And all we see and all we seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
—-Edgar Allen Poe
The notion that what we call ghosts are material manifestations of a soul that has passed beyond the mortal veil is a nearly universal belief. Paranormal investigators routinely try to talk to these deceased persons, either to get them to stop haunting a place, or else to find out their identity. Occasionally they hear, or think they hear, a response. And who am I to say they have not succeeded?
Another theory, not necessarily opposed to the first, is that an apparition or presence which haunts a locale is, in reality a psychic “memory” bound to the spot where their trauma occurred in life, and that that entity is replaying a particular moment or event that happened at the time of their death, sort of like a metaphysical tape recording.
Old wood-frame buildings, with their solid hard-wood plank floors, seem particularly prone to this type of haint—a phenomenon tied to the ancient Druidic belief that a human soul could somehow occupy the heartwood of some types of trees—oak trees in particular.
But on our present sojourn into the Beyond, I would like to propose yet another type of haint; one that ain’t so common, nor so well known: one which you may have already experienced–but just didn’t know you had! The phenomenon goes by different names and conversely, other phenomena are sometimes confused with it; for want of a better term, let’s call them Living Apparitions.
I am not the first to take note of this phenomenon; accounts of Living Apparitions go far back into history. The idea is of ancient origin that, when we sleep, we exit this fragile jar of clay like a genie released from a bottle, to wander on the night wind.
Where we wander and why on the clear dark air, not even the wise can say for certain. But sleep is not the only time that one’s spirit may leave its physical shell and roam abroad, provided that the situation is urgent enough. That the soul may leave the body to travel abroad is something the ancient Egyptians taught in their schools of magic on the Nile and arcane books of sacred glyphs were inscribed with spells to guide the soul on its journeys. But I digress.
Even in modern times it sometimes happens that people have been visited by those they know, only to find that the person they thought they saw before them in fact lay far away at the time.
William T. Stead, a famed British investigative journalist during the Victorian Era, investigated several first hand experiences of living apparitions in England towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Stead relates one case of a Mrs. Talbot, of Buckinghamshire, who was having tea one evening when she sighted a neighbor, Mrs. Lister, coming up the path. Mrs. Lister was obviously distraught and seemed to coming for help. Yet when Mrs. Talbot went to the door to let her in, the visitor was nowhere to be seen. Intuitively, Mrs. Talbot knew things were seriously amiss at the Listers.
“There is something the matter with Mrs. Lister,” she said, “I am certain there is. Yoke the horse and we will drive over at once to the Lister’s house…and see what is the matter”
Her husband, a man of uncommon sagacity, knew from previous experience that it was futile to argue with his wife, made haste to harness the carriage and they hurried over to the Listers, whose cottage lay only a mile away.
There they found a scene of horror: Mrs. Lister was upstairs in bed, lying in a pool of blood, badly beaten. Her husband was nowhere to be seen, but they later learned that in a maniacal rampage he had savagely attacked her and then drowned himself in a nearby pond. The Talbots had arrived just in time to save Mrs. Listers life, and with prompt medical aid she survived the ordeal. In her delirium, she had imagined running for help, yet all the time lay immobile and unconscious. Had her “ghost” not paid the neighbors a visit, she would never have lived to tell the tale.
Stead, in his essay, relates several other accounts of persons whose apparition appeared to others remote in physical space from them. One thing uniting these diverse accounts of the living “ghosting” someone, seems to be a certain urgency on the part of those who appeared and that the person visited was in their thoughts at the time of the emergency.
We have an even better example of this phenomenon, a case based on first hand testimony which happened to a couple well known to American history.
It is a fact, not reported by modern academic historians, but was well known among their contemporaries, that General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were both strong believers in the paranormal, due to their own experiences on several occasions over the years.
In the early days of the Civil War, Grant had had some trouble volunteering his services for the army. Although they were in dire need of experienced officers, the Regular Army would have nothing to do with him. However, the Governor of Illinois, who had an abundance of raw recruits but a shortage of officers to train them, had no such compunctions and Grant quickly rose to the rank of Colonel and then General.
In November of 1861, Grant was in charge of the Union command at Cairo, Illinois, in close proximity to large Confederate garrison lining the Mississippi River in Missouri and Kentucky. To forestall a Rebel attack and also to give Federal troops under his command a taste of combat, Grant organized an amphibious raid across the river to the enemy encampment at Belmont.
The main Confederate defenses in the area were actually across the river in “neutral” Kentucky, on the commanding heights of Columbus, where the Secessionists had emplaced 140 big guns, menacing any who dared come within range. Rather than attempt to take that formidable fortress, Grant had resolved to attack the smaller Rebel camp nearby at Belmont, Missouri. His troops were still green and he hoped an easy victory on the small camp there would prepare them for bigger fights to come.
