A Ghost at Gettysburg: No Photographs Please…
Just the name provides a good idea of what awaits you in such a place. Towering, jagged rocks make for difficult climbs while the sun blasts on your back. Hills covered with brush, snarled trees, and stone monuments linger nearby. It’s isolated from the road, and a perfect place to twist your ankle if you don’t watch your step. And on July 2 of 1863, this piece of earth in the fields of Pennsylvania created a whole other level of horrible.
In fact, Devil’s Den has never been that merry of a place. According to local legend, the area attracted violence and bloodshed long before Lee and his gray-clad troops came through looking for trouble. Centuries before then, indigenous populations hunted both game and warring tribes in the area. 19th century archaeologists unearthed some signs of a great tribal battle that might have taken place there. More modern historians think that some large mounds nearby could have served as ancient burial sites. Even the eerie, dangerous placement of the rocks scared plenty of people away over the years. The narrow twists and turns between big stones, along with the dark nooks and crannies, made it easy to get turned around in the times before roads and Google maps. Then there’s the snakes. I mean, even Indiana Jones draws the line at snakes.
So, in July of 1863, Devil’s Den already had a reputation, although it’s still up for debate when the nickname came along. And by the time Union and Confederate troops finished with the area, Devil’s Den had earned a place in the immortal grounds of history.
It all started because of two big foothills called the Little Round Tops. On the second day of what would become one of the most well-known (and deadliest) battles fought on North American soil, a Union general named Gouverneur K. Warren scouted two big hills outside the town of Gettysburg, right in the middle of the battlefield. As he looked out over the vast terrain from his cushy, hilltop position, he thought, “hm, what a view. Might come in handy for keeping an eye on things.” [My quote, not his.] He quickly spread the word, and Union generals across Gettysburg began stacking the hills with troops in blue, and stuffing gunners into the rocky “Devil’s Den” gorges below.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Lee, Longstreet, and their battle hungry troops were ready to follow up the sweeping victory they had gained just the evening before. In one of the most stunning routes of the Civil War, July 1, 1863 saw a massive retreat by Union soldiers. After a hot, bloody day of fighting, they dashed through the town of Gettysburg in a panic before converging on Cemetery Ridge to try and reform. Had this route been pressed immediately, there’s no telling how that battle (and subsequently the entire war) might have turned out. However, miscommunication between Lee and his generals closest to the fighting led to a halt in the attack, which gave the Union soldiers time to regroup and reorganize.
Ready to finish the job he started the night before, on July 2, Lee prepared his forces for a large-scale assault all across the Union Line. He ordered General Longstreet, along with General Hood, to attack the far left of the blue stronghold early in the morning, in hopes of rolling up the flank as he and the late General Jackson had done at Chancellorsville earlier that year. However, things turned sour from the offing, starting with costly delays in marching reinforcements up to the line. On a morning when every second counted to press their advantage, it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that rebel artillery finally opened up, and fighting broke out all over Gettysburg and the surrounding area. Blue and gray crashed in a swath of now-infamous places like the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and the rocky, dangerous area now known as the Devil’s Den.
No place on the Gettysburg Battlefield was very healthy for those three days in July of 1863, but Devil’s Den was probably the last one anyone would sign up for. A Pennsylvania soldier unlucky enough to fight there had this to say of it – “[It seemed] as though nature in some wild freak had forgotten herself and piled great rocks in mad confusion together.” Another Federal fighter in the area described it thus – “Its base huge boulders, some of them as large as a small house, rest in an irregular, confused mass, forming nooks and cavernous recesses suggestive of its uncanny name.”
In such rocky, formidable terrain with its twists and turns, cracks and grooves, and narrow, dicey passageways, regiments battling it out there quickly broke down into disorganized chaos. Marching orders and formal commands flew out the door faster than the terrified Gettysburg citizens. Despite the gunners Warren had placed in the area, and the strict lines of reinforcements, the fighting turned into a staggering “every man for himself” situation, with men slugging it out over those boulders in the midday heat and gunfire. Then came the artillery from the hills up above.
A reporter on the scene struggled to capture the insanity of the barrage – “Down the plunging shot came, bursting before and around and everywhere tearing up the ground in a terrific rain of death… the rain of grape and canister began, mingling their sharp cries with the shrill whistle of the mad Minnie balls which seemed to come in showers.” As for the men ensnared in the bloodbath, they had little better to say of it. A gunner of the 9th Massachusetts proclaimed – “The shrieking, hissing, and seething… it seemed as though it must be the work of the very devil himself.” A fitting description for the locale, I suppose.
