Tonight I did something I've never done before: I went knowingly to a place that is haunted, for the express reason that it is haunted. I've been to haunted places before, among them the Tower of London, but never thinking, "this place is haunted, and that's why I am going there." The reason for this lies firmly in the realm of the nebulously goofy. I've always believed in ghosts, but I've got no reason to do so (and therefore also no reason to doubt their existence)...but have always suspected I am the sort of person who would attract them, so I've sort of unconsciously closed off whatever part of me that would be open for it. It's something I'd really rather not deal with, but I've never wanted to say it doesn't exist either. I like there to be magic in the world.
So tonight I went to a moonlight tour of a "documented" haunted (American) Civil War battlefield. Over 2000 soldiers lost their lives on this spread of land over a few days in December of 186-something. The sky was clear, but foggy; the moon waxed and loomed heavy in the haze above as the temperature dropped and the air became clingy. I learned something I wasn't expecting to learn out there in the valleys and the barren trees. Now I am sitting in my living room listening to the radio, playing a series of 70s songs from Gilbert O'Sulivan to Barry Manilow...it strikes me as an absurd opposite, but I know this isn't the night to work and watch Halloween. No, this night is for reflection.
I had to drive through fairly dense forest and a few small towns to get to the battlefield, and the air was crackling with magic, as it tends to do in October. I turned in to the parking lot and there were already a lot of people there, and rows of lanterns leading to a check-in table (O now it's Christopher Cross!). Off to the side there was a roaring bonfire and a lot of children running around, so I DO get my bonfire after all! And I smiled to see all the children, first because I like seeing children having a good time, and second because if it's a kid-friendly activity, the fright level is about what I can take. :)
At the check-in table I learned that they'd had a big rush, and were already handing out tickets for tours beginning an hour-and-a-half later. Go home and wait? Nah. I brought a book, I like being outside. Who would want to miss out on all this jollity?? So I got my ticket and fetched my book from the car, and placed myself by the bonfire to settle in and read for a while. (Alright! "Copacabana!" I'm always gonna listen to this station!!) I ate "kettle corn" (sugared popcorn) for the first time in the states. A woman in period dress was cooking apple cider in a huge cauldron. Finally it was my turn, and I joined the very back of a group of people guided by a Southern soldier (I think--it was too dark to see if his cap was blue or gray) with a tiny lantern. He drew us away from the crowd into the darkness, into an apple orchard and proceeded to tell us that the casualties were so massive that they simply tossed the bodies into a shallow grave...right about where we were standing. The grave was so shallow that hands and feet were sticking out of the ground. Eventually the government retrieved the bodies and moved them to the National Cemetary down the road...but of course, they couldn't have gotten everything, since the bodies had decomposed somewhat. With that, we set off towards a big clapboard house. Hoping that we wouldn't be going in, I was relieved that we swung around the house, walking by a window in which one could glimpse a faintly-lit outline of a little girl watching us as we went by. It was creepy, but also very beautiful. This house is one of the documented haunted places, I've read about it on the internet. As we stood in the cold under the waxing moon, the house behind us, the guide told us about the night that inspired them to start this tour: the guides spent the night camped out outside the house, and watched as, in the dead of night, a woman opened and then drew back the curtains. The next morning, they entered the house and discovered the curtains on the floor. The children in the group drew closer to their parents and everyone turned to look at the window. We saw nothing. But...I know that house is haunted. I could feel them there. And I wondered what sort of constitution that little girl had to be in that house. Brave girl. I couldn't do that.
We proceeded down the hill into a hollow, and stopped just at the edge. The guide turned and told us he was pleased we were with him. He doesn't like going into the hollow alone, for all he knows about what happened there. Solitary soldiers attacked and were attacked on the hills on either side of the hollow, dying alone in the cold. It was at that moment that I reflected on the sadness of this place. It feels very lonely there, not in a dread way, but in a way for which you feel pity. And then I felt...this is not a place to be afraid, this is a place to be empathetic. I felt the eyes of soldiers, dying, far from home and cold, missing their mothers, missing their children and their wives, afraid and so, so sad. There weren't that many, but they seemed less lonely to me. Happy to be remembered, even if anonymously. We proceeded through the hollow, and someone fired off a musket, and we all jumped. And then we had to stand in the hollow for 10 minutes, waiting for a wagon to take us back up the hill. It was a pleasant 10 minutes, the guide told us about all the ghosts he'd seen, men and women, some in broad daylight. His wife and daughter came creeping out of the darkness and sat on a bench surrounded by lanterns. The soldier turned to them and said, "Does she miss her Papa?" and his wife said, "Yes." I looked up at the moon shining over the glen outside the hollow, the land stretching out to the river and beyond. Tree branches in relief against the foggy sky. I looked out over the field, trying to imagine the thousands and thousands of soldiers camped out. Drums and fifes. It was a beautiful night, I was so glad I came.
Finally the wagon came and we rode back up the hill, but some people walked back up with the soldier and his lantern. I was so torn, I wanted to do that, too, but I'd never been in a haywagon before, so I stayed there. We disappeared into another hollow as the soldier's lantern dwindled in the distance. There were some silly voices and things hanging in trees. The place itself seemed to take no notice of all this hooha. I didn't feel any soldiers anymore, until we got to the top of the hill...and suddenly I...saw...one. Not really saw... it's so hard to describe, I could see him, and I couldn't see him. Standing in a thicket, watching us go by. Was he there? Or was it something the guide had said... I don't know. I can't be sure. But I felt like he was there, watching us, and not feeling anything. As we rolled along I kept saying the words in my head "a place of such pain and suffering"... imprinted with the intense emotions. But not a place to be afraid. I felt at ease. I never expected to feel that way.
And then I got in my car and drove home. I learned the sense that ghosts are place-bound...I feel like I'd be the sort of person a spirit might follow home...but not these spirits. These spirits are bound to that place. I think I've been followed home before. This was very different. I feel good for having thought about these soldiers and their families.
I wanted to share that.