On October 29, 2014, an article titled “The Specter of Gettysburg” was published in The Gettysburg Compiler—a blog site run by students and staff of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. This article excoriates ghost tours for being tourist traps interested in nothing other than profiting off the memory of the soldiers who fell on Gettysburg’s hallowed grounds. Writer Kevin Lavery says of ghost tours:
Ghost stories are inherently dramatized and inaccurate, if not entirely fabricated. Such stories cannot possibly help to expand the public’s historical consciousness in any meaningful way. At the most, these stories can provoke an interest in the past—but it is a twisted and poorly-informed interest that creates historical misunderstandings. Tour guides are storytellers, not trained historical interpreters.
Respectfully, Mr. Lavery misses the point. In German, the word for ‘history’ —Geschichte—bears a striking resemblance to the word for ‘story’—Geschichte. Add French (histoire) and Italian (storia) into the mix and the distinction between storytellers and historical interpreters begins to blur. If our language is inadequate in defining the relation between these two terms, who is to suggest they are wholly distinct from one another? While visitors to Gettysburg may spend their mornings and afternoons learning facts of the battle’s tragic events from a trained historical interpreter, why criticize an evening storyteller for telling stories? Ghost tour companies operate within the realm of folklore, relating stories that have been told and retold through generations and relying on an oral history tradition. While these businesses first became popular only 20 years ago, the stories themselves are not a new phenomenon.
Evidence suggests that a local tradition of supernatural folklore could predate even the battle itself. This idea comes to us by way of Emanuel Bushman—a local cabinet-maker-turned-journalist who in the 1880s recorded popular folktales in The Gettysburg Compiler newspaper. Bushman, writing under the pseudonym “Antique,” frequently dwelled on the toponymy of Devil’s Den—a site central to Gettysburg’s paranormal legacy. There is still no conclusive evidence that Devil’s Den earned its name before the hellish fighting of 1863, but Bushman relates a tradition passed down to him which suggests the area had an established uncanny quality.
“I have always had a curiosity in those rocks,” wrote Bushman in 1884. He describes what he calls an “old Indian tradition,” which tells of a great battle fought between warring tribes. Remaining skeptical, Bushman admits that “the great battle may be a myth, but that it was a place of sepulture there is no doubt from the excavations made and the fossils found.” He notes further that early settlers would “tell wonderful stories of ghosts and hobgoblins seen there in the still hours of the night,” and “the Indian warwhoop could be heard.”
Memory is fallible. It is conceivable that local residents in the late nineteenth century projected anachronistic folktales on the site as a way to grapple with the more immediate and all-consuming tragedy that had recently befallen them. At the very least, these stories sought to situate the recent carnage within a more removed, more distant past of strangeness.
One other story Bushman recorded in 1886 was that of a “man without a head,” walking “about 150 yards north of Ludwig Essick’s house, on the Emmitsburg road.” It is possible Bushman learned of this headless apparition from none other than Constable John Burns—War of 1812 hero and volunteer soldier during the battle of Gettysburg—who reportedly saw this apparition in 1832. “Was the apparition a ghost?” Bushman suggests to his readers. One could imagine Bushman as an enthusiastic ghost tour guide today.
Folklore is history. It deserves to stand alongside academic history in its mutual desire to understand the past and create human meaning. As Reformation historian Peter Marshall states, “Myths are not lies, but symbolically powerful articulations of sensed realities.” Whereas written documents are the customary resource for academic historians, folk historians must rely on oral tradition, which brings with it a different set of parameters. A good story must not concern itself with qualified arguments and the triangulation of evidence. Folk history is determined by public opinions, beliefs, and fears, not dispassionate historians.
Folk historian Henry Glassie notes that folk history deals with “states of powerlessness,” and “modes of endurance.” These terms seem wholly appropriate for Gettysburg. The number of loved ones who lost a husband, son, or brother at Gettysburg is unsettling, to say the least. One emotion surely felt by all in such a situation was that of powerlessness. Is it that surprising that those living in the mid-nineteenth century—a time much less secular than today—turned to the supernatural to explain unfathomable tragedy?
In addition, ghost tours speak directly to the intimate nature of suffering. Whereas a licensed battlefield tour will give you the sweeping numbers of soldiers lost, a ghost tour focuses on, as Glassie describes of folk history, “people scaled to our proportions.” Ghost tours’ visceral depiction of the violence on a personal level reminds us that there is nothing glorious about war. In my personal experience, ghost tour guides present this unromantic model with respect and reverence, and by acknowledging this dark side of the story, pay homage to the memory of those who suffered.
An academic investigation of the battlefield might teach us of the powerful Major General John F. Reynolds’ heroic deeds. The role of a ghost story, however, is to tell the tale of the powerless Katherine May Hewitt—Catholic fiancée to General Reynolds whose ghost has reportedly been seen tending to his bloody corpse in the back of the George George House on Steinwehr Avenue. For Gettysburg, only by embracing both methods of historical inquiry, “the sacred as well as the secular,” and “the powerless as well as the powerful,” can we begin to “account for the whole of the human condition.” Ghost tours reinforce the fact that, though the battle lasted only three days, its tragedy spanned a lifetime.
