Gettysburg creeped me out

General Robert E. Lee headquarters, Gettysburg

General Robert E. Lee headquarters, Gettysburg (Photo taken in 1913)

The only place I can definitely say I felt an otherworldly presence was in Gettysburg.  There were two incidents.

My son and I stayed at the Quality Inn at General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters (which is now closed and I believe torn down.  The Civil War Preservation Trust acquired the land to preserve and restore the site of Lee’s headquarters).  Our room, the General Buford Suite, was across the street from the main motel and General Lee’s HQ building.  It was an old brick building and we were told that’s where the soldiers would be brought from battle, into the basement, which was put into use as a field hospital.

I’m pretty sure this is the building we stayed in that was part of the Quality Inn – which is not the Gen. Lee HQ building. That was across the street.  (See first photo at top of page.)

General Robert E. Lee Headquarters

Mary Thompson was a 70 year-old widow who lived in a stone house located on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg.  I learned from the Civil War Preservation Trust that on the very first day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1, 1863) General Lee commandeered the house and set up his headquarters there. Mrs. Thompson, her daughter-in-law and her two children most likely found refuge in the basement during the battles.  The fact that the house has thick walls and was near the Confederate line would have led Lee to make the decision to choose this house.

The area around Mrs. Thompson’s house saw very heavy fighting.  The first day Union artillery was rolled up in front of the house with 3 regiments of soldiers from the state.  Although the Union was successful against a North Carolina brigade, they were later forced to retreat.  Approximately 2,000 soldiers were captured that day.  Because of the heavy casualties around Seminary Ridge, wounded soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy were taken to Mrs. Thompson’s house, where she cared for them and used her own clothing and linens for bandages and rolled the dead up in carpets.

3 Confederate prisoners, Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

3 Confederate prisoners, Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

The next day also saw battle, but started out with Confederate forces near the house, along Seminary Ridge.  Fighting went from 4:00 til dark.  On July 3 two Confederate batteries moved a bit south to fortify the big charge that afternoon.  The 3-day Battle of Gettysburg ended up being the largest and bloodiest of the Civil War, with approximately 50,000 dead. The Union suffered 23,055 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing), and the Confederate side saw 23,231 casualties (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing) according to  Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg by John W. Busey and David G. Martin.  Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured.

General Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

General Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

It should be noted that General Lee ate in Mrs. Thompson’s home and slept there the first night.  Although his staff remained there and notes passed back and forth from the house, he was too busy during the battles to spend much more time inside.

When the soldiers left Gettysburg, “an empty stone house and fenceless yard were all that was left the widow of 70 years.” After the Battle of Gettysburg, thousands of people rushed to the town to see where the famous General Lee posted his headquarters.  Although Mrs. Thompson left for a short time after the battle, she lived there until her death in 1873.  It was suggested she may have been uncomfortable with her new dubious fame.  A fire in 1896 destroyed the inside of the house, but the outside still stood.  In 1907 Emma Feister, a tenant, was arrested for “keeping a bawdy house.”  Around this time, newspaper articles began suggesting that General Robert E. Lee never had his headquarters in Mrs. Thompson’s house, but in an apple orchard.  However, this has largely been discounted as an invented story.  In 1919 the Gettysburg National Park Commission placed a marker stating that General Lee’s headquarters were across the street from the house.  It is engraved with a quote from that newspaper article by Henry Moyer which states:  “My headquarters were in tents in an apple orchard back of the Seminary along the Chambersburg Pike.” – Robert E. Lee.”  Lee never spoke these words; they were invented by the War Dept.  The National Park Service’s position on the matter is that the headquarters was established in a small tent on the south of the Chambersburg Pike, along with his staff and aides.

