I began taking pictures in the night, the darkness in the field bursting with the light from the camera flash. I started shooting toward my right and continued toward my left, my eye glued to the viewer.
As I looked at the light flashing in the darkness, it occurred to me that there was motion to it, like flipping through an animated flip book. And then my body froze with a sudden chill. It registered what I was witnessing. A Civil War soldier, composed entirely of the light from my camera flash, was rising from the ground.
Shocked, I yanked the camera down from my face and uttered an…untranslatable…noise of disbelief. My half shriek startled Margie, and she shouted, “What!”
All I could get out of my mouth was, “Run!”
I don’t think our feet touched the ground. We were in the car before we knew it. “I saw a soldier, I saw a soldier,” I said over and over again as Geoff pulled away in the Prius.
My panic was still very much with me. I could feel the energy of someone else with me, someone out of time, far removed from the present, buzzing around my body. Mentally, I said, It can’t be a spirit hovering with me. But I could feel it. I could feel someone there with me. A very buzzy energy, like I had stepped on a hive of yellow jackets.
And then, as we left the boundary of the park, the energy disappeared. Entirely.
When we returned to Margie and Geoff’s house that night, I didn’t sleep. I managed to rouse myself for the plans for the next day, visiting a train and corn maze in Strasburg. As my daughter played with the toddler version of farm equipment and my aunt and uncle lost themselves in the maze, I spent the afternoon using up the rest of the roll of film from the night before on my tiny daughter in her little train conductor hat. I didn’t say much that day. My mind was on what happened the night before.
Did it really happen? Why did I run? Why was I frightened?
And then, stubbornly, I know what I saw.
I saw a soldier from the Civil War.
After my daughter and I flew back to California, I was eager to have the film developed. I picked the one-hour photo developer at Costco and put each roll of film into their own envelopes and then handed them over, saying nothing but, “See you in an hour or two.”
When I returned a couple of hours later to pick up my film, the lady behind the desk handed me the envelopes with a puzzled look on her face. “I’m sorry, we had an issue with one of the rolls of film,” she told me.
I raised my eyebrow. “What happened?”
“Well, the pictures at the beginning and end of the roll turned out fine.”
Knowing, I finished her thought in disappointment, “But the ones in the middle didn’t.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that they didn’t turn out. It’s that…they were never even used.”
“Never used?” I echoed.
I took the pictures out of the envelope. Peach Orchard, Peach Orchard, Peach Orchard…Strasburg, Strasburg, Strasburg. But there weren’t anymore. No Wheatfield.
I opened the second envelope. There were the pictures from the first roll that I used at the Peach Orchard.
The only pictures missing were the ones I had taken in the Wheatfield.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and wandered away.
Is it possible that a ghost can erase film? Is that why I felt the buzzing around me inside the car? And why did the buzzing suddenly disappear? Is it possible that the spirit of some long lost Civil War soldier was stuck there? Couldn’t he leave? Was he mad because I ran away? Is that why he stole back the pictures I had taken?
In 2016, I returned to Gettysburg. My husband, mother-in-law, and I stayed for a few days. David and I wandered through the park one evening. I was hopeful that I would have another experience. This time I wouldn’t run.
But nothing happened.
David comforted me, suggesting that the supernatural cannot happen all the time. It is rare, after all. But I hope the soldiers there can forgive me for running away.
And I remain hopeful. I hope someday that I can…be as brave as they were on the field of battle…and meet them as a friend.
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