A Stakeout for Civil War Spirits
Monday, March 13, 2006
As dusk fell, the group of amateur historians were in position, spread out across the grassy field with digital voice recorders at the ready and infrared cameras rolling. If someone -- or something -- out there so much as sneezed, they were fully prepared to catch it in action.
Experts have scrutinized these Spotsylvania County battlefields for years, looking for clues to the past. Now this eclectic group of history buffs had come from Maryland to conduct their own homemade brand of Civil War scholarship: battlefield ghost hunting. Why limit yourself to letters and artifacts, they reasoned, when you can go straight to the source: firsthand, albeit dead, witnesses.
The group of mostly middle-aged men had picked their spot carefully. Bloody Angle, part of one of three battlefields they visited on a recent night, was the site of the longest, most savage hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War. For 20 hours on May 12, 1864, soldiers shot, bayoneted and clubbed one another. "Rain poured down and the dead piled up in the mud," the welcome sign on the grounds says.
If spirits were likely to appear anywhere, the ghost hunters said, this was the spot.
More was at stake that night than a simple chase of the fantastical, members of the self-styled American Battlefield Ghost Hunters Society said. On a weekend break from their jobs -- mortgage broker, home remodeler, engineer, construction worker -- they had come looking for keys to historical mysteries -- such as the battle decisions of field leaders and the mentality of soldiers -- as well as answers about the very nature of life and death.
But so far, nothing. Two hours into what would turn out to be a seven-hour stakeout in freezing wind, the hunters had captured little besides locals walking their dogs and casting bewildered looks at the ragtag team.
So the group fanned out farther along the field of overgrown grass, preparing for nightfall. Team leader Patrick Burke, 47, a mortgage broker from St. Mary's County, tore off little pieces of beef jerky and chewing tobacco and sprinkled them on the ground, trying to entice undead soldiers with what would have been luxuries in their days.
"It usually works better with the Confederate soldiers," he explained, "because they were less well-fed than the Union."
Nearby, other members scouted for better camera angles while Patrick's brother John, a 50-year-old from Waldorf, and Laine Crosby, a self-described psychic the team had brought along, walked the grounds trying to suss out spirits.
Standing off to one side, looking doubtfully at all of them, was Darryl "Smitty" Smith, the team's designated science officer.
Smith, 53, a bespectacled mechanical engineer for a construction company in Prince George's County, has been with the group since it started a half-decade ago and counts its members among his closest friends. But on the battlefield, as he took careful notes in his composition book, he casually remarked, "I don't believe in ghosts."
His role on the team was to keep a log of the time and place of everything that happened in the field so that a flashing camera or a passing car wouldn't later be identified as an apparition or the roar of the undead -- mistakes not uncommon among ghost hunters, he noted.