Saturday, April 30, 2022

Virginia's Civil War Ghosts


   Do ghosts from the American Civil War still walk amongst us, or are reported spectral visions and unearthly things that go bump in the night the product of over active imaginations?  Virginia experienced twenty-six major battles and four hundred smaller engagements on her soil during the course of the war, giving ample opportunity for the creation of disgruntled spirits among those who died in battle.

   The Spotsylvania battlefield is one place that the ghosts of Civil War soldiers appear.  A fierce battle raged around Spotsylvania Court House on and off from May 8 through May 21, 1864.  Over four thousand soldiers were killed.  The Bloody Angle was the site of the longest, most savage hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War.  In recent years, American Battlefield Ghost Hunters Society has investigated paranormal activity around the Bloody Angle, often sprinkling the area with pieces of beef jerky and chewing tobacco, which would have been luxuries at the time of the Civil War, to lure the spirits of dead soldiers to the spot.  The group claims to have recorded the sounds cannonballs and musket fire, and has photographed misty figures said to be ghosts.

   The Manassas Battlefield, in Prince William County, is also home to a number of Civil War spirits.  During the Second Battle of Manassas, in 1862, the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry [Zouaves] sustained devastating losses.  One veteran wrote, “Where the Regiment stood that day was the very vortex of Hell.  Not only were men wounded, or killed, but they were riddled.”  One of the dead may still haunt the area.  A phantom Zouave soldier has been seen repeatedly on the battlefield’s New York Avenue Field.  The phantom beckons the onlooker to follow him into the woods.  To date, no one has taken the ghost up on the offer.

    Near the New York Avenue Field, a structure known as the old Stone House is also said to be haunted.  Originally a tavern, the house served as a field hospital during both the battles of First (1861) and Second (1862) Manassas.  Strange lights have been seen in the house at night, although it is locked every night by park rangers.  Strange sounds, like screams and groans are also said to come from the house.

   The Cold Harbor Battlefield in Hanover County is said to top the list of haunted battlefields in Virginia.  Here in 1864, thousands of Union troops were killed as wave after wave of men were repeatedly thrown in frontal assaults against fortified Confederate positions.  Today, some visitors claim to have felt the thunder of artillery and to have smelled burned gunpowder while exploring the battlefield.  Once again, the shouts and cries of unseen combatants echo through the woods.  Visitors report the sudden appearance of a dense fog on the battlefield, which just as quickly disappears.  The ghostly fog has driven away many who seek the safety of their cars, even as they hear unearthly footsteps behind them and sense unseen eyes upon them.

   Hauntings are also reported in buildings used during the Civil War as hospital.  One house in Brandy Station, Culpeper County, was used as a hospital after the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863).  The patients scrawled their names and other thoughts on the walls, thus the house is now known as the Graffiti House.  So troubling were the ongoing ghostly occurrences at the Graffiti House that the Virginia Paranormal Institute was called in to conduct an investigation.  One investigator felt an unseen force tightening around her wrist.  Another person saw a picture frame move on its own.  The team’s electrical instruments raced out of control.

   Another Civil War hospital of long standing was set up in Gordonsville, Orange County.     Gordonsville Virginia’s Exchange Hotel opened in 1860 and provided an elegant stopping place for passengers on the Virginia Central Railway.  In March, 1862 the Confederate army transformed the hotel into the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital.  Dr. B.M Lebby of South Carolina was the director of the hospital and its operations continued under his leadership until October 1865.

   The wounded and dying from nearby battlefields such as Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station, and the Wilderness were brought to Gordonsville by the trainloads. Although this was primarily a Confederate facility, the hospital treated the wounded from both sides. By the end of the war, more than 70,000 men had been treated at the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital and over 700 were buried on its surrounding grounds and later interred at Maplewood Cemetery in Gordonsville.

   The Exchange Hotel Civil War Medical Museum, as the structure is known today, has experienced more than one ghostly occurrence.  Screams and groans are heard, doors close on their own and eerie orbs appear suddenly in rooms.  Some have claimed they have encountered nurses, garbed in black, wandering the halls.

  1. Virginia Legends and Lore 

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Colonel John Chiswell: The Celebrity Murderer (1766)


Williamsburg, Virginia

When we think of the Virginia of colonial times, the Virginia of Washington, Madison and Jefferson, we seldom think of the word MURDER.  And yet behind the fa├žade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets, evil lurked.  Take for example the strange case of Colonel John Chiswell, someone today we might call “a celebrity murderer.”


Colonel John Chiswell was a very busy and important man.  He owned a huge plantation, he was a member of the House of Burgesses, and he was a colonel in the militia.  His wife was from a fine old family.  The Royal Governor, Francis Fauquier, was a close friend.  His son-in-law was Treasurer of the colony.  This was not a little man unknown in the colony.  Soon he would be even better known.


