A Ghost at Gettysburg: Pennsylvania Hall and Civil War Medicine
Once upon a late night in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, two college administrators were throwing in the towel. It was a long day at Old Dorm – one of the few original buildings on the campus of Gettysburg College. It was a busy place on the fourth floor. There was paperwork to file. Admissions to check. Records to store. It was a lot of work, and it was easier after the students were gone for the day. So, these two dedicated ladies clocked some serious overtime in exchange for the peace and quiet. However, it was long since quitting time. Now they headed for the elevator.
Let’s set the mood before their bizarre tail unfolds. The corridors were probably dark. The few lights that were on flickered with a quiet hum. The women, chatting and happy to be headed home, stepped into the elevator. One pressed the button for the first floor. With a jolt, the box began its slow, creaking descent.
Things turned fishy when the elevator sailed right past the first floor. The two women exchanged confused glances. One punched the first-floor button again, to try and force the elevator’s mechanical hand. The machine clunked to a stop on the very bottom floor – the basement. It was a dank room used for storage. It was filled with old file cabinets and moldy cardboard boxes. Stacks of dusty paperwork. Maybe some leftover odds and ends from when the building was a dormitory.
The ladies weren’t sure what the hell was wrong with the elevator. They also weren’t prepared for the nightmare that happened next.
The elevator door slid open with a ding. Long gone was the musty basement the administrators were used to. It was replaced with a scene straight out of hell. Gory, limbless, and grisly men in Civil War uniforms lay on every inch of floor space – crammed in like sardines. They cried in pain. They moaned with oncoming death. Their skin was white with blood loss and shock. Some were slate and stiff with death. Blood was sprayed all over the walls. It was pooled on the floor. It was smeared on every stitch of clothing.
A haggard crew of Civil War medical personnel oversaw the hideous scene. Worn-out doctors. A few blood-spattered nurses. Military orderlies. They worked with goo-covered bone saws that claimed way too many limbs. Even now, they held a squirming patient down and went to work on a leg. The saw crunched through human skin and bone. Back and forth, back and forth, blood squirting, the man screaming. Nearby, another orderly carried an armful of the bone saw’s harvest – bodiless legs and arms with raw-meat stumps on the ends.
We can only imagine the horror of those two poor administrators. They screamed. They cried. They jumped back in the elevator to get as far away from the spectacle as possible. They punched the buttons over and over. They prayed for deliverance from this horrible slip in time.
One of the medical orderlies of long ago suddenly turned to the elevator. He gazed at the visitors from a different and much safer time. It was a hollow gaze. A pleading one. A cry for help, any help, with the horrible nightmare of his own era. He walked towards them. He reached out his arms….
…The elevator doors finally squeaked shut and carried the orderlies to the first floor. When they got there, everything was back to normal. The modern era had been restored. However, these two women had been destroyed. Scared half to death (and who wouldn’t be?) they immediately reported the incident to the security office on the first floor. The officer on duty, in a later interview, recalled how shook up the women were. He personally escorted them back to the elevator. Under their terrified gaze, he pressed the button for the basement. When the door slid open, he found…. Nothing. The room was just the lazy old basement that it always was.
What. A. Story. I can’t even imagine taking an elevator ride and winding up in the middle of a battlefield hospital, one that was in operation a century-and-a-half before my own time. This incident, referred to as a “time slip” or “time warp” in supernatural lore, must have been horrifying. However, the two administrators, fighting untold amounts of emotional turmoil, kept their positions at the college. Although, they never took the elevator again. Even when they were exhausted, and even from the fourth floor, they remained ever devoted to the stairs.
Their ghostly tale isn’t the only one to emerge from Pennsylvania Hall. Strange goings-on have been reported there for decades. Author Mark Nesbitt interviewed a completely separate woman who had a similar experience with the building’s ornery elevator. Misty soldiers in gray uniforms have been spotted pacing back and forth in the cupola. Shadowy figures have been reported lurking in the tower. One student said he saw a phantom man in the building’s cupola who waved his arms frantically, as if he were asking for help. When the student called his roommate to observe the man, the apparition vanished. Many others have reported strange feelings of dread an uneasiness when they walk by Old Dorm. As if unseen eyes watch their every move.
So… what the hell is going on at Pennsylvania hall? We know the building is an original structure of the school, which was called “Pennsylvania College” back then. It was built in 1837, and it was one of the largest buildings on the campus. It first served as a dormitory for students who came from far and wide to study. By the time the Civil War broke out, it had been called home to countless people over the years.
During those fateful days in July of 1863, when all of Gettysburg was torn apart, Pennsylvania Hall served as a makeshift hospital. It was one of many set up under the frantic circumstances. Hundreds of shattered soldiers, in both blue and gray, were dragged into the hallways of the once-quiet dormitory. Dying men bled on the floor. They screamed for help. For their mothers. For relief of any kind. Doctors and nurses rolled up their sleeves, tied on their aprons, and tried to keep up with the influx.
