Time for my traditional Halloween short story. This time it’s about hauntings in Gettysburg – a Civil War soldier and his sweetheart. Please enjoy.
# # #
The old houses and buildings on Taneytown Road looked amazingly like they did in 1972 when I made my first trip to Gettysburg. In those days, Grandpa Frog drove his Ford Galaxie while Grandma Mid sat in the passenger seat, and Aunt Hazel and I shared the backseat.
We stayed at a Holiday Inn and took in the sights – both on the battlefield with its plethora of monuments and inside the historic crossroads town. Now, forty-five years later, I navigated my Tesla Model 3 sedan up Taneytown Road past the Cyclorama Museum and the Gettysburg Address Memorial.
At Steinwehr Avenue, I turned the electric sedan’s steering wheel to the right – and there it was, the 18th century’s Dobbins House. The two-story, gray brick structure looked inviting after the journey from Maryland.
I stopped in Gettysburg to write a Civil War ghost story. My Apple phone displayed the name and photograph of the woman I’d soon interview, LuAnn Franks, owner and proprietor of the Dobbins House Bed and Breakfast and the attached Springhouse Tavern. Once parked, I headed for the tavern.
Inside, I scanned the taproom restored to look like it did back in early July 1863 when Confederate cavalrymen on a search for shoes and other supplies found their advance into Gettysburg opposed by Union troops.
“How many?” a feminine voice asked, startling me.
Turning, I found myself gazing at a young redhead, her hair in ringlets like her great-great-grand grandmother might have worn in the mid-19th century. Her dress looked somewhat authentic, except for the cleavage-bearing bodice.
“Just me,” I answered. “I’ve an appointment with Ms. Franks.”
“You’re expected, sir.” She pointed to a corner table next to the fireplace. “I sure hope Sarah shows up for you. She’s unpredictable.”
Across the room, the middle-aged blonde near the fireplace waved me over. “Welcome to the Dobbins House,” LuAnn said amicably, rising and shaking my hand, something Sarah Dobbins would never have done. Sarah would have curtsied. “I expect you’ve been here before. I understand you were a re-enactor in your younger days?”
“Yes. With the 26th North Carolina. Ate here during the nation’s Bicentennial. Long time ago.”
“Food’s as good as ever.” She resumed sitting. “I’ve ordered Char-grilled steak sandwiches and ale for us.”
“Sounds delicious.” He eyed her modern Hillary Clinton-style pants suit. “Thanks for sending me Mark Nesbitt’s book on the ghosts of Gettysburg. It’s out of print. I would have never found it.”
“Nesbitt knows more about the battlefield’s ghosts than anyone else alive. He’s a retired park ranger.” She patted her sleeve. “I noticed you were surprised I wasn’t in costume. I do sometimes wear a gown, but only when I’m conducting tours of the house.”
“No tours today, eh?”
“You have my total attention, Mike.” Her smile wiped away decades of living, turning her into the girl she’d been in 1985.
A blond-haired girl dressed like an 1863 tavern girl brought the meals and ale. She played the part to near-perfection, addressing me in a cockney accent. “Ain’t it pleasant weather we be havin’, sir,” she said, curtsying. “Have ya heard the rumors? Rebs are ‘ere, just outside town.”
I played along. “Indeed. I heard gunfire on the way into town. You sound English, miss.”
“London, sir. Been livin’ in Gettysburg for four years.” She curtsied again, then hurried back to the kitchen.
“We try to give our diners a living-history experience,” LuAnn explained just before she took a bite of her steak sandwich. “So you want to sleep tonight in Sarah’s bedchamber?”
I nodded. “Your greeter told me Sarah can be quite contrary. There’s no assurance she’ll make an appearance if I sleep in the room.” I sighed. “I’ll never know unless I try sleeping there. So yes, I’d like to spend the night in her room.”
“No one’s slept there since I began managing the Robbins House, and that’s more than thirty years ago.” LuAnn paused to nibble more of her sandwich, then continued, “Room’s too spooky. Don’t rent her room or the nearby ones. Keep them as a museum.”
“I thought Nesbitt did a good job of telling Sarah’s story. Very sad. Very tragic.”
LuAnn put down her sandwich and steepled her hands. “Sarah had just gotten her wedding dress from the family’s seamstress.”
“So I can stay?”
“Yes. I want to see what happens. It was to have been the happiest day for the Dobbins family since the house was built by Sarah’s great-grandfather in 1780.”
“Good. I’ll get my luggage. You can show me to the room.”
“Of course. But first eat your steak sandwich. And leave enough room in your belly for peach cobbler.”
# # #
Before turning in for the night, I toured the farmland that saw the fiercest fighting on the first day, especially Oak Ridge where Sergeant Thomas Kurtz of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment lost his life. John and Sarah were married just before he mustered into the Eleventh at Harrisburg.
I made one final stop before heading back into town – the monument to the Eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteers on Doubleday Avenue. Dropping to my knees in front of the memorial, I snapped a photo of its base and the likeness of the regiment’s mascot Sallie, the American Staffordshire terrier. A day after the battle she’d been found weak and close to death, perched beside the body of Sergeant Kurtz. Her friends nursed her back to health, and she fought with the regiment until mortally wounded at Hatcher’s Run in February 1865.
When I returned to the house and went up the stairs to Sarah’s room, I found LuAnn waiting for me. “There’s a rollaway bed in the bedchamber, since you don’t want to sleep in Sarah’s bed,” she told me.
“A strange man in her bed?” I raised an eyebrow. “Sarah might get a tad perturbed. Never good to upset a ghost.”
