Dave Buckhout .
Publication Date: "Halloween" October 31, 2011
In the spirit of All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a ‘documenting’ of two very distinct, strong apparition-based experiences on two separate visits to the Chickamauga Nat’l Military Park … The Battle of Chickamauga was fought Sept 18-20, 1863, over a wide-ranging area which, at the time, was thick wild forests peppered with a few farm fields and run through by only one road of any significance. It was the boondocks; and thanks to NPS preservation it can still feel that way, offering a great network of hiking trails amongst mature forests interspersed by the same fields, still cleared for authenticity’s sake. This backwoods setting is especially true of the eastern bulk of the park, away from the auto-tour route. Our several trips to this side of the park have felt like hiking in a private reserve. (It should certainly find its way onto a “best-of” list of dog-friendly hikes amongst eastern Nat’l Parks.) Isolation is easy to achieve, leaving you with the trail, woods and the hard spirit(s) of what occurred here. As were all major Civil War battles, this one was gruesome in its destruction of human—and animal—life. (A great redeeming quality of the extreme loss-of-animal-life is the park’s extensive horse trails.) A disjointed confused series of bloody fights eventually fused into several major line-length assaults throughout these woods on the first day of heavy fighting: Sept 19. Confederates came in from the east, Union forces from the west, both feeling their way blindly through this wooded area east of LaFayette Road. Many fights broke out in surprise as brigades and lone regiments ran into their respective enemies—and commenced slaughtering each other. And as more troops piled in through the afternoon, and commanders coordinated & commenced the larger attacks, the whole region that is now this park filled with the mortal anxiety of tens-of-thousands of young men. A major Confederate assault was staged and sent on its way from this portion of land we now list among our favorite Nat’l Park hikes. Yes, a lot of anxious energy was seared—perhaps permanently—into this landscape …
I’m no strong advocate of the spirits of the dead consciously—if ethereally—interacting, or haunting the living. But, I admit to several visceral hair-on-neck-standing-up experiences that fit the description of ‘encountering spirits.’ They could all be tricks-of-my-mind: the fusion of knowing-history (in relation to a specific plot) and imagination working to generate ‘a feeling.’ But one facet, each time, eludes this neat scientific explanation: that these experiences, especially these two in the backwoods of Chickamauga, all felt external—as if I had walked into something that was already there, and had been for some time, whatever ‘it’ was.
I’ll start with the most recent occurrence: October 2011. It was a perfect fall day: high about 70, crystal-clear & windy. We’d been hiking for about an hour and were within 100 yards of the Alexander Bridge Road, at the far east edge of the park, when a particularly strong gust blew through. That’s when I felt ‘it’ well up: a sense of leaden anxiety, heavy, right in the middle of my chest. It was hard to breath and electric, like low-voltage. It gripped me, was all around me: a feeling of being perched at the edge of panic but trying, with effort, not to panic. It slowly dissipated as we moved on. That’s when I thought it through: this point on the trail would have been a staging ground for as many as three major Confederate assaults on Sept 19, 1863, by Cheatham, Stewart & Hood’s corps. On this very ground, tens-of-thousands of anxious young men were assembled, forced to wait and then marched out into battle: an intense tension.
But the most intense experience of-the-sort I have ever had on a Civil War battlefield was back in September 2005 at Chickamauga, only a few days in advance of the battle’s anniversary that year. It was a moody day, an overcast & humid morning giving way to a hot late-summer afternoon. We were prepared for the heat ourselves, but had not taken into account the effect the recent drought would have on the park’s meandering streams (our built-in dog-watering stations). Sure enough, they were dry as a bone; and with our pack of three dogs at the time, we knew we’d run out of water quickly. We were in the same general vicinity of the park that year, but stayed above the Viniard-Alexander Road (which runs east from the main auto-tour road, the old LaFayette Road, into this more remote interior of the park). After a few hours, we emerged at that road about a mile from where we had parked (near its exit onto the auto-tour road). The dogs were flagged, thirsty, and we were out of water. I decided to jog out to the truck, where we had a full reserve of water for all, and drive back. I admit (to those skeptics) that I was flagged, in body & mind, myself at that point. There were no other cars or people and I was quickly alone: just myself and the hard spirit(s). It was still, no wind. I passed a small field. The only sound was a chorus of crickets, cicadas and other grass-borne insects. The road led me along the same route that Hood’s battering bloody assault took late on the afternoon of Sept 19, 1863. And that’s when I felt it: an intense tension at the edge of fear. The sound of crickets swelled dramatically into a roar. All around me: the sound of a body of thousands of adrenalized young men yelling as they charged across fields and through thickets towards hell-on-earth. It freaked me out. Every nerve in my body seemed electrified. My breath was growing short and my chest felt tight, when I realized I was no longer just jogging—but sprinting down-the-road. I emerged alongside the Viniard field (the focus of Hood’s assault). I slowed to a quick-walk and tried to catch my breath, sweat pouring down my face—the feeling now gone.
So, actual spirits, mind-tricks, or energy-fields of cataclysmic history burned onto the landscape? The former do not fully explain what I felt, and leave me leaning towards the latter; hard to prove, I realize. But then I don’t really feel compelled to. I’m content with it being an apparition-based mystery because, for whatever reason, I had the privilege & honor to walk—and run—with the spirits of Chickamauga. And that I know for sure.