The American Civil War was exceptional in its brutality and the loss of American lives. It took place in the violent sweet spot in history after the American adoption of guerrilla warfare, rifled weapons, and repeating weapons, and before the proliferation of modern hygienic and medical standards, as well as the invention of antibiotics. This meant that the conflict was poised to deliver maximum casualties with relatively minimal recovery.
This proved true, and more Americans died in the conflict than any other war in the nation’s history. Tales of the suffering it caused are notorious, as are the tales of the paranormal legacy that suffering left behind. All in all, it makes the Civil War an eerie topic, and many stories from the conflict, whether real or paranormal, are chilling. Here are ten of those Civil War stories sure to unnerve you.
10 The Taste of Brains
It was common for literate soldiers to write diaries during their deployment, whether as personal journals or meant as letters to loved ones. Henry Fitzgerald Charles kept one, and it chronicles his service to the Union as part of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was involved in many conflicts over his three stints in the war. Certainly, he saw his share of the war’s horrors. One stands out.
He writes about one day when he and another soldier entered the woods after a battle had ended there, looking for salvage. They rested and, “All at once I heard a gun crack and at the same time my mouth was filled with another man’s brains. There was a sharpshooter in the distant woods somewhere… I reckon he waited till he had us both in line and was going to kill two birds with one stone, but my friend’s head was too hard—it reflected the bullet. If I swallowed any of it, it certainly came up along with everything else I had in my stomach.” A bullet meant for both men was stopped by his friend’s skull, and Charles had a taste of his friend’s brains.
9 The Devil’s Den, Gettysburg
The Devil’s Den is a rocky hill in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was named for its twisting passages that seem to cut through its many large boulders, thought to be made by a giant serpent. See: the biblical Devil. The small hill is home to an impressive amount of ghost stories and purported sightings. For one, the whole hill seems to become a dead zone for electronics at random intervals. Visitors have claimed to see uniformed Union soldiers walking through it, even one with a bloody chest wound who asks passers-by for help.
If ghosts are real, then Devil’s Den would be a natural haunt. The hill was a battleground on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the single bloodiest battle in the entire Civil War, which again is the single bloodiest conflict in American history.
8 Angel’s Glow
This story concludes in a very wholesome way, but imagining how soldiers in the war experienced it, it must have been frightening. There are multiple reports from the war that soldiers’ injuries would sometimes begin mysteriously glowing blue, most famously those at the Battle of Shiloh. Further, those that did glow seemed more likely to survive. The otherworldly light came to known as Angel’s Glow.
The glow was written off as superstition for a century and a half until a 17-year-old whose mother studied bioluminescent bacteria learned of Angel’s Glow and put two and two together. He and a friend conducted some experiments and were able to unravel the whole mystery. It turns out the heavenly light of the angels was caused by the bacterium Photorhabdus luminescens. Though to soldiers at the time who knew nothing of microbiology, this must have been an unearthly experience.
7 Green Eyes
A monster story that comes from Civil War soldiers themselves is that of Ol’ Green Eyes. It is a supernatural creature that haunts the site of the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee and Georgia. The creature itself varies between tellings. It is sometimes a giant white ghoul, sometimes a green-skinned swamp creature with fangs, and sometimes a headless soldier searching for the lost head. The one thing that every version shares are bright, glowing green eyes. (Yes, even the headless soldier, somehow). It’s no surprise the area is haunted. Over 34,000 soldiers died on that spot within just three days.
6 The Dream of John C. Calhoun
John Calhoun was an American politician, most famous for serving as Vice President to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He was called the ‘cast-iron man’ for his unwavering, absolute support of Southern customs and beliefs, including slavery and white supremacy. One night a few years before the war, Calhoun was preparing a plan for the South to leave the Union when he was visited in a dream.
He said, “The sight struck me like a thunderclap. It was the face of a dead man whom extraordinary events had called back to life. The features were those of George Washington and he was dressed in his General’s uniform.” Washington then placed a black spot on Calhoun’s right hand which, said Washington, “is the mark by which Benedict Arnold is known in the next world.” Washington warned Calhoun that dissolving the Union would be traitorous, and would haunt him throughout his eternal afterlife.
5 St. Peter’s Ghost
St. Peter’s Church in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia was used as a hospital during the Civil War. Its staff cared for soldiers from both sides, and both armies were careful to avoid attacking it with artillery or otherwise harming it. It is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young soldier who died in its doorway.
The young man was wounded and asked nurses at the church to see him. Labeling his wounds as low priority, they saw to other, seemingly more grievous injuries first. The soldier laid in front of the church, waiting. Finally, his time came, and nurses began carrying him inside. Just as he passed through the entranceway, his wound overcame him and he died. Allegedly, just moments before passing, he whispered, “I’m saved.”
4 Champ Ferguson
For the vast majority of Southern men who supported the Confederate effort and wanted to help, the choice was clear: enlist and aid them as a soldier. Champ Ferguson chose a different path. Ferguson chose not to join the Confederacy in any official way and instead gathered a unit of like-minded friends and neighbors under his, and only his, command. Acting on Ferguson’s orders, the unit spent the war carrying out guerrilla attacks on whomever they pleased.
They routinely attacked and killed civilians who Ferguson believed supported the Union. They were known to be indiscriminate, attacking the wounded, the elderly, and sleeping targets. Unconfirmed (though believable) reports state that Ferguson sometimes mutilated the bodies of his victims after death, decapitating them or otherwise mutilating them. After the war, he was caught and tried, when he admitted to killing over 100 men himself. He was hanged for war crimes.
3 Andersonville Prison
Champ Ferguson’s execution for war crimes made him one of only two men in the Civil War to be put to death for this crime. The other was Captain Henry Wirz, commander of the infamous Andersonville Prison, known as Camp Sumter. Andersonville was a Confederate prison camp in which over 13,000 Union troops died due to starvation, dehydration, and disease.
Conditions at the prison were atrocious and inhumane, and some photographs of survivors look indistinguishable from those of Nazi concentration camps. Dysentery, scurvy, and typhoid fever ravaged the crowded Union POWs, killing an estimated 100 per day. Prisoners would later recount their experience as being constant cruelty and suffering, with many earnestly believing the prison was Hell.
2 Washington Again
One of the most famous triumphant stories from the Civil War is that of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. The regiment made a dramatic charge down Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, likely preventing a total Union loss. Instead of Chamberlain, however, many soldiers in the regiment claim to have seen the ghost of George Washington in full Revolutionary War regalia giving the order to charge.
When asked about the alleged specter later in his life, Chamberlain reportedly said, “I have no doubt that it had a tremendous psychological effect in inspiring the men. Doubtless, it was a superstition, but who among us can say that such a thing was impossible? We have not yet sounded or explored the immortal life that lies out beyond the Bar. I only know the effect, but I dare not explain or deny the cause.”
1 The Tragedy of Sullivan Ballou
Major Sullivan Ballou fought for the Union Army who became famous after a letter he wrote to his wife Sarah was featured in Ken Burns’s documentary “The Civil War.” The letter, read aloud in the documentary, changed how many people thought about soldiers of that era. Whereas before, many thought the average soldier was simple and had a basic literacy, Ballou’s letter proved they could be eloquent, deep, contemplative, and even poetic. One section reads, “The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.”
Heartfelt and beautiful, the letter became iconic. In sharp contrast, however, Ballou’s life after its writing was brutal and profane. He died one week later at the First Battle of Bull Run. A cannonball ripped off much of his right leg, and he eventually succumbed to the wound. Unconfirmed reports state that Confederate soldiers discovered his burial site. He was then exhumed, decapitated, and his desecrated body cruelly hung on display.