By the time the fighting around Gettysburg stopped, and Lee’s troops limped out of town, the Devil’s Den appearance easily stacked up to its name. The rocks, according to many witnesses, wound up splashed red with blood and covered in blackened, swollen corpses. More bodies piled up in the gaping cracks and gorges below. All of the fields in and around Gettysburg became hollowed ground, but death reaped an especially bad harvest on Devil’s Den.
Perhaps that is why, over 155 years later, it is considered one of the most haunted locales in the city of Gettysburg. Strange stories began circulating not long after the final shots had been fired – most of them involving a male apparition appearing to people who got lost in the area. Two hunters strayed into the battlefield one evening shortly after the war, and when they got turned around in the rocks, a shadowy, dim figure of a man appeared behind them. He said nothing, just pointing them in the right direction. When one of the hunters turned to thank him, the apparition vanished.
According to former Gettysburg Park Ranger and local ghosty historian Mark Nesbitt, a similar apparition began appearing in the 1970s. In the modern era, this stranger “developed” (photo pun!) a taste for picking on photographers. Early one morning, a woman went to Devil’s Den early to get some pictures in the swirling, morning mist, but she grew uncomfortable when she felt a presence behind her. She turned to find a strange man with shaggy hair, ragged clothes, and a flop-hat like those worn by many rebel soldiers during the Civil War. “What you are looking for is over there,” the man said, pointing her the way out of the rocks. When she tried to ask him what he was talking about, he disappeared.
When the woman reported the sighting to a park ranger at the visitor’s center, the ranger shrugged it off. Because let’s face it, it was the 1970s. Dudes with shaggy hair and floppy hats weren’t exactly a phenomenon back then. However, the ranger found it uncanny when another visitor came, less than a month later, and reported a similar occurrence, only this one was even stranger. This visitor was also a photographer, and he had wanted to capture some Devil’s Den photos at sunset. He made sure no one else was around when he set up his camera (because some of us photographers don’t like people in our shots). Although the battlefield looked bare at the time, something weird happened when he developed his shots at home. A blurry image of a man with shaggy hair, ragged clothes, and a floppy hat appeared in the photos, standing on the rocks in the right side of the picture.
The annoyed photographer thought a tourist had somehow walked into his shot, so he returned to Gettysburg a few weeks later to try again. This time when he developed the roll, every single photo came out with damage to the right side of the film – in the exact same spot the mysterious man had appeared in the first roll.
Even after shaggy hair and flop hats vanished from trendy fashion, visitors still reported seeing this strange man around Devil’s Den. Some claim they mistook him for a Civil War re-enactor and posed for photos with him, only to find the man missing from the photos when they got developed later. Other visitors reported damage to their film rolls no matter what tricks they tried to mitigate it.
As the years passed and cameras got more advanced, Devil’s Den upped the ante by messing with the cameras themselves. Slews of visitors began reporting strange malfunctions in their equipment when they tried to get shots in that creepy, rocky zone. Full batteries suddenly lost their charge. Pictures came out black for no reason. Buttons stuck and screens froze.
Mark Nesbitt has yet another strange story about this, one he actually experienced first-hand. One day, he led a father/son duo through the entire park, providing historical information and pictures for an artsy documentary they wanted to make about the famous battle. All three of them, even Nesbitt, had brought very nice, modern cameras along for the journey. Although their equipment worked beautifully all day, problems began almost as soon as they set foot on Devil’s Den.
It started with Nesbitt. His film stuck, which he figured signified the end of the roll. Yet when he checked the indicator, it showed a half roll of film remaining. Thinking the camera needed a minor adjustment (and maybe some curse words), Nesbitt waved at his company to go on without him. But when he looked up again, father and son looked equally frustrated. One of their cameras had jammed out of nowhere, while the other had frozen without explanation. The three frustrated photographers continued their journey while fiddling with their cameras. Once they left Devil’s Den, all three cameras returned to perfect working order.
