The Ghost & The Storm
Raymond Chen, New York, USA
Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, is located in a densely wooded area known as the Wilderness, harboring a small desolate thicket- Chancellorsville, with the Rappahannock River located just a few miles south.
In the years of 1863- 1864, the massive, vicious Battles of Chancellorsvile, Wilderness, and Cold Harbor raged through these areas in the nations Civil War, the most bloodiest war fought by the United Sates. The total casualties from the battles that were fought around the region are estimated that more than 58,600 Union soldiers laid dead or dying, and the Confederate Army, about 50,000 men dead, dying, or captured.
In the summer of 2003, nearing the end of July, I decided to go and camp out in the area known as the infamous Wilderness, as my annual plans to enjoy the scenery, as well as studying the history of the area for my first novel of this great war.
Packing my tent as usual, all gear and equipment loaded into the back of a beat- up, rental SUV from a local neighborhood dealer, I arrived at the site of the great battle shortly after morning, on August 2, 2003.
The area hadn't changed over the years, although the countless trees, shrubs and thickets destroyed by artillery fