The ghosts of Chickamauga
By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
NEXT EXIT: CHICKAMAUGA NATIONAL PARK
A minute after passing that sign, I peeled off Interstate 75 in my Buick Enclave, swung to the right and snaked my way for the next 10 miles along the foot hills of Lookout Mountain, through Chattanooga Valley, brushing the north border of Georgia and the south border of Tennessee, traveling over land that was once sacred to the Cherokee Indians, who named it Chickamauga, or ěRiver of Death.î
It was an unusual late August day, the sun squeezed between the clouds, slanting on the roadway. The nippy air smelled like rain. Summer was on its way to autumn. The leaves were beginning to turn. A few months later, and the weather would be mountain-cold here. We were on a side trip from a visit to Atlanta and my second to the Chickamauga battlefield where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought. Also, my wife, Martha, is a Chattanooga-born girl who still has relatives here.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park exists because of what happened there in the fall of 1863. The Union Army had captured Chattanooga, and was setting its sights on Atlanta. On Sept. 18 and 19, the Confederate forces stood their ground in the area known as Chickamauga and turned the Yankees back. That gave the Confederates a much needed boost in morale. Thirty-five thousand soldiers were killed in three days of fierce fighting ó the most in any Civil War battle except Gettysburg.
Slowly driving the winding roads through the park, we came upon a tour group sheltering themselves from a misty rain. The tour guide, wearing a name tag that identified him as Keith, was telling the story that he probably had told a thousand times, when a man interrupted him, asking about ghosts that roam the park.
ěIím a history nut, and I am moved by the dead,î the man said, speaking slowly from under his umbrella. ěVirtually every battlefield in the world is said to be haunted, but Chickamauga seems to be even more haunted than most. Are these ghosts only those of dead soldiers from the civil war?î
Keith smiled and appeared to appreciate the question, as it was a change from the monotony of the typical description.
ěFolks, it is a fact that the thickets here are unofficial burial grounds for the Indians that died centuries ago. Include that with the 35,000 Union and Confederate soldiers killed here during two days in September 1863, and you have a lot of potential for ghosts,î said the young guide. ěAlso, not really well known is that in 1898, Chickamauga was a training ground for soldiers en route to the Spanish-American War. In those days disease repeatedly swept the camp. Many believe that the Cherokees were right, and the legacy of death remains to this day.î
He continued in a very serious tone: ěAlso, on record, is a report that the woods have become dumping grounds for people murdered in Atlanta and Chattanooga and places as far away as Knoxville. All of this makes for good ghost stories. Essentially, there are so many ghosts wandering around these grounds, it is impossible to catalogue them all.î
He told the story about a ghost referred to as Old Green Eyes. ěIt seems to have been around the longest, perhaps for over 150 years. The phantom takes several forms, often manifesting as just a head. The battlefield, a beautiful and somber place in daylight, is haunted by the shadows of the past at night, and that is when Old Green Eyes appears. The gleaming green eyes can spring forth from nothingness, and the most amazing aspect of this ethereal being is that one usually sees only the head. Suddenly, a floating head with green eyes bursts out of the trees. Itís terrifying. Hundreds of folks have reported seeing this ghost over the years, always at night.î
ěMany Civil War buffs believe it is the head of a Confederate soldier that was blown off when he charged alone and killed 16 Yankees before he was shot down. The soldierís name was Private Green.î
ěA Lady in White is another story and is such a familiar apparition that the rangers in the park donít bat an eye when people report seeing her. Dressed in a wedding gown, she roams the grounds as if searching for someone. She is thought to be one of the many wives, mothers or lovers who scoured the battlefield looking for the bodies of their dead.î
Ranger and tourists alike have reported the usual odd phantom noises traditionally associated with battlefields, from men moaning and crying to shouts and screams with no visible presence.
There is also the unmistakable sound of combat and galloping horses where no horses exist.
Keith began to look around, noting the slow fall of darkness.
ěThings always seem to change around here at night,î he said.
The visitors became silent. The thick woods seemed to close in on us, and I began to notice a drifting fog coming through the dried leaves. Nothing moved Ö but the trees and bushes seemed to be in slightly different places. The air became colder and a drizzling rain began to run down my arm and drip from my elbow. A bank of clouds turned the sky a gun-metal gray as the darkness drew near. The setting sun loomed orange in a distance. I asked Martha if she was ready to go. She didnít answer. We just walked away.
Thirty minutes later we were headed north toward Harrison Bay, crossing a bridge spanning the Tennessee River and entering an area named Lake Chickamauga that supported a large nuclear power plant. My cell phone rang. It was Marthaís cousin, Donna, returning her call.
We spent the night on the lake and headed home early the next morning, taking a different route, this time, through Knoxville and east on I-40, leaving Chickamauga to its ghostly residents.
Buddy Gettys is a former mayor of Spencer and writes occasionally for the Salisbury Post.
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