On July 1, 1863, the first shots of the Battle of Gettysburg were fired, thus writing the preface to the bloodiest chapter of the Civil War. Today, hundreds will begin their journey to Gettysburg in order to pay their respects to the thousands of soldiers who stepped into eternity on the hallowed grounds. They will visit Devil's Den, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and other spots whose names have gained immortality in history books.
And many of them will be on the lookout for ghosts, since Gettysburg is considered by many to be the most haunted place on earth.
With the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg upon us, I thought it would be fitting to share my own encounter with a ghost of the Civil War, which took place not in Gettysburg, but inside the train station in Harrisburg. This story is absolutely true, and whenever somebody asks me if I have ever seen a ghost with my own eyes, this is the story I always share.
This strange incident happened to me about thirteen or fourteen years ago, while I was living in downtown Harrisburg. I've always been a terrible sleeper, either waking up numerous times throughout the night or in the wee hours of morning. Sometimes I am able to fall back to sleep, other times I am not. And, during those times when I can't get back to sleep, I often go outside and take a long walk. Sometimes the exercise makes me tired enough to return to bed, other times it invigorates me and wakes me up completely. Either way, I reasoned that it never hurts to get some exercise.
One early July morning I awoke drenched in sweat. Not from a nightmare, but because my air conditioner had decided to call it quits sometime in the middle of the night. Even though it was scarely 5 o'clock in the morning the air was sweltering. I put on my shoes and got dressed and left my apartment, hoping that there would be a cool breeze outside. I walked my usual route; down Maclay Street to Front Street and then along the hazy fog-smothered river to the Market Street bridge. I turned up Market, cut across Aberdeen and arrived at one of my favorite buildings in the city-- the train station.
It's a beautiful old building with an ancient red brick exterior, with a charming cobblestone entrance that extends from Chestnut Street to Aberdeen. The station itself, as far I know, never closes; Amtrak trains arrive and depart from its eight tracks at all hours. I've often gone to the station late at night to pick up a friend arriving from Boston or early in the morning to drop off a friend heading to Baltimore or Philadelphia.
On this morning the door to the station was open but the building was as empty as a tomb. I walked across the marbled floor of the lobby, my soft footsteps echoing through the air. Then I headed for the platform, which overlooks the tracks below. Many times I've sat on one of the benches, watching the trains arrive and depart. The fog and haze shrouded the tracks, trapping in the sounds of steel wheels grinding to a halt and the occasional whistle from a departing train. It was a loud atmosphere, but not at all unpleasant. I leaned over the railing of the suspended walkway and watched the trains below disappearing into the distant mist, wondering who was on them and where they were going. Even though the trains were either pulling into or out of the station, nobody seemed to be boarding or getting off. It was interesting, I thought, how the trains came and went below my very feet and yet I seemed to have the entire old train station to myself.
|At the top of the stairs behind the woman is where I had my encounter with a ghost.|
After several minutes something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention.
Through the shroud-like mist of dawn I spotted a slumping figure on one of the benches about fifteen or twenty yards away. My first impression was that it was a homeless person who had slumbered in the train station overnight, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the gradually brightening morning I was able to distinguish that the man was dressed like a Confederate soldier. He was sort of hunched over on the bench, a knapsack on his lap and his bearded head drooping down onto his chest.
I watched the figure for several seconds. The soldier was completely motionless.
"Holy shit," I said to myself. "Could this man be dead?"
Then another thought jolted my brain. Could this man be--- a ghost?
I looked at my watch and saw that it was July 1, and in an instant I realized that it was the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. This seemed to validate my notion that the motionless rebel on the train station bench was not of this earthly realm. And the eerie gauze of mist lingering over the tracks beneath the walkway only cemented this notion.
My eyes were fixated on the soldier, and I expected him to vanish, just like every ghost in every ghost story ever told. But he didn't disappear. Was there some deeper meaning for his presence? Was I chosen to be a witness to some ethereal mystery I couldn't even begin to comprehend?
My mind frantically tried to stitch together dates and names and places. I remembered that it was Harrisburg, and not Gettysburg, that was General Lee's target. The Confederates were hellbent on reaching Harrisburg, desperate to capture a Northern capital that was a major shipping and transportation hub. I recalled that on June 30, 1863, sixteen Confederate soldiers from the 16th and 36th Virginia Cavalry Regiments, under the command of Albert Gallatin Jenkins, were killed during the skirmish at Sporting Hill, in present-day Camp Hill, just a few miles away from where I stood.
At least historians think that sixteen soldiers died at Sporting Hill. Being a minor skirmish, the particulars of the battle are difficult to verify. But the fact that the ghostly gray figure before me was wearing the uniform of the Confederacy made me wonder if I was gazing upon the immortal soul of one of Jenkins' men.
Something inside me told me to approach the ghost, to get as close to the phantom as I possibly could. Oddly, I felt no fear, just an overwhelming sense of awe; it was like meeting a celebrity face to face-- a real-life encounter with a mythical being that you have only read about in books or seen in movies or on television.
A real live (or dead, or undead) ghost. How freaking awesome is this?
I inched closer, stalking the apparition like a hunter stalking a deer, desperate not to make a sound, lest my prey vanish before my eyes. He was no more than fifteen feet away. Now ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. I can make out his features now, I can see the worn-out spots on his uniform. Six feet away, now five, and the ghost is so close now that I can almost touch him.
I have to touch him.
With the slowest of motions, like a person attempting to greet an unfamiliar dog, I extended my hand. Would it pass right through him? What would I feel? Would there be a jolt of electricity, a shock? A coldness? I absolutely had to find out. I extended my index finger and aimed it at the Confederate's head. I figure if you're going to poke a ghost, do it where it counts.
The ghost jumped to his feet.
"Hey!" he shouted angrily. "What the hell are you trying to do?"
I tried to shout but my voice was lost inside my throat. Finally I managed to find a voice, albeit a small one.
"I.... well, I, umm," I stammered. "I thought you were... I mean... I thought maybe you were... umm... a.... ghost."
"A what?" he asked, obviously agitated that I had disturbed his nap with a finger poke to the side of his head.
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I just stood there, and I could see that the old soldier was processing everything inside his brain. He smiled, and then laughed. And then laughed some more, and continued laughing until he was laughing so hard he had to sit down.
As it turned out, of course, the man was not a ghost but a Civil War re-enactor. His ride had dropped him off at the train station a few hours earlier, and he had a few more hours to kill until a different friend came to pick him up for the short drive down to Gettysburg.
We chatted for a bit until his ride came. He told me his name and where he was from, but I'm afraid I've long since forgotten it. But I haven't forgotten the strange encounter, and I like to think that the man I poked in the face at the Harrisburg train station likes to tell the same story, but from a different perspective.