The Restless Dead of Fort Donelson

October 28, 2012    The Thirteen Days of Halloween, Blog 10

While I have devoted a whole book chronicling Civil War ghosts and parts of two others, in truth, true accounts of encounters with the restless spirits of those who died during the Late Unpleasantness could fill a whole ‘nother volume and then some.  As I live within driving distance of the sites of six of some of the biggest battles of the war, I have had ample opportunity to explore them–and that doesn’t count the many skirmishes, raids and lesser actions that dot the Mid-South.  Many of these sites come with some lore attached and I have often collected tales of the spirits which still haunt them.  One site which I haven’t yet chronicled in print is Fort Donelson.

Before there was Bloody Shiloh, there were the twin battles of Forts Donelson and Henry.  These were the twin Confederate bastions which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers at the border with Kentucky.  The Rebels had fortified the two rivers where they came close to one another–called Land Between the Rivers then and now, thanks to the TVA, is Land Between the Lakes.  Here in the winter of 1862 a Union amphibious force came to break the Confederate defences.  Led by General Ulysses S. Grant, the Yankees first bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee into submission and then, in a bold move, Grant took a small force overland and besieged Fort Donelson from landward, catching the Johnnies off-guard.  The Rebels had all their big guns pointing down-river, in the direction they thought the Yankee fleet would come.

It was a bitter cold winter and both sides suffered terribly; the wounded in the no man’s land between the two forces suffered as much from the cold as they did from their wounds and many died a slow and agonizing death.  The Rebel troops were ill-prepared for a winter campaign and suffered even more than the Yankees from the cold.  Ultimately, Grant bluffed the incompetent Rebel commanders into surrendering, assuring his fame and opening the way to  conquering the heartland of the Confederacy.

Although the dead of both sides were quickly interred, their undead shades lingered–they linger still at Land Between the Lakes.  After my first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, which chronicled a few of Shiloh’s ghosts and haunts, I talked with several re-enactors who had camped at Fort Donelson at various times, trying to re-create conditions as close to January, 1862, as they could.

The re-enactors I spoke with told me it was not uncommon for one or another of their ranks to have uncanny encounters at Fort Donelson.  One lady, a sutler, describes awakening in her tent in the dead of night to fight all her wares and her tent violently shaking and rattling.  There was no wind or storm or any natural event that night to explain it.  But apparently there was something supernatural that could.

Another re-enactor told of performing picket duty at night while his unit was there.  Many re-enactors try to get into the spirit of the period not just for visitors during the day but at night as well and an onlooker might well mistake them for the real thing.  This re-enactor was on duty late at night when he saw a light coming up the hill in the distance.  The dim glow grew larger and larger as it approached him and at first he could not make out what it was.  Then it came close and passed him; in the eerie glow he could see the torso and head of a man–seemingly an officer, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking an old-fashioned stogie; it was the phantom cigar that illumined the figure.  It almost seemed as if the phantom officer were making the rounds, checking on the bivouac to see all the guards were on duty.  But the cigar-smoking figure was no re-enactor; he had no lower body, just a materialized torso and be-hatted head.  Was it the ghost of General Grant? Or was it the shade of some other tobacco-loving commander, North or South?  Who knows?

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill about another war, Fort Donelson was not the beginning of the end of the Rebellion; but it was the end of the beginning.  And they’re those who say that many who met their end there abide on the grounds of the battle-field still.

For more Civil War ghost stories see my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; Rutledge Hill did the original editon which is still in print, although Barnes & Noble, Lone Pine and Sterling have come out with economy hardcovers in addition to the paperback editions.  My first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, also chronicles the battlefield hauntings of Shiloh, Chickamauga and Franklin.


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