"I never believed in ghosts...
until I visited Gettysburg," said the grizzled Union soldier, his voice subdued but full of conviction.
We sat before a flickering campfire watching sparks spiral lazily skyward into the darkness. Around us, 25,000 mock Civil War troops were bedding down, preparing for sleep. It was July 1998, the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and we had assembled less than two miles from that famous battlefield to recreate the three days of savage combat. As a ghost researcher and Civil War reenactor, I found this a remarkable opportunity both to participate in the grand event and to collect dozens of fresh accounts of spectral sightings from one of America's most haunted towns.
The reenactor continued his story: "Last year I came to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield in uniform. It was always my dream to do that. So I left my family in the motel and set out before dawn because I wanted to avoid the crowds. By the time I got to MacPherson's Ridge, the sky was getting lighter, but I was alone. I was walking along near the railroad cut when I saw him."
I knew the place described by the witness. It was about a mile west of Gettysburg along U.S. Route 30. This was where the battle began, as Yankee cavalry and infantry attempted to stop the advance of a much larger Confederate force. By the time three days had passed, the ferocious fighting had claimed 53,000 dead, wounded, and missing, and Gettysburg had become a vast charnel house.
There was a long silence, but I was patient. As I had discovered, many reenactors were initially reluctant to speak of their unearthly experiences, so it did no good to try to hurry a story. I lit my clay pipe and waited.
His eyes peering into the fire, the reenactor finally murmured, "I don't know where he came from. He was just there... a Union soldier. I'd guess he was about 25 years old, a skinny guy wearing a forage cap. He didn't have a rifle and he just stood there looking at me. He looked so damn real, I thought he was another reenactor, so I raised my hand to say hello. No sooner did I do that than he disappeared."
The bewhiskered reenactor fixed me with a defiant gaze as if to dare me to deny the reality of the episode. He spoke again: "He didn't run away or drop to the ground. He simply vanished. At first I was surprised, then I got scared because I wondered what else I might see out there. I ended up going back to the motel."
America's Most Haunted Place?
Is Gettysburg the most haunted place in America? The town and battlefield have a long history of ghost sightings and poltergeist phenomena. Indeed there are so many reports it is only natural to suspect rampant witness suggestibility and outright fraud. But it is possible there is another reason Gettysburg produces such a prodigious number of paranormal events.
Richard Senate and other noted ghost researchers theorize that the living can play a pivotal role in energizing a haunted site. Senate christened this process "restimulation" and suggested that when historical episodes are recreated on or near a spectral landmark, they sometimes provide a venue for paranormal activity. In particular, Senate believes that Civil War reenactors may prime the spectral pump of a battlefield.
Members of that martial hobby invest large amounts of time and money to recreate the lives of the soldiers from the 1860s. Reenactors wear woolen uniforms, carry authentic rifles, and live in crude canvas "dog-tents." They eat salt pork and hardtack, sing sentimental tunes from the era, and stage dramatic mock fights, sometimes involving thousands of combatants. A visit to a Civil War reenactment is like stepping backward in time. Therefore, if there is even a kernel of fact to Senate's intriguing hypothesis, it isn't surprising that reenactors so often encounter the restless phantoms of Gettysburg.
An excellent example of this theory is provided by the experiences of Stanley and Ruth Bukowski of northern Illinois. Although born in "Yankeedom," Stanley is a proud member of a local Confederate regiment, and Ruth portrays a civilian. In 1992, the couple and several thousand other reenactors assembled on the battlefield to appear in Ronald Maxwell's splendid film Gettysburg. During preparations for filming the climactic scene, Pickett's Charge, Stanley Bukowski and others had a mysterious auditory encounter with an invisible army.
Stanley recalled the episode: "It was about 8:30 in the morning and there were thousands of us in line, waiting to advance across the field. We were all pretty excited because we were standing on the precise spot where the Confederates advanced toward the Union lines. Then the assistant director asked us to give a rebel yell, which we did. But a few seconds later, I heard another collective rebel yell from the woods behind us. I turned around and saw that there was no one in the woods, but the sounds continued."
Perhaps there was a natural explanation, I suggested. Could the chorus of voices merely have been an echo?
"Not likely," countered Stan. "We were facing Cemetery Ridge when we shouted, and the cheer we later heard came from behind us. An echo doesn't behave that way. Besides, this was a huge open field with nothing for our voices to bounce off."
Is it possible that the gathering of several thousand reenactors on the battlefield activated a place memory of the famous Pickett's Charge? On July 3, 1863, fifteen thousand soldiers marched across that field and into history in a spectacular and unsuccessful attack on the Union lines. Or could it be that the spirits of those brave troops who died in the battle shouted to signify their approval of the efforts of the hobbyists?