At first, everything seemed to go as planned. The blue-clad troops debarked from the flotilla of steamships and made haste to attack the Rebel camp, while the gunboats Tyler and Lexington fired their heavy ordinance in a show of force. The Secessionists, as green as the Federal troops were, after a sharp initial fight fled their encampment in haste, leaving all sorts of booty to loot.
Grant’s plan had been to move on and secure the entire area, taking advantage of the element of surprise to eliminate all resistance. But his soldiers, still more civilian than soldier and ill disciplined, saw all the spoils of war in the Rebel camp—especially cooked meals ready to be eaten—and they abandoned all thought of the enemy and set to pillaging the Rebel camp and congratulating themselves. Even as the Union soldiers celebrated their incomplete triumph, the enemy was ferrying troops across the river from the Kentucky side and massing for a counter attack.
Soon the tables were turned and the Federal force was in danger of being surrounded. Grant tried to re-organize his panicked troops and make an orderly withdrawal, but when he went to look after his rearguard, he found they’d fled helter-skelter along with the other troops, leaving Grant an army of one with Rebel troops all around him.
Taking advantage of tall grass, Grant calmly led his horse around the advancing enemy columns until he got close to the shoreline. Then Grant made a mad gallop towards an awaiting steamboat, bullets whizzing past his ears all the time. Grant spurred his horse up the last gangplank and onto a departing boat, barely ahead of charging grey ranks, even as the steamer made haste to escape.
This much the histories tell us. But the rest of what transpired that day remains largely unreported, even to this day. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, although known about for a long time, remained unpublished until 1975 and even since, Civil War historians have been highly selective in what they choose to use from her account.
On the same day that her husband led the raid against the enemy camp at Belmont, Julia Grant was busy packing her belongings to be with her husband at the border town of Cairo, Illinois. Grant had managed to organize the garrison there into something resembling order and located less rough accommodations for his family than had been the case when he first arrived.
That afternoon, Julia was busy packing her trunks in preparation to board the train for Cairo. In the mid of this flurry of activity, suddenly she had an overwhelming sense of foreboding take hold of her.
Julia could not understand why she should feel such dread and thought that perhaps she might be coming down with some disease. Unable to breathe and feeling like she might faint, Julia excused herself from her companion and made her way upstairs to lie down till the spell passed.
When Julia entered her bedroom, however, she was startled to see a vivid apparition. It was no ordinary ghost, but the quite real-looking image of her husband Ulysses.
Julia could see the general’s head and upper torso quite clearly, and the image seemed real enough. However, his upper body seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, with his lower body not visible. It seemed as if he were mounted on horseback, but with the rest of the apparition and background not visible to her eyes.
Julia intuitively sensed that her Ulyss was in grave danger, although she knew not why or how. What she did know was that the vision before her was quite real and very disturbing. Julia let out a shriek, and instantly fainted away.
When Julia awoke, the vision was gone, but her apprehension remained. Unable to account for this vision, Mrs. Grant made haste to get to Cairo, to see what danger her husband may be in. While on the train, Julia received word about the Battle of Belmont that her Ulyss had been in. At the train station she found Grant waiting for her and he seemed well enough.
During the ride to their quarters from the station, however, Julia told her husband all about her waking vision of him and her extreme apprehension for his well being as a result.
After listening to her story, Grant replied, “that is singular. Just about that time, I was on horseback and in great peril, and I thought of you and the children. I was thinking of you, my dear Julia, and very earnestly too.”
In his memoirs, Grant later confessed that throughout the war, he never felt so close to death in any other battle as he did that afternoon at Belmont. It was a singular event indeed.
The record abounds with similar incidents as the chosen accounts above. It is easy enough for the cynic to dismiss any and all such stories out of hand. Only those who actually experienced them first hand can know the truth of the matter, even if they cannot explain the how or why of them.
For his part, William Stead observed that, “if it can be proved that it is occasionally possible for persons at the uttermost ends of the world to communicate instantaneously with each other, and even in some cases to make a vivid picture of themselves stand before the eyes of those to whom they speak, no prejudice as to the…nature of the inquiry should be allowed to stand in the way of the examination of such a fact.”
The Living Apparition should not be confused with other phenomenon of a similar nature. For example, there is the belief in the “Doppleganger.” At its simplest, it is the belief that everyone, somewhere, has an exact double of themselves. Sometimes it is thought to be an evil twin who would do a person harm. Others believe they may come from some other dimension, whether for good or ill.
Another phenomenon similar in nature that has been reported from time to time is that of Bi-Location. This is where a living person is able to be in two places at the same time. Unlike the Living Apparition, the second is not a ghost or apparition, but the exact same person, only appearing far removed from their other self in real time and space. Bi-Location has most often been reported as happening to saints and witches, two very diverse categories, to be sure, but united by this one spiritual ability.
All of these and other similar paranormal activities ultimately lead one to the same question once posed by the wisest of the wise but never adequately answered: how can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?
For more about General Grant and the paranormal, as well as other uncanny events of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.