William Mumler’s spirit photography business, started in the early 1860s, provides a more general example of a way in which contemporary society turned to the supernatural to cope with a vast loss of life during and after the Civil War. By creating an apparition of the lost loved one in a photograph, Mumler provided bereaved families with reassurance that their loved ones had indeed passed on to the next life. The fact that today we know Mumler’s photographs to be fraudulent does not detract from the historical record of a post-Civil War, sentimental Victorian society turning to paranormal explanations in times of mourning. This is one of the Civil War era’s earliest forms of supernatural coping.
Critics of ghost tours contend that the stories they sell are contrived. While folklore is inherently contrived up to a point, this does not lessen the historical and cultural significance of the storytelling and its purposes. Moreover, creating a parallel between an objective “truth” as presented by the battlefield and its licensed tour guides as compared to the subjective “fictions” of ghost tours presents its own set of problems. The National Park Service has striven to engineer a battlefield preserved in its 1863 “platonic” state. Proponents of this agenda contend that it is essential to providing an accurate, reverent, and truthful portrayal of events during the battle. Nevertheless, this portrayal has only been created at the expense of other less relevant history from 1864 onwards. One need only think of Fantasyland on Taneytown Road’s east side, closed in 1980, the Gettysburg National Tower, with its commanding view, blown to smithereens in 2000, or the Mission 66 Cyclorama building, which after pitting preservationist against preservationist was finally demolished in 2013. These are the casualties of NPS’s whitewashing agenda.
The result is a battlefield highly effective in educating visitors of the events, but a landscape devoid of meaning and memory to residents who lived there after the battle had subsided. One could argue that the battle—a national memory—should take precedence over that of more recent local memory, but to suggest the battlefield objectively presents “truth” ignores the manipulated, manufactured, and unnatural reality of its current presence. This dark side of preservation is rarely recognized.
From age 16 to 19, I lived in a small house on Taneytown Road, directly across the street from Pleasonton Avenue leading up to the Pennsylvania Monument. Today, nothing stands there but an open field and a walking path leading to the Visitor Center. On January 24, 2014, after purchasing the land, the Park Service completed a multi-month project to raze the house and landscape the property to create the path. When I stand on the site today and look out at this small section of the “battlefield,” I do not think of the soldiers who died just across the street, I think of the whitewashed history—my history—of my dad cooking hotdogs on the grill, my brother and I throwing football outside, and that fickle little ghost turning on the kitchen faucet time and time again when no one was looking.
Ghost tours offer a kind of folk remembrance to the town’s complex past, and they do so with no impeding footprint. The Park Service, with its pristine battlefield and licensed tour guides, has created a state-of-the-art educational and reverential experience for visitors. But history cannot stop with that which is revolutionary. It must also embrace that which is constant, which endures, despite its flaws. We must never forget the heroic deeds of July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. We must also never forget that there was a town before, during, and after the battle which endured, and which learned to live with wholesale death at its doorstep. This is the legacy that ghost tours embody today: a legacy of folklore, used to make sense of horror, used to understand the past through an oral lens, and used to convey the human experience of July 4, 1863 to the present-day.
In the words of Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain, speaking at the dedication of the 20th Maine Monument on October 3, 1889: “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” This lingering spirit is here to stay. It is Gettysburg’s most enduring legacy.
Carol Kammen, “On Doing Local History: Out of the Box and into the Fray,” in History News, vol. 65, no. 1 (Winter, 2010): 3-4.
Christopher Clausen, “Tuning Up: Sesquicentennial Excess: Must we erase evidence of later commemorations at Civil War sites?” in The American Scholar, vol. 78, no. 3 (Summer, 2009): 6-7.
Henry Glassie, “Folklore and History,” Keynote Address, “Land of 10,000 Folkways” 137th Annual Meeting and History Conference of the Minnesota Historical Society, Bloomington, MN, October 10-11, 1986.
Garry E. Adelman and Timothy H. Smith, Devil’s Den: A History and Guide, Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1997.
John B. Gatewood and Catherine M. Cameron, “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park,” in Ethnology, vol. 43, no. 3 (Summer, 2004): 193-216.
Mark Nesbitt, Ghosts of Gettysburg IV: Spirits, Apparitions and Haunted Places of the Battlefield, Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1998.
Mark S. Olcott, “A Field Trip to Gettysburg: A Model Experience,” in The History Teacher, vol. 20, no. (Aug., 1987): 487-496.
Patrick Burke and Jack Roth, Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg: Searching for Spirits on America’s Most Famous Battlefield, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2014.
Peter Marshall, Reformation: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Robert C. Thompson, “’Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’: Gettysburg Ghost Tours and the Performance of Belief,” in The Journal of American Culture, vol. 33, no. 2 (Jun., 2010): 79-91.
Tim Lloyd, “On the Differences between Folklore Fieldwork and Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, ed. Doug Boyd et al., Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012.
Obsessed with death? Check out our Poe article here!