If you ask me, it’s no wonder those ghostly doctors at Pennsylvania Hall are begging for help. Because medical units were pretty overlooked back then, and they are sometimes overlooked when we study military history today. They shouldn’t be, either. Some of the best contributions to the study of medicine have been made during the heat of wartime. They are made by medical personnel who can think of only one thing – saving more lives. So they put themselves in the line of fire. They work ungodly hours. They put their patients above everything else. They rise to the challenge to put bodies back together when war insists on tearing them apart.
Civil War doctors especially had a hell of a challenge to rise to. Because it was a curious time in warfare when one side hadn’t caught up to the other. While war had begun its shift into the modern area, medicine remained trapped in the Middle Ages. Surgical and medical kits were stocked with primitive, lanky tools that looked like something out of a murder movie. Mystery concoctions of alcohol and questionable herbs served as medicines. There was no treatment for things like shock, because it wasn’t the least bit understood. Blood transfusions weren’t either. Ambulance services were comprised of rickety carts that piled as many men in that would fit. Words like “bacteria” and “sepsis” hadn’t quite made it into the vernacular. That’s extra scary in a time when the only real treatment for wounded ligaments was to cut them off.
Surgical wards quickly became infamous for the mountains of blood-soaked arms and legs that were stacked up outside. They were also infamous for filth. The same bone saw was used on dozens of patients before it was washed. Instruments for prodding wounds were not sanitized. Neither were the operating rooms or the rest of the hospital. Patients were only given chloroform or whiskey for hasty amputations. Some were given nothing at all. Many died from the trauma, the pain, and the blood loss. As for those with gut shots, they were deemed hopeless and left to die. Because if it couldn’t be cut off, it couldn’t be treated. In short, Civil War doctors didn’t stand a chance against the mechanized killing dispensed from artillery guns, repeaters, and rifles.
This made Civil War hospitals almost more harrowing than the battlefields. Many soldiers avoided them outright. One eye-witness to the sorry state of medical care was Louisa May Alcott. Destined to become a very famous writer, one of her earlier works is a memoir about her time as a nurse in the Civil War. “I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, five typhoids on the opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patriots, hopping, lying, and lounging about… who suffered untold agonies.” Another medical worker, Union surgeon W.W. Keen, doesn’t paint a much prettier picture. “We operated in old blood-stained and often pus-stained coats [with] undisinfected hands… We used undisinfected instruments from undisinfected plush-lined cases and had been only washed in tap water.”
Yikes. That sort of trauma would undoubtedly leave a stamp on the timeline. So many people who could have lived if medicine was just a pinch more up to speed. Although, the Civil War did spawn some major action on the battlefield of modern medicine. It saw the creation of the first organized ambulance and medical units for the United States armies. Nurse Clara Barton, the famed “angel of the battlefield,” put together countless supply drives, some financed from her own pocket, to get clean supplies and medicines to the hospitals. She also went on to form the first American branch of the Red Cross. No less heroic were the efforts of the dedicated Doretha Dix. In addition to her outstanding services as a nurse in the Civil War, she also brought badly needed attention to the complications of mental illness. Her efforts brought forth some of the first mental hospitals.
The foresight of these people and many others was astounding, especially in such a terrible time. However, medicine still couldn’t quite catch up. Thousands of soldiers died for the sheer want of better medical treatment. In fact, it wasn’t artillery or guns that did the most damage on the Civil War battlefields. It was disease that earned the distinction of the war’s biggest killer. From the well-over half a million men that died in the fighting, disease killed twice as many as bullets did.
It’s tragic that killing and war were advanced before healing and medicine. Which brings us back to Pennsylvania Hall. Maybe that’s the injustice those ghosts are trying to right when they take unwitting people on elevator rides to the past. There are some ladies out there who probably think so, even if some people write them off as crazy. Ghosts aren’t real, many would say. Neither are time slips. Stories like that don’t belong in an academic conversation.
As for me, I might have to disagree. I think there’s a lot about this world (and others!) that we don’t quite understand yet. Just like there was a lot about medicine that was misunderstood in the past. I also think those “misses” leave emotional markers on the trail of history – haunted spots that are there to remind us of things we shouldn’t repeat. Of stories that are overlooked. Of people and places that should never be forgotten. Some people experience that as ghosts or elevator rides into misery. It’s an important part of the conversation too, especially when it comes to history. Besides, those doctors and nurses deserve some extra recognition. If ghost stories are what it takes to get it out there, I’ll share them until the end of time.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Civil War Ghost Stories – A. Konstam
Ghosts of Gettysburg/Civil War Ghost Trails – M. Nesbitt
Spirits of the Civil War – T. Taylor
Hospital Sketches – L.M. Alcott
The Civil War: A Visual History – Smithsonian
All photos by M.B. Henry (sorry I don’t have one of Pennsylvania Hall! Next time!) For more from Gettysburg, click here.
A very Happy Halloween to all my readers! I wish you lots of tricks, treats, and creepy ghost stories!