By Don Radebaugh — Ghost walk tours have become big attractions at historical sites across the country, especially in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers fell during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863.
When the armies on both sides began leaving Gettysburg, they simply packed up what they could and marched off, leaving behind dead soldiers where they fell. The unfathomable job of dealing with the dead and wounded fell upon the locals. Rather than move the dead, they decided to bury them on the battlefield, officially dedicating the new Soldiers National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863 when President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Considering the battle was fought in and around Gettysburg, it was a miracle that only one civilian casualty was among the dead. Twenty-year-old Jennie Wade was killed by a stray bullet while kneading dough in her sister’s home on Baltimore Street in the early morning hours of July 3. The home still exists and is a favorite stop on the candlelit ghost walk tours that frequent the area. The original door that bares the bullet hole that killed Wade is a major tourist attraction.
Wade was temporarily buried in the back yard of her sister’s house. Two months later, her body was moved to the cemetery of the German Reformed Church on Stratton Street before it was relocated to its final resting place at Evergreen Cemetery. The historic arched gatehouse (cover photo), synonymous with Gettysburg, serves as the entrance to Evergreen.
As a self-proclaimed historical geek, Gettysburg has always fascinated me but admittedly I didn’t know a lot about Jennie Wade until a park ranger began to tell me the story. I was actually visiting the historical area where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address inside the National Cemetery when I met up with the ranger. You’d be surprised what you can learn once you start showing sincere interest in the subject material. I learned that the very spot that marks the location where Lincoln gave the Address is more than likely inaccurate. According to the available information, we know that the platform where Lincoln delivered the Address was located on the highest point on the property, which just so happens to be on the other side of the iron fence in Evergreen Cemetery, not the National Cemetery. Furthermore, the actual site where Lincoln gave the address was just beyond Jennie Wade’s grave by about 20 yards.
By now it was getting dark and then I got this cockamamie idea that rather than go on the actual Jennie Wade Walking Tour tour later that night, I’ll save the money and go on my own self-guided ghost walk inside Evergreen Cemetery. I mean, why not do the real deal rather than some silly scripted ghost walk? I could visit Wade’s grave and stand in the exact spot where Lincoln most likely gave his famous Address. There was one problem though…you’re not allowed inside the cemetery past dusk. And, it was getting closer to dark…I’d have to hurry.
High on foolish bravery and up for the adventure, I marched under the arch, and at a fairly fast gate found myself alone at near night among the dead at Evergreen Cemetery. Why the fast gate? Well, I wasn’t exactly sure at first, but as I got deeper in I found myself moving faster and faster. But what’s the hurry? A couple things I suppose. For one, I wasn’t supposed to be there at night. And this was, after all, the “dedicated, consecrated, hallowed” ground that Lincoln spoke about in his Address. Lastly, I was hurrying because I was genuinely scaring the living crap out of myself.
But I could now make out the silhouette of Jennie Wade’s grave against the darkening sky. There was no way I was turning back now…I was almost there. But what was I going to do when I got there? Normally when I visit a grave of historical significance, I like to pause, reflect and breathe. There’d be no reflection on this one. By the time I got to the grave, I was sweating profusively and eager to get out of the situation I had gotten myself in. Why would I do this to myself?
But I had to have proof that I was there in order to tell the story, so I fumbled through my phone, looked up at Jennie Wade…her shawl draped over her and looking down at me…and with every ounce of courage in my bones I pointed my camera at her and snapped a photo. But who was I to take this liberty with Jennie Wade merely for storytelling purposes? I had my peace with her (more like begged for mercy) and moved on before she struck me down for having the nerve to be there in the first place. Now just 20 yards from the exact spot where Lincoln gave the address, I was quickly headed that way.
Normally, I’d perform some sort of ritual when I got there. In this case it would be to recite the Gettysburg Address, which I’ve had memorized since the 8th grade. But I no sooner got there, just long enough to say I was there, and did an about-face and high-tailed it for the exit. And to get out, I still had to walk past Jennie Wade again. I could envision her stone head turning toward me…her eyes ablaze…just like some creepy movie that used to keep me awake at night as a kid. I didn’t even look up this time. I begged for mercy again on the way by for fear that there’d be repercussions for the invasion of privacy or being where I should not have been in the first place or some other applicable third thing. Under my breath — I was out of breath — I assured her this would never happen again, if only I’d be permitted to pass without something terrible happening.
Now for an older guy I can still run fairly fast and by now I was using all my motor skills to find my way back under the arch that would take me back to civilization. But I was also trying to run in cheap flip-flops. Talk about waking the dead. I promised the good Lord that if he’d get me out of this cemetery, that I’d never try something this foolish again, and that I’d be more than glad to pay for my next ghost tour. And just like that, with my heart pounding and sweat literally dripping off my face, I sprinted under the arch. I did not look back to see what the arch looked like at night…I just kept on running. Finally, I rounded another corner and saw some real humans eating ice scream and enjoying the beautiful summer night. Sweet relief…I was home free.
Then, what’s the first thing I see? … a flyer for the next guided ghost tour that went something like this…
“Guides Ghost Tours! Group rates are available for groups of 10 or more.
Reservations are not required; however, they are recommended as we limit the amount of guests on each tour. Tickets are first come first serve. Major credit cards, cash and checks are accepted.
Join us for a candlelit walking tour that you will remember fondly for years to come.”
No worries. I won’t be forgetting this one anytime soon. If they only knew…..