The Guns of Pickett’s Charge
My most recent writing adventure brought two of my great fascinations together: the American Civil War, and the paranormal. The two have gone hand in hand for a long time now. Pound for pound, Civil War battlefields seem to be among the most haunted in the world; we certainly have more ghost stories from places such as Gettysburg and Antietam than we do from Mons, say, or Waterloo. One reason could be the fact that although the carnage was great in all of those places, there is something infinitely more tragic about a civil war, in which brother is pitted against brother, father against son, and uncle against nephew.
My good friends and fellow paranormal investigators Jason, Linda, and Catlyn joined me on a five-day stay at an old Civil War-era Confederate hospital a few miles outside Gettysburg. While there, we investigated the heck out of the place (that story is told in my forthcoming book, The Fairfield Haunting: On the Gettysburg Ghost Trail).
We were never going to miss the chance to investigate the battlefield itself though. As a youngster I was fascinated by places with names such as Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Slaughter Pen, and of course, Pickett’s Charge.
On the third day of the battle, both armies had taken a battering. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had spent the first two days attacking both the left and the right wings of General George Meade’s Union Army. It was July 3, 1863, when Lee made his last desperate gamble; against the advice of General James Longstreet, his “old war horse,” Lee ordered an assault against the very center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, reasoning that Meade couldn’t possibly be strong everywhere.
Although named after the flamboyant Major General George Pickett, the attack was in fact carried out by three generals, who led some 12,000 men into the teeth of the heavily-defended enemy position. The Rebel soldiers were told to aim for a very specific clump of trees, which still stands on Cemetery Ridge today.
The photograph above shows that same clump of trees just after sunrise, the target of Pickett’s Charge. The many monuments that you can see were obviously not there at the time, and the entire ridgeline was full of Federal soldiers (many of them crouching behind a stone wall for cover) and cannon. Jason and I were standing at roughly the halfway point of the attack. On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the ordinary-looking clumps of grass would have been a mass of dead and dying men clad in butternut grey uniforms. The ridge would have been wreathed in smoke, as blue-jacketed men poured a brutal stream of continuous fire into the oncoming Confederate ranks.
It was a slaughter. Although carried out with immense courage, the attack inevitably failed. Fully half of those who made the charge were shot down, leaving just 6,000 to make their way back to the Confederate lines in defeat. Thousands of men fell on this spot. For all Americans, it is truly hallowed ground, and Jason and I made sure to tread lightly. As paranormal investigators, we eached carried a digital voice recorder. With the greatest of respect, we asked questions such as, “Did you fall on this battlefield?” “Who was your commanding officer?” “What was your regiment, division, or corps?”
Nothing unusual happened at the time. It was a calm and peaceful morning, with very little wind to stir the trees and the grass. Except for the occasional car passing behind us on the Emmitsburg Road and one solitary jogger, we had the battlefield all to ourselves for over an hour. At around 07:30, we went back to the car and headed back to the Fairfield Inn.
Several weeks later, I was conducting evidence review in my home office. This is the least glamorous part of the paranormal investigator’s trade. It involves sitting for hour after arse-numbing hour in front of a computer with headphones on, analyzing audio and video recordings for the slightest hint of anything that may be construed as paranormal in nature…and then trying to explain it.
I was going through the audio files that I had recorded at Pickett’s Charge. It was, appropriately enough, getting close to midnight when something I heard made me sit bolt upright in my chair and play a particular section of the file over again. And again. And again.
Neither Jason or I were talking or moving at the time. There in the background was the sound of cannon fire. Neither of us heard it at the time, therefore neither of us reacted to it on the recording. Yet the sound of a rolling artillery barrage can be heard, punctuated by a metallic clanking that I also cannot explain. The morning in question is still fresh in my mind, and I set about trying to find a mundane explanation for the sound.
Could it have been the wind? Unlikely. Firstly, there was very little wind on the battlefield that morning, although it was very cold and overcast. Listening to the previous 35 minutes of audio, there was nothing in the way of gusting wind to be heard. I briefly considered that it could have been the rustling of my clothing, but that sounded very different on the recording, so I was able to rule it out.
What about the sound of a car or truck engine? There was some traffic on the road, but very little, and the engines of those vehicles sounded completely different. My last ditch effort was to wonder whether some re-enactors were up early and firing cannon…at 6:30 in the morning. Again, unlikely, and I am one hundred percent certain that one of us would have said, “Hey, is that cannon fire?”
In a vain attempt to soften the Union line up before the attack, Pickett’s Charge was preceded by a massive Confederate artillery barrage the like of which had never been seen on the continent before, blasting the Union line with as much shot and shell as could be spared. The Federal guns answered back, and an artillery duel commenced with hundreds of guns firing back and forth at one another across the deadly no man’s land between the two armies. So fierce was the cannonade that the earth literally shook.
After trying our very best to come up with a non-paranormal explanation, Jason and I have come to the conclusion that what we recorded that day could well have been the echoes of that violent exchange of cannon fire. It is probably a completely residual phenomenon, some form of natural recording that was played back when we were in exactly the right time and exactly the right place for my digital voice recorder to pick it up. This is hardly a unique phenomenon at Gettysburg; my friends Brad and Barry Klinge had experienced something similar while conducting their own investigation there, and many visitors have reported the same thing. Catlyn, Jason and I thought that we heard far-off cannon fire while standing on the summit of Little Round Top at dawn two days before this.
Gettysburg is a place where the veil between our own time and the year 1863 is very thin. The battlefield and its surroundings are replete with ghost stories, and I feel immensely fortunate to be able to add my own to the list. Here is the segment of the recording featuring the cannon fire. I invite you to judge for your yourselves whether we are mistaken or not. (It contains a car driving by, my footsteps, and my cough as well — this was obviously not recorded in a controlled environment).
Posted on: January 3, 2018Richard Estep