150th Gettysburg Reenactment 2013 (9178579675)" by S Pakhrin from DC, USA Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

150th Gettysburg Reenactment 2013 by S Pakhrin Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Our weird little drive

The first night we arrived in Gettysburg a bit late as we had just driven from West Virginia (where I showed my son my old college, Marshall University).  After putting our bags down we wanted to take a ride and see the town.  We didn’t know where we were going and after a short distance decided we were tired, it didn’t look like much was happening and we weren’t in the mood to get lost.  We decided to just to turn around to go back to our room.  I turned into a dark dirt road.  Immediately I started having a serious meltdown for no reason.  I was in a sheer panic and didn’t know why.  I just knew I had to get out of there – fast.  I don’t suffer from panic attacks or freakouts and have a good amount of skepticism about ghosts and things, but I was overcome with a huge sense of dread and kept saying, “I have to get out of here” while wildly trying to turn the car around.  My son (23 at the time) didn’t know what to do because I’d never acted that way before.  It was dark – there were no lights and I didn’t know where the road we turned onto led but I wasn’t about to keep going and find out.  There were small ditches on each side of the entrance and I had to maneuver back and forth several times to turn around and get back on the road.  Finally we found our motel again and I felt ok.  I could not explain what just happened and we decided to forget about it for the night.

The next day we saw that the place where we turned around was Seminary Ridge, a battlefield.  I’ve never felt that type of panic before or since, and I’ve been in some strange places.  I’ve heard stories about people who have heard battle noises while in modern Gettysburg.  That’s not what I experienced, but I cannot deny I definitely felt fear and dread.  And that’s not like me.

Tent life during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

OK, so that was odd.  We just chalked it up to having heard that lots of people have strange encounters in Gettysburg.  The other incident was in the motel room the next day.  We had a lovely duplex with pull-out sofa, kitchen and dining room on the first floor.  The second floor had a big bedroom and bath.  There was also a balcony off the bedroom.  There were chairs outside on the first floor and we did make use of them.  It was a beautiful view.

That afternoon we were sitting in the living room, thinking about what to do that day, and a white ball of light shot up the stairs like a bullet.  We both looked at each other for a second, then ran up the stairs.  Nothing.  It had disappeared.  We looked all over, talked to it, tried to coax it into returning, etc., but didn’t see it again.  We reluctantly walked back downstairs and tried to rationally figure out what it was.  We investigated all of the windows, lamps (were not on), and the street outside.  It was not lights from any cars that drove by.  It was nothing that we could figure out.  It just came out of the blue, ran up the stairs and disappeared.

I learned a few years later the same thing happened to a close friend of mine in her own home – a white ball of light shot up the stairs.  This actually happened to both her and her husband, at separate times.  Is this a common thing?

Because we were only staying a few days and there is so much to see and do in Gettysburg, we never got around to asking the people at the front desk about the 2 incidents we experienced.  I was searching around online to see if other people experienced anything unusual at the Quality Inn and discovered this interesting website written by a former employee that details the many paranormal occurrences that happened there, titled Diary of a Gettysburg Haunted Hotel.

Other things we did in Gettysburg

As I mentioned above, we were only in Gettysburg about 2 or 3 days, and were coming home from a trip to West Virginia where we had visited a church that practices snake handling.  So. very. interesting.  I will write about that too.  Some other things we did while we were in Gettysburg:

  • Of course we went on a ghost tour, which was great.
  • Bus tour of the battlefield.  There are so many tours, and different ways to tour (bus, your own car, walk, etc.)  We were very pleased with the one we were on, as we had a very expressive guide that brought the times back to life.
  • Shopped in town.  One memorable spot was Amy V. Lindenberger‘s art studio, where we saw her work and even spoke to her about it for quite a while.  I bought a few of her prints and gave a couple to close friends as gifts.  The one I kept for myself is a picture of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a Confederate spy.  I love how she’s holding the candle and coded letters are around her.  I also bought a book about her, Wild Rose by Ann Blackman.
  • Also while shopping, we were fascinated by old photographs of Civil War soldiers and some of their personal items in the antique shops.
  • Although not in Gettysburg, we drove 2 hours to Herr’s Potato Chip Factory for a tour.  That was a fun day and I recommend the tour.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy by Amy V. Lindenberger

So I don’t know.  I can’t explain what happened at Gettysburg.  I’m always looking for evidence of ghosts and things like that, and although this wasn’t it, maybe I’m getting closer.

September 4, 2015

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