Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg – Book Review
Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg: Searching for Spirits on America’s Most Famous Battlefield. Book review. Patrick Burke and Jack Roth. Llewellyn Publications, 2014. 248 pages; over 30 photographs, mostly historical images and few purporting to show images “from another realm”; one map. Paperback. $16.99.
If you talk to even a few people who have visited battlefields and historic sites, you’re almost guaranteed to hear stories of ghosts and unexplained phenomena: soldiers who are there one second and gone the next; a thermometer that reads colder in a sunny field where great slaughter took place than it does in a shady, wooded area nearby; an inexplicable feeling of dread or that “something doesn’t want me there.” Probably no place in all the United States has spawned so many of these accounts as Gettysburg, site of the largest slaughter of human beings in US history. So many books have been written relating these stories that it is fair to think of “Gettysburg ghosts” as a literary subgenre of horror tales. With Halloween fast approaching, we thought we’d take a short diversion from our usual reviews of books about military leaders and events to look at the latest entry in that spooky genre, Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg: Searching for Spirits on America’s Most Famous Battlefield, by Patrick Burke and Jack Roth.
This book stands out from others about spirits seen or felt at Gettysburg in that parts of it read more like a textbook than a book of ghost stories. Burke and Roth are paranormal researchers, and readers will learn a lot about the varied theories of what may constitute what we generally call “ghosts,” and how researchers go about investigating them.
Whether readers will be inclined to believe any of these theories or the stories of brushes with the spirit world found within Ghost Soldiers‘s pages will depend on whether they are skeptics (“I’ll believe it when I experience it for myself.”), firm disbelievers (“Ghosts? As the farmer said when he saw the giraffe, ‘Of which there ain’t no such animal.’”), or believers who agree with the character Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula that “It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.”
An introduction gives a thumbnail overview of the Battle of Gettysburg and tells how Burke and Roth, individually, became interested in paranormal research, and how they came to write this book together. The first four chapters, “An Overview of Paranormal Phenomenon,” “Gettysburg’s Residual Hauntings,” “Recordings from Another Realm,” and “Photos from Another Realm,” delve into the theories of what a “ghost” may be (residual energy trapped in the physical surroundings such as buildings, trees, rocks, fields, etc.; time slips or time warps; attachment to a specific object, etc.). They discuss some of the most-often reported haunts such as the Ghost Regiment, go over some of the equipment used by paranormal researchers, and briefly relate some accounts of otherworldly encounters, e.g., that of a woman named Heather who was sent with a microcassette recorder to sit near Spangler’s Spring and ask certain questions over and over. When the tape was played back, Burke and Roth say, at one point they heard her ask, “Do you like it here?” and clearly heard a male voice answer, “Hell, no!”
These four chapters are the ones that read most like a textbook. For example:
Theories abound as to how EVP might work. (Electronic Voice Phenomenon, such as the above example of a disembodied voice saying, “Hell, no!”) The Low Frequency Theory suggests that EVP occurs below the normal range of hearing (pressure waves from 0 Hz to 20 Hz) and that audio devices are somehow able to record in this range.
Much of the rest of the book splits the battle into its individual days and relates encounters by paranormal researchers and other visitors at sites related to each day’s fighting. Minimal historic information is provided, just enough to allow readers not steeped in the history of the battle to know what happened at the Triangular Field, Devil’s Den, etc.
One of the chapters I found most interesting was “A Study in Paranormal Psychology,” because of the depth of research Patrick Burke describes as he sought information about actions on July 2 near the Codori House. Any historical researcher can relate to the digging he did in the Official Records of the Rebellion, regimental histories, and other original sources; this is not some ghost hunter casually strolling in and setting up a video camera because somebody told him he’d find spooks at a certain location. Burke’s search was sparked by graves shown on the Elliot Map, created by S.G. Elliot & Co. in 1864 at the behest of Congress. Among other things, it shows graves of humans and horses that would still have been visible when Elliot was taking his measurements of the battlefield. When Burke noticed the map showed Confederate graves in the Codori House area, but in a spot that should have been behind Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, he started researching how fighting might have occurred where none is supposed to have been. His description of using historical sources in his investigation can help readers who have never delved into primary sources research—which likely would include many readers who are just looking for supernatural stories—to understand something of what is involved. Whether you believe his story of what happened when he took his two daughters and Jack Roth to the site in question after completing his research will depend on how much you believe in paranormal encounters, but his description of how he arrived at his conclusion that this spot is the true High Water Mark of the Confederacy, rather than the Copse of Trees, makes for interesting discussion.
As would be expected, the book relates visits to the Jenny Wade House and encounters with spirits there. A couple identified only as Cathy and Frank (generally only first names are used throughout the book) remained behind after their tour group left the cellar where Jennie’s body was taken. They reported:
I looked up at where Jennie’s body would have been wrapped on a bench, and to the right in the corner of the room, I saw a white mist … It was almost like smoke coming out of a fireplace or something. But it wasn’t smoke. We couldn’t smell anything. It was just misty, but it was moving.
Readers unfamiliar with the story of the Soldiers National Museum (formerly the National Soldier’s Orphan Homestead, founded in 1866) will be moved and appalled at the cruelties inflicted on children there by a sadistic manager named Rosa Carmichael. As you might expect, there are a lot of stories of spirits connected with the old orphanage.
As I said earlier, a reader’s willingness to believe the paranormal reports found in this book depends on that person’s general attitude toward belief in ghosts. That goes double for the photos that reportedly show a ghostly soldier or a shining orb floating through trees. Confirmed disbelievers aren’t likely to pick up this book to begin with, but for those more open to the idea that the dead—or at least their energy—hang around and sometimes share their presence with the living, Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg provides a goodly number of super- or supranatural tales, told from the unusual perspective of those who approach paranormal research in a scientific (or pseudoscientific, depending on your point of view) manner. For readers with an interest in the supernatural this book is recommended, for its collection of reported encounters with spirits, its historical information, and its information on conducting research, both historical and paranormal. It could have used an index to help readers easily find scattered references to certain sites, but Civil War buffs and ghost story fans could certainly do worse than curling up with Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg and a bowl of trick-or-treat candy on Halloween.
Gerald D. Swick is senior editor for ArmchairGeneral.com and longtime researcher into matters of history. He grew up hearing his elders spin stories about ghosts, including the headless apparition that is claimed to have once haunted the railroad cut behind his boyhood home.