When I first began my expeditions to Civil War battlefields, friends and family good-naturedly warned me to “watch out for ghosts”. I’ll admit, when I was younger, I was big into paranormal investigation stuff. As an adult, not so much. I’ll leave my own beliefs on the supernatural out of the blog in favor of analyzing how people of the 19th century regarded spiritualism and superstitions.
One definition of spiritualism is “a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead.” The history of spiritualism can be traced way before the Civil War and the founding of America itself. But during the 19th century, the idea resurfaced in the public mindset as people who called themselves “mediums” began to advertise their services in communicating with the dead. Even after the war, such notable figures as Mary Lincoln employed mediums and attended seances to reach through the veil to speak to her deceased son and husband. Spiritualism can also encompass the general belief that there is life after death and it’s possible for the spirits of the dead to walk the earth or have some influence in the physical realm.
The public, though it surrounded their lives, wasn’t numb or desensitized to death. However, when the Civil War came and stole away a decent percentage of the male population on both sides, loss and grieving could be felt in just about every household. Religion and a belief in the afterlife comforted many during this period with the assurance that their loved ones were in a better place or that they would all be reunited again. This is affirmed in countless letters, diaries, and memoirs.
What is less spoken about is the darker, more malevolent side of spirituality. The typical rule is that spirits will continue to haunt the living if there’s some unfinished business for them on earth, or if their death came under violent circumstances. The former are benevolent, and for lack of a better analogy like “Casper, the Friendly Ghost”. The latter are poltergeists, like on “Ghost Ship” or any of the popular horror flicks. While this concept wasn’t fully formed in the 19th century, the idea that death and spirits inhabiting the space in which they expired did exist.
The Wilderness, like many other battlefields, is a perfect example. As explained in his book, “The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia’s Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield”, Adam Petty makes the observation that the region of the Wilderness held no sinister characteristic prior to the war. Not even after the Chancellorsville battle did soldiers begin to equate the region with negative “key words”. It wasn’t until the armies were stuck in the midst of that dense forest that they began to correlate the Wilderness with something dangerous, haunting, and deadly.
At first, in letters and diaries, they described the place almost analytically, describing the type of growth and vegetation like “a country of gravelly clay soil, and a black-jack growth, presenting in many places an almost impenetrable thicket” and “it is truly named ‘Wilderness’ for a wilderness of small growth wood covers nine-tenths of the whole surface of the country”. Still further, many observed that “the country hereabouts… one of the worst conceivable for field operations”. Veterans who once described the place in benign ways such as “being almost unbroken forest” and “extending for miles, in front, rear, and on both sides”, took a different tone after fighting in the thick of it for two days.
A soldier from the 69th New York recalled, “for six miles [we] saw nothing but forests on either hand; dense, black, mysterious, the abode of hydras and goblins”. William Landon of the 14th Indiana would return with the Army of the Potomac in May of 1864 and noted that “strange feelings crept over me as we marched along the same road and over the same ground” as he did during the Chancellorsville campaign in 1863. He also observes the former headquarters of General Darius couch and how it had been shot to pieces, little more than “a refuge for bats and owls (ghosts, too, for aught I know)”. Soldiers would find the remains of their dead comrades from the year before. Their skeletons dotted the landscape, giving a foreboding and dark vibe. Many took it as a sign that more death and disaster would come to their ranks, as it had during the Chancellorsville battle. A historian of the 146th New York recalled the “sense of ominous dread which many of us found almost impossible to shake off.” An artillery officer, David Mcintosh, said after the war during a visit to central Virginia, “The spirit of death seemed still to brood over the place.”
The change in these perceptions is directly tied to the events that took place in early May of 1864. The Wilderness, as it is today and as it was prior to the war, does not evoke a feeling of dread or despair, unless you understand what happened there. For the thousands of soldiers who survived the chaotic battle, the Wilderness would forever become synonymous with death and from there, it took on a life of its own. It became “possessed” (if you’ll pardon the pun) by this new narrative, and later tourists would be swayed by its association with death. It’s like if you visit a perfectly ordinary house, you’d think nothing of it. But the minute you find out it’s “haunted” or that something bad happened there, your awareness changes and you’re suddenly looking for evidence for what you’ve been told (cold spots, creepy feeling, strange noises, etc.). While this could help with what would later become “dark tourism”, this (in my opinion) taints the historiography of a place or event.
A Union officer, Morris Schaff, takes it a step further – and perhaps a step too far – in his book “The Battle of the Wilderness”, published in 1910. This detailed account of the battle is laced with religious and spiritual analogies. He goes as far as to describe the spirits of the dead soldiers rising “above the tree tops…a great flight of them towards Heaven’s gate…. [T]wo by two they lock arms like college boys and pass in together; and so it may be for all of us at last.” Analogies and poetic descriptions take up almost a quarter of his book and features two characters in particular that war against one another in the same way the North and South battled.