“We tried to return the room to just how it looked in July 1863. It’s her bed, dresser, armoire, and her loveseat.” LuAnn bid farewell, and left me to whatever fate lurked in the ghostly realm.
I didn’t expect to get much sleep, and I didn’t. With an oil lamp lit, I set up the tripod and attached my Nikon camera. The shutter speed was manually adjusted to accommodate the room’s dim light. As eleven o’clock approached, I retired to the love couch and began writing in the notepad. My intention? To record my thoughts. They’d become part of my story I’d write for People Magazine.
I’ve always been a scientific guy, not one to gravitate to the paranormal or wild conspiracies. I didn’t expect Sarah to make an appearance. I hadn’t stepped into a church since I was nine years old. A hereafter? I had my doubts.
Near one a.m. the eyelids became heavy and the yawns incessant. I heard the pen drop to the plank floor… and then must have dozed off.
Freezing air colder than the summer-night breeze wafting in from the open window jolted me awake. I shifted on the loveseat and smartphone on my lap fell onto the cushion. A glance at the illuminated faceplate revealed the time. A few minutes short of two in the morning. My glasses had slipped down to the end of my nose. A flick of my index finger, and they were again situated comfortably on the bridge. Sliding to the edge of the loveseat, I blinked until the side table beside the four-poster bed sharpened into focus.
Brilliant white lights no larger than fireflies flickered over the items on the small table – a brush, bottle of Eau de Cologne, a washbasin, and a pitcher. The lights faded, and were replaced by a barely visible image of a vaporous table superimposed over the ‘real’ one, like seeing a double exposed photograph. For a moment, my mind rebelled at the sight before me. On that other table rested gossamer images of colognes, brushes, combs and a doll. All around me, I was seeing the hazy outlines of how the room looked on a July night in 1863.
Standing, I took a step toward the tripod. My legs wobbled and hands trembled as I aimed the camera lens to the bed’s end table. The shuttle clicked, and I jumped back as more white lights materialized above the clothes chest at the foot of the bed. Losing my balance, I landed awkwardly on the loveseat’s armrest.
I slid onto the cushion as I watched the white lights transform into a transparent image of a woman in a mourning dress hovering over a doppelgänger of the chest. My skin prickled. I could hear her weeping. Not sure why, but I expected silence.
Transfixed, I watched Sarah remove her wedding dress and slippers from the chest and let them fall to the floor. She regarded them in dismay, then collapsed against the chest. Her arms cradled her head. A torrent of wails filled the room.
As if moving through thick mud, I rose slowly from the armrest and focused the camera on the ghostly image, then clicked the shutter. Sarah whirled. “How dare you! Can’t I have some privacy?” Her features softened. “Do you know my husband Tom? Why won’t he come for me?” She stood and took a step toward me. “I did what I had to do to be with him, yet he never comes for me. Oh God, why must I keep doing this? Tom, please come for me. I love you.”
She dashed for the window and leapt through it. Stunned, I sought the comfort of the loveseat. There I sat until first light. As pink sunrays bloomed in the room, I went to the door, my destination the Springhouse Tavern. I turned back to gaze once more at the room. The transparent image of the 1863 room had vanished. My eyes fixed on the wall above the bed, at framed daguerreotype photos of the Dobbins family. One in particular drew my interest. A couple standing in a churchyard, Sarah in her wedding dress and a Union sergeant in his dress uniform.
I would write my feature story exactly as the ghostly events unfolded, but I suspected the editor wouldn’t believe it. No doubt he’d ask me to rewrite it as a work of fiction, especially after he examined the bedroom photos and found no ghosts – just a white smudge blurring out the clothes chest.
# # #
I ate breakfast and said goodbye to LuAnn, but instead of heading south on Tarrytown Road, I headed north. As if Sarah touched my soul in those moments she ‘existed’ in the room, I felt compelled to visit the field where Sergeant Kurtz died.
The tourists were still eating breakfast when I parked my Tesla Model 3 on the side of the road and walked to the rail bed that had been unfinished railroad tracks in July 1863. Ahead, maybe a walk of two football fields, a translucent Yankee soldier emerged from a copse of trees. More of those tiny white lights surrounded him, twinkling in the morning light.
The soldier turned more solid as he drew nearer. Soon, I could make out his face – the bridegroom in the daguerreotype, Sarah’s husband Tom. Instinct said run away, but my inquisitive mind ordered me to stay. I let him come to me. It’s as if a portion of Sarah’s spiritual energy still clung to me, and Tom sensed it. Fine, I told myself. God’s will be done.
The sergeant opened his mouth as if to speak. The breeze carried a plaintive voice. “I can’t find Sarah. Nothing’s right. Please help me.”
The white lights flared around him and he faded, then Kurtz turned more solid and the lights mostly vanished. Again, his mouth opened, but this time I heard nothing.
I gestured for him to walk beside me. I’d try to guide him to the Dobbins House. Together, we navigated the fields, passing monuments, heading toward my sedan. I sneaked a sideways glance. Kurtz stared at a nearby monument, an odd expression on his face.
A car braked, its squeal overwhelming the squawks of birds perched on trees. Doors slammed. Voices, adults and children, filled the crisp morning air.
Still looking toward the road, I told the sergeant, “The tourists are starting to–” Another oblique glance stopped me in mid-sentence. The ghost was gone.
I looked upward, trying to see beyond the sky. A whispered prayer flew heavenward, “Lord, if you’re there and listening to this humbled skeptic, Sarah and Tom are lost. Show them the way home.”
# # #
Mike Staton is the author of a published fantasy trilogy and is currently working on a Civil War novel. Check out his books on the websites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.