They had me at the mummified arm. I’ve always been mesmerized by the grittier details of our mind-bogglingly bloody Civil War (about 620,000 dead). That includes macabre stories of early medicine’s misguided stabs at healing — think dirty sponges used to clean wounds, cringe-worthy bloodletting tools and tales of horrid disfigurements from poorly treated illnesses.
Honestly, it’s not the gore that I’m into. It’s just that the drama of the Civil War, which can seem so abstract and dry in history books, becomes grippingly real when I’m brought face to face (or face to bullet-cracked skull) with the suffering it caused. My interest was piqued years ago during a visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which is full of Civil War-era artifacts such as Union Gen. Daniel Sickles’s cannon-fire-damaged leg bone and President Lincoln’s skull fragments.
The period was marked by both stunning ignorance, at least in retrospect, and wide-reaching innovations for treating large groups of people in a more systematic way. And this region, home to some of the war’s biggest battles, has some fascinating places to learn about them. Depending on your level of fear factor, there’s this bonus, too: Dead 19th-century soldiers, at least to hear some museum employees tell it, have unusually restless souls.
As the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, in Frederick, Md., makes clear, the war was a crucial turning point for medicine. It inspired the first real use of triage in this country and widespread use of painkillers. Anesthesia was introduced in the 1840s, and, contrary to popularly held notions, about 95 percent of soldiers had the luxury of chloroform or ether to at least lightly knock them out during surgeries.
“We have these kind of cartoonish views of what medicine was like then,” says my group’s tour guide, Jake Wynn, “but medical care was merciful compared to what it was like 30 years before.”
He shows us such artifacts as amputation kits, the mummified arm, photos of terribly wounded soldiers, descriptions of how an organized hospital system (there were 53 receiving hospitals in Virginia alone) developed and Clara Barton’s camp bed. And we learn that while most soldiers did have the luxury of pre-amputation painkillers, the war was still a horrific test of physical endurance. And a stinky one. “Imagine the smells!” says Wynn, leading us toward a diorama of camp life, depicting a tent and soldiers, including one kneeling at a stream.
The men would go to the bathroom in the same waters they drank from, one reason the biggest cause of death in the war wasn’t gunfire but infection and sicknesses such as dysentery and typhoid fever. “They were literally pooping themselves to death,” Wynn explains.
Then a city of 8,000, Frederick became the go-to spot for soldiers recovering from Antietam. Some 8,000 of the more than 17,000 soldiers who were wounded in that battle arrived here for treatment.
But if the war’s history isn’t enough of a draw, maybe a potential ghost sighting is. The museum was the site of embalming services during the war and is considered the most haunted building in Frederick, according to Wynn. He adds that he has heard “weird things,” including “a sound like a dragging table above me when no one else was in the building.”
People have also reported hearing scratching sounds. Some say they’ve seen a woman’s shadow toward the back of the museum, the so-called Shadow of Death.
“I always believed in ghosts,” says Angel May, the head administrator at the Exchange Hotel Civil War Medical Museum in Gordonsville, Va. “But since I came here there’s no doubt in my mind. Seventy thousand troops came through here,” she adds, as though that fact makes haunting a given. Backing her up is none other than the History Channel, which has labeled the museum the 15th “most haunted” building in the United States; it’s the second “most haunted” in Virginia, according to Tidewater & Albemarle Paranormal Investigators (No. 1 is the Ferry Plantation House in Virginia Beach).
The Exchange was just an inn by the railroad tracks when the Confederacy came and transformed it into the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital. From March 1862 through May 1865, the Confederate army treated its wounded soldiers here (along with some Union soldiers, kept separate and considered prisoners of war). The men were brought in from nearby battlefields by the trainload and packed shoulder-to-shoulder into every available room.
May leads us to a room featuring an original operating table still marked with spots of blood with a bone saw atop. “This is what surgeons would use to cut off the limbs,” May says.
When it comes to ghost stories, the Gordonsville museum doesn’t give an inch to Frederick. There have been supposed sightings of a Civil War-era teenage boy and two nurses dressed in black, and May says she has seen a male ghost on the second-floor landing five or six times. “Right there in the doorway,” she adds. An employee also claims to have seen a postcard rack in the gift shop move a full turn by itself.
Ghost hunters are a substantial proportion of the museum’s visitors; May says they often record themselves asking questions — what is your name? where are you from? — hoping to hear ghostly answers when they listen to the recording later. One hunter reportedly heard a North Carolina soldier say he had died at the hospital and was trapped there.
May nods toward my voice recorder, which I’m using to capture her descriptions as we walk through the museum. “Don’t be surprised if you hear something in the background when you play that back.”
I nod soberly.
Weeks later, I even feel a twinge of trepidation before I finally sit down to transcribe the recording. What do I hear? No ghosts — but plenty of stories that breathe life into that period of American history.
Christina Ianzito is a writer and editor in Washington.
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400 S. Main St., Gordonsville, Va. 540-832-2944.
Every October the museum holds its biggest annual fundraiser, ScareFest. It includes self-guided candlelight tours of the main house on the last two Friday and Saturday nights in October, with period reenactors telling ghost stories and an outdoor Trail of Terror.
48 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md. 301-695-1864.
Fall events include “Night at the Museum” (Oct. 27), when visitors can focus on the creepier aspects of the Civil War with the help of historians in period costume and a lantern-lighted guided tour of the museum. There’s also a ghost tour on Halloween.