The “Spirit of the Wilderness”, as Schaff describes, is an enemy of the south and all it stands for, acting as a force the Army of Northern Virginia must contend with. Not only does it take the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1863, but it plays a part in James Longstreet’s wounding in 1864. The similarities in these events (the fact that they both were taken out of battle by friendly fire due to a case of mistaken identity) lends to this personification of the Wilderness region as an executioner of the southern cause.
In opposition to the “Spirit of the Wilderness” is the “Spirit of Slavery”, which glories in the triumphs of the Confederacy. In this segment below, which follows Schaff’s dramatization of Longstreet’s successful flank attack from the unfinished railroad cut on the morning of May 6th, the “Spirit of Slavery” comes to rejoice with the gray coats.
“Yes! It is a great moment of Jenkins and for them all. The overcast sky that has been so dark has rifted open and the spire of the Confederacy’s steeple dazzles once more in sunshine. And while it dazzles and youth comes again into the wan cheek of the Confederacy, gaunt Slavery, frenzied with delight over her prospective reprieve, snatches a cap from a dead, fair-browed Confederate soldier, and clapping it on her coarse, rusty, gray-streaked mane, begins to dance in hideous glee out on the broom-grass of the Widow Tapp’s old field.
“Dance on, repugnant and doomed creature! The inexorable eye of the Spirit of the Wilderness is on you! Dance on! For in a moment Longstreet, like “Stonewall” will be struck down by the same mysterious hand, by the fire of his own men, and the clock in the steeple of the Confederacy will strike twelve. And, as its last stroke peals, knelling sadly away, a tall spare figure, – where are the tints in her cheeks now? – clad in a costly shroud, and holding a dead rose in her hand, will enter the door of History, and you, you, Slavery, will be dying, gasping, your gazing eyes wide open, staring in the immensity of your wrongs. And when your last weary pulse has stopped, and your pallid lips are apart and set for good and all, no friendly hand will be there to close them, – of the face you will wear! – the eye of the Spirit of the Wilderness will turn from you with a strong, impenetrable gleam.”
If there’s any room for doubt about Schaff’s personal opinions about the Confederacy, you weren’t reading that close enough.
But Schaff’s “Spirit of the Wilderness” is not entirely Unionist, as he also blames it for the reticence in both Joseph Hooker in 1863 and Ambrose Burnside in 1864. The Spirit also supposedly allowed the ghost of Thomas Jackson to infiltrate Winfield Scott Hancock’s dreams and make him an anxious wreck on the second day of battle.
Veterans and historians wouldn’t take such a romanticized view of the battle or the events that unfolded, but many would throw in the analogy that nature itself was waging war against both armies. This can be clearly inferred from the numerous primary sources that blame the environment for certain battlefield debacles.
For those who witnessed the brush fires that swept along the forest floor and ate its way up the tall pines, another comparison would be made between their physical surroundings and the metaphorical setting of hell. This, too, fostered a disturbing implication that the Wilderness and the elements were working to swallow up those dead and wounded left behind. But this wasn’t the only incident of the natural world seeming at odds with either army. The weather, terrain, and elements have always, in one way or another, caused problems for the officers and soldiers. The Wilderness isn’t an isolated incident of this phenomenon, yet it stuck.
Whether they were conscious of it or not, veterans and historians have engaged in a form of “animism”, or the belief that an aspect of nature has a soul or mind of its own, which causes it to act in often unpredictable ways. We may not think this thing is actually alive and has human qualities, but how many times have you read that the ocean was “angry” or “vengeful”, or that the trees were watching your every move. While this can seem poetic, in some cases, it’s been used to shape the memory of the war and how the events of the war are told. Men viewed nature as an entity in its own right that can act for or against them, such as at the Wilderness.
The connection between death, spiritualism, and the Wilderness was locked in, for better or for worse. Historians since then have solidified this demonization of the terrain, calling it a “bushy, briery, labyrinth”, “a mean gloomy woodland… lying silent and forbidding”, “a dreary wasteland”, “a brooding jungle”, “a country [that] seemed to hate every man who dared walk through it” with “eternal shadows over stagnant pools and marshy creek bottoms”. This use of language in the historical narrative paints such a vivid picture in the reader’s mind and conditions it to accept that this place was hell on earth and haunted by the ghosts of the fallen.
“Battle of the Wilderness” by Morris Schaff (1910)
“The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia’s Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield” by Adam Petty (2019, LSU Press)