Ghosts › A Land Long Remembers
I have talked in the previous parts of Ghost on the Hill about a life-changing trip to Gettysburg when I was 23. I have mentioned how I felt compelled to go, drawn to the place at a pivotal earthquaking point in my life—and yet not really knowing why. I could not fully define what seemed like a need. It would take many many years for me to realize that some things—many, in fact—are just unexplainable, and that going about daily life suspended inside such unknown mysteries is, well, okay. I still do not fully understand why the American Civil War captures my attention the way it does. I have come to know pieces of why, have come to define much of the motivation. But the core inspiration is still a mystery. And that is enough. Some things, some occurrences, can remain unknown, unknowable.
Such an occurrence fell on the evening of July 2, 1993, atop Culp’s Hill. This prompt rise anchored what is known as the Union’s “fish-hook” defensive line at Gettysburg, an extensive alignment of troops that stretched across rises and ridges before curving around to Culp’s Hill—what would be the “barb” in the hook. It had been pouring on and off throughout that afternoon in 1993. And though the storms had moved out, it was still overcast, the cloak of night closing on the scene quicker than it would have otherwise.
It was the end of a long wet day of touring and I had one final stop to make, the park’s auto-tour road leading me through thick fog to the top of Culp’s Hill. I felt in need of headlights, which pushed an eerie glow through the mist. It was diffuse and luminous, and suddenly turned frenetic as I neared a loop in the road before the crest. The spinning red and white lights of an ambulance marked an accident scene, EMTs tending to a motorcyclist who had misjudged the rain-slick curve. The rider seemed dazed, but okay. An inventory of limbs seemed to confirm nothing broken. I waited a few minutes for this to clear, the silent emergency lights whirling. It was an odd scene added to an odd scene, fog streaming through in thick bands. I jotted in a journal that I kept close throughout the trip of an old-time belief that fog was once considered the residue of lost souls, those having passed whose spirit or energy still lingered about the temporal plane unreconciled, unsettled. The mysterious streams of fog seemed not unlike the low-lying smoke cloud indicative of all Civil War battles too, the suffocating airborne residue of powder-fired weapons that would have drifted through these same woods as fighting swept across the slopes of Culp’s Hill 130 years earlier, to the hour.
The scene soon cleared and I was able to reach the summit as it neared dusk. I had hoped to climb the observation tower at the hill’s peak to see what I could see, but the fog was too dense and it was too dark besides. After strolling about the former position of Union lines for a few minutes, I came back to my car in the parking lot before the tower. I was now totally alone, the only other tourist having just moved out down the hill. With the car-door open (my second-hand big blue Buick LeSabre, which would see me through dozens of tours), the dome-light threw light enough by which to scrawl a few final notes. The grey closed in and I soon felt a very odd sensation, the hair on your neck standing up kind of thing. Quite suddenly, it felt as if every cell in my body was on high alert, an electric buzz from head-to-toe. I had not put much thought into the voluminous accounts of the “ghosts of Gettysburg” until that moment. I felt I was not alone. The air seemed to crackle. I got up out of the car and stood in the space of the open door, looking around. The closest approximation to what happened next is this: It felt as if a form—something, someone—passed right through me. It was a most bizarre sensation. A lost soul? A ghost on the hill? What was for sure is that it freaked me the fuck out. I stood frozen for I don’t even know how long before regaining my senses. I jumped into the car, fired up the LeSabre, and was the hell out of there.
An old oak atop Tunnel Hill, Chattanooga National Military Park
A Work In Progress . . .