Bizarre… but certainly not the end of camera problems at Devil’s Den. Since we all love a good ghost story, a local public television station reached out to Mr. Nesbitt for some phantom tales to include in a Halloween Special on their network. Nesbitt agreed to take them on a tour through the battlefield, and they brought all their best filming and video equipment along. Nesbitt took them to Pennsylvania Hall (read about the elevator that gives you the ride of a lifetime here) and Gettysburg College Campus before strolling into Devil’s Den. Just as the camera crew finished wiring Nesbitt’s mic for his interview, the camera’s lights flashed red and the whole system went down.
The show’s producer was stunned and frustrated. The camera was top of the line – coming with a whopping $12,000 price tag and plenty of fancy, computerized bells and whistles. They pushed through the interview anyway, and the footage came out barely usable. However, it still served as the show’s opening segment, along with testimony from the shaken producer that the camera had always worked perfectly until they walked into Devil’s Den.
Being familiar with these stories, and many other ghostly happenings in and around Devil’s Den, I admit I was a bit excited to visit the place in 2016. As much as I love to write and read about ghosts, I’ve never had the pleasure (or horror) of meeting one. I thought maybe my camera obsession, and my cute little face, could draw the Devil’s Den floppy hat ghost who picks on photographers out for a visit. And if he made an appearance, surely he’d be no match for the wizardry of my modern, digital, Canon 60D DSLR.
I snapped pictures all over Gettysburg that day, and everything went off without a hitch. So as I descended the Round Tops and mounted the jagged rocks at Devil’s Den, I got chills of anticipation. I took a good look around, but I saw no mystery man in a flop hat lounging nearby. In fact, I saw no one at all, since it was a bit later in the day and most had retreated back to their hotels. I checked to make sure my camera was in good working order. I raised the eyepiece to my face, lined up a gorgeous shot of the rocks framed by blooming dogwoods, and clicked.
When I looked at my camera screen to see how the picture came out, I saw…. A gorgeous shot of rocks framed by the dogwoods. Just as I had framed it in the eyepiece. I took several more pictures around the area, and all of them turned out well. A little too well. In fact, the pictures I took around Gettysburg are some of the best I’ve ever taken.
If the Devil’s Den ghost did pay me a visit, I didn’t see him, and he certainly broke his MO and didn’t ruin a single pixel of the hundreds of pictures I took that day. But then again, ghosts seem to like me. I’ve never had one pop out and scare me, or make things go bump in the night in my house. Perhaps because I’ve dedicated myself to purging history’s ghosts, so they figure I have enough problems and they should mind their manners.
But what about everyone else? Why would a ghost pick on people trying to photograph Devil’s Den? Maybe he’s trying to tell us something, and that really got me thinking. In this modern era, the rush for the perfect photo sometimes becomes all-consuming, and it overshadows the power of experience. The rise of Instagram and Facebook have led to very public obsessions of the perfect yoga pose, the perfect filter, or the perfect framing when lining up a shot. People at tourism sites the world over seem way more concerned with post-worthy perfection than taking in the sights and sounds around them.
Perhaps Mr. Floppy Hat wants us to know that sometimes, it’s worth it to put away the camera, pocket that phone, and just take in the energy of the place you’re standing in. Especially in such a haunted locale like Gettysburg. You don’t have to see a ghost to feel its presence. You can just stand there in silence, and look out over those fields. The magnitude of it, the lives lost, the time that has passed, and the countless personal histories wired into the grounds, can hit you right in the center if you open yourself up to it. The feeling creates something much more powerful than the perfect photograph. It forms a strong bond to the history, and the spirit of the people who bled there.
Take a trip to the small town of Gettysburg. Climb up on the rocks in Devil’s Den. Look around, stop, and be still for a few minutes. Breathe in and breathe out. Let the emotion of what happened there during those fateful three days seep into your blood. Then hit your yoga pose and take your picture. Maybe whisper a greeting to that ghost while you do so. Let him know you care. Because your pictures could turn out gorgeous, but your memories will turn out even better.
Gettysburg Ghost Tour
Gettysburg National Military Park
Ghosts of Gettysburg Vol I – M. Nesbitt
Spirits of the Civil War – T. Taylor
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage – N.A. Trudeau
Civil War Ghost Stories – A. Konstam
And for another ghostly tale from Gettysburg about the 20th Maine and the Little Round Tops, click here.
Interested in some ghosty poetry about this story? Visit my friend Lee Austin’s blog for a Devil’s Den post that rhymes!