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Gettysburg warns visitors: Don’t take our rocks — ‘unless, of course, you want to be cursed’

Reenactors portray Union soldiers during a commemoration the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg at Bushey Farm in 2013. (Matt Rourke/AP)

The envelope arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park earlier this month, park ranger Maria Brady said.

It contained rocks — and a note.

A very brief, apologetic note.

“All it says is, ‘Please return these to Devil’s Den, we are sorry,'” said Brady.

This happens, according to Brady, about every three to four months at the hallowed site in south-central Pennsylvania. Mail arrives with rocks, apparently taken during vacations or excursions or whatever. Those stones are being returned by letter writers who ask rangers to put them back where they belong at America’s most famous Civil War battlefield.

“A lot of the notes are in that vein,” said Brady, “‘We took these, we shouldn’t have. We’re sorry.’ Some of them go into more of the detail, with the, ‘My dog got hit by a train,’ whatever.”

So. About that last part: In at least some of these cases, the rocks are sent back to Gettysburg because they are cursed.

Or at least the people who took them think they are.

“In 2006 I was visiting the Gettysburg Military Park. While out on the battlefield I picked these pieces up. Yes it was wrong and I’m sorry,” one letter reads. “Since then I’ve had nothing but horrible times, injured on the job, several surgeries, relationship failures, etc, …”

“Around 10-11 years ago, my wife at the time and I had visited Gettysburg,” reads another. “We loved Gettysburg and its history and had removed three small stones. We didn’t know then how the removal of those stones would affect our lives and we didn’t know they were cursed.”

Then, the man explains that he lost his house.

And he spent time behind bars.

“That was just the worst list of stuff that happened to somebody that I’ve ever seen,” Brady said. “I mean, a lot of them are, ‘I broke my arm,’ ‘I lost my job,’ but, you know, when you go to prison for nine years?”

Also, his wife left him.

“Yeah, I know,” Brady said. “I’m thinking that had probably more to do with life decisions than it did with rocks, but that’s just me.”

Brady doesn’t actually believe in the curse (“I’m not a superstitious person, so it really wouldn’t occur to me to believe in cursed rocks”); but if you do, no judgies, okay?

Either way, even if these rocks are just ordinary, non-cursed rocks, you shouldn’t be pocketing them anyway, and you dang well know it.

In addition to just being generally uncool, Brady wrote in a blog post that swiping rocks from the park is a violation of federal regulations.

If caught in the act, Gettysburg rock thieves could face a fine.

“Most of the people, when you contact them and tell them ‘You have to put that rock back,’ they say, ‘But it’s just a rock,'” Brady said. “Well, yeah, to you, it’s just a rock, but it’s part of the fabric of the park, and the battlefield, and as pieces of that disappear, the park starts to look different. And our job as the National Park Service is to ensure that it doesn’t look different.”

Congress established Gettysburg as a national park in 1895 — 32 years after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought there.

VIDEO: Long exposures, 150 years in the making

As The Post’s Joel Achenbach wrote in 2013, on the Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary:

It was the biggest battle of the war, unequaled in scale and violence by anything seen before or since on this continent. Two immense armies collided in the fields and orchards and woods around Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 1863, and fought for three days, full-bore, no quarter given, a massive smash-up that was arguably the pivotal moment of the great conflict that sits at the heart of American history.
Abraham Lincoln called what happened in Gettysburg “a new birth of freedom,” a phrase that chiseled its way into our national civic poetry and the wall of his memorial. The battle was also an epic slaughter, the bloodiest chapter in a fratricidal war. The National Park Service records 3,155 Union and 3,500 Confederate deaths over the three days, but some students of the battle believe that the Confederate death toll was much higher. Thousands more were mortally wounded. Casualties — including wounded, captured and missing — topped 50,000 for the two armies combined. By a wide margin, Gettysburg spilled more blood than any other Civil War engagement.

Hundreds of acres were preserved by the Gettysburg National Park Commission. Eventually, the National Park Service took over management of the battlefield park, which is visited by more than 1 million people each year, according to the NPS. (Visitation peaked in 1970, when nearly 7 million people came to Gettysburg National Military Park.)

Rocks are important enough to Gettysburg that there’s a “Geologic Formations” section on the park’s website, which notes:

Geology was important in the outcome of the battle of Gettysburg in many ways. Union troops positioned themselves along the park’s ridges and hills, which provided excellent vantage points. In turn, Confederate troops moved across the cleared valleys and lowlands in an effort to drive the Union troops off Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top.
The boulders scattered across the landscape and also the rocks of Devil’s Den, provided cover and strategic defensive positions for the soldiers. Thin soil on many of the sides and tops of hills also made it almost impossible for Union soldiers to entrench themselves. The resistant diabase bedrock was so close to the surface on these hills that the troops were unable to “dig in.” They had to rely on existing stonewalls, scattered boulders, and outcrops of rock for protection.

In her blog post reminding people not to steal Gettysburg’s rocks, Brady noted that no matter how tiny or attractive or enticing a stone might be, “please remember that it needs to remain right where it is.”

“Unless, of course, you want to be cursed,” she wrote.

And you know what? This rock curse situation doesn’t just stink for the Park Service, or the battlefield itself. It also kind of stinks for the Gettysburg ghosts, too.

“It’s kind of frustrating, because the TV programs, everything that you see now, everything’s going demonic,” said Mark Nesbitt, owner of the Ghosts of Gettysburg tour company. “Everything’s because of a demon. And I’ve collected well over a thousand stories of Gettysburg … and I seriously can’t pick out one that was demonic.”

See? This kind of stuff really gives the ghosts a bum rap.

“So as far as ghosts harming you or hurting you, it seems like they want to play tricks on you, you know? They have a sense of humor,” Nesbitt said. “But they don’t want to — let me put it this way, the evidence doesn’t show they’re out to hurt you.”

Nesbitt, author of the “Ghosts of Gettysburg” book series, was familiar with and had previously written about the cursed rocks — and has also received some of the letters himself.

“We received letters from people with rocks in them,” he said. “At least three or four or them. And they said they took the rock from Gettysburg and all of sudden, they started having bad luck. Weird things were happening to them. I haven’t looked at the story in a long time, but bad-luck things, and poltergeist-type activity.”

That means doors slamming, noises, objects were moved. You know, things went all poltergeist-y.

“And they were having those things occur to them in their home towns, and they attributed it, maybe because I wrote about it, I don’t know,” he said, “but they said, ‘Oh my goodness, maybe that’s the reason. Because we took this rock from Gettysburg.'”

Nesbitt said he hasn’t found a particular reason for a curse, although he did write another book that raised the question about whether Gettysburg — just generally, as an area — was cursed to be a battlefield.

Not every returned rock came back to the park because it was “cursed.”

“We’ve had notes where people simply express remorse for taking something from a public park,” Brady wrote in an email. “We’ve had people return rocks that a recently deceased loved one took years ago.”

So maybe the person behind that Devil’s Den note is doing just fine? Get at me if that was you, because I feel like we should do a wellness check, just in case.

Brady returns the rocks to the spots they were taken, she said, not because of the curse, but rather in the interest of preserving the park.

Nesbitt said he has also taken them back and tried to put them in their original locations. Except, he said, there was this one time, when a note arrived with a broken seal on the envelope.

“So I couldn’t take the rocks back to the battlefield,” said Nesbitt. “Which means those people are really in trouble.”

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