On June 3, 1766, Colonel Chiswell attended a session of the Cumberland County Court, to look after some land deals.  That evening he entered Benjamin Mosby’s tavern.  One Robert Routlidge, a blunt Scottish merchant who had had dealings with Chiswell before, approached the colonel.  Routlidge was clearly drunk, and not just a little drunk.  Routlidge proceeded to insult Chiswell and then threw a glass of wine in his face.  The short fused Chiswell picked up a pair of fire tongs and made for Routlidge.  The crowd in the room restrained him.  He next came at Routlidge with a candlestick.  Again he was restrained.  Next he picked up a punchbowl and made to break it over Routlidge’s head.  Again he was restrained.  A sheriff entered and ordered Col. Chiswell to leave, which he did, only to return moments later carrying a sword.


The sheriff tried to keep him from Routlidge but Chiswell bellowed that he would “run through any man” who tried to stop him.  Routlidge and Chiswell exchanged curses across the room until finally Chiswell called Routlidge a “Presbyterian fellow”, which was too much for Routlidge who broke free from those trying to calm him and squarely faced Chiswell.  In the next instant the colonel ran his sword directly into Routlidge’s heart.  The merchant fell dead.  Colonel Chiswell handed the sword to a servant for cleaning and then ordered a bowl of punch declaring, “He deserves his fate, damn him.  I aimed at his heart and I have hit it.”  The gaping sheriff immediately took Chiswell into custody.


The cold blooded murder of an unarmed man in front of a room full of witnesses, including a sheriff, was this an open and shut case?  Not according to Colonel Chiswell’s attorney.  According to the defense, due to his drunkenness Routlidge threw himself on the colonel’s sword. The incident was a mere accident.  After hearing the testimony of the witnesses, the examining court found sufficient evidence to prosecute the case.  Chiswell was held without bail, and an under-sheriff was ordered to transport the colonel to Williamsburg where he was to be jailed in chains while awaiting trial before the Governor.  News of the murder spread fast among Virginia’s power elite.  Three of the Governor’s closest confidants intercepted the under-sheriff and his prisoner before they could reach Williamsburg.  The distinguished deputation ordered the under-sheriff to release Chiswell on bail.  The colonel returned to the comforts of his townhouse in Williamsburg where he remained in seclusion.


Was the whole matter to be swept under the rug by Chiswell’s powerful friends?  Perhaps it could have been and would have been had it not been for one Robert Bolling who published an anonymous query in the Virginia Gazette of June 20, 1766.  Bolling broke the story to the general public.  “Upon an inquisition taken before the Coroner in Cumberland county, Robert Routlidge was found to be murdered (June 3d) by a sword in the hand of John Chiswell, Esq; whereupon he was committed to the county prison, and the examining Court, upon full evidence (refusing to bail him on a motion for that purpose) ordered him to the public prison, as the law directs, to be tried for murder.” Bolling continued the anonymous query by relat­ing the special treatment given to Colonel Chiswell by the Judges of the General Court. “ But before he was delivered to the keeper of the pub­lic prison, the Judges of the General Court, out of sessions, took him from the sheriff who conveyed him from Cumberland, and admitted him to bail, without seeing the record of his examination in the coun­ty, or examining any of the witnesses against him.”  Bolling’s query came to a thunderous summation, “I ask, whether this act of the three Judges of the General Court be le­gal. If it is legal, I have nothing more to say. If it is not legal, then I ask whether the act of these Judges has not a tendency to overturn the laws and constitution of the country, by their exercising an extra judicial power and controlling the course of law in a case of the highest con­sequence to the safety of the (king’s) subject(s)? Whether the bail taken by these Judges in an extra judicial manner can be liable on their recogni­zance, if Mr. Chiswell should not appear to take his trial? If they are not liable, whether it is not in fact a rescue, under pretense of law, of a person charged with an atrocious crime?”


As the facts became known, outrage spread among the general public.  Increasingly angry voices were raised about both the murder and the special privileges that were being granted Colonel John Chiswell.  The murder was fast becoming, “the crime of the century”, pitting the power elite against the common man in a contest over equality before the law. 


In fact, Colonel Chiswell never came to trial.  Either pressured by friends or collapsing under the nervous strain, Colonel Chiswell committed suicide in his Williamsburg townhouse.  The Virginia Gazette reported that he died of “nervous fits, owing to a constant uneasiness of mind.”  This did not entirely end the matter.  By now the people so distrusted their political masters that they suspected a plot to smuggle a still very much alive John Chiswell out of the colony.  An angry mob stopped Chiswell’s funeral procession and demanded to see the body.  The coffin was duly opened and Colonel Chiswell’s body publicly identified.

Murder in Colonial Virginia

Virginia Legends and Lore