By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Over the past five years, the members have captured sounds they claim are cannonballs and musket fire from ages past and misty, half-formed figures they believe are dead soldiers.
"But I put my faith in physics, not psychics," Smith said. "I guess you could say I'm the official naysayer in the group."
His explanation, then, for why he joined the team: "It could be other things out there. There may be things in the world that we don't know about yet, like quantum physics, other dimensions and parallel universes."
Also on the team of nine that night were two trainees, as well as Mark Nesbitt, an author of books on Civil War ghosts, and a park ranger assigned to the group by the National Park Service. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which closes at sunset, allows after-hour visitors only with a permit and under supervision.
The park, Ranger Charles Lochart said, has no official position on ghosts. When pressed by the group's psychic on whether he himself believed in ghosts, Lochart was diplomatic: "I personally don't see things, but I don't know that they don't happen."
During the team's previous visit, Lochart even agreed to be its guinea pig. "They wanted to see if the ghosts would respond to an armed person," he said, pointing to his service weapon. "So they had me walk around a bit. They're nice people," he said of the ghost hunters. "They don't bother anything here."
Stopping at a spot they believed had been the Confederates' second line of defense, the hunters took out their digital recorders.
Crosby put her hand on a mossy stone and said she felt a cold spot. Out of earshot, Smith, the skeptic, jokingly pointed out that the words "psychic" and "psycho" have the same Greek root. Nonetheless, he swerved his infrared camera toward her.
With the cameras and voice recorders running, the team started asking questions and pausing for answers. Then with eager anticipation, they played back the audio recordings to listen for odd noises that might qualify as responses.
"Tell us what your name is." No answer.
"Are you Union or Confederate?" There was some noise, like a burst of static or a gust of wind. Everyone leaned in closer.
"Who is your commanding officer?" Suddenly, a cell phone rang, and the group groaned in frustration.
"My bad, guys," Burke said, laughing and flipping open his phone.
After two more hours of searching, recording and feeling for ghosts in the dark, the group retreated to a nearby steakhouse. On the way there, Mike Hartness, usually the most taciturn of the team's four core members, began to talk. With the gravelly voice of a longtime smoker, he tried to explain the goal of the hunt.
For most of his life, he has harbored a suspicion that there is something more to this world than what we see and hear. "Everyone's looking for something to believe in," said Hartness, 54, a lanky home remodeler from Silver Spring. "But there's always doubt, and until you see it with your own two eyes, you never know. That's what I'm trying to do: see it with my own eyes so I can believe."
Many in the group hope to give up their day jobs and hunt full time, Burke said later at the steakhouse. There are other dreams, too: a TV show with the History Channel, a correspondence course for ghost hunting, a funded expedition to the beaches of Normandy -- a mecca for battlefield ghost hunters.
"Even if all those things don't happen, we'll keep searching," Burke said. "The thing I'm really looking for is that perfect night, when you're out there and it's like a window opens onto the world.
"And you get a whole brigade marching down in one glorious moment. The battle unfolds in front of you, and you get it all on camera -- history in motion."
He lifted a piece of rib-eye to his mouth and let out a sigh of satisfaction. With dinner almost over, the group started gearing up to head back into the cold.
Outside, the sky was dark, the wind was blowing and on the abandoned battlefields, not a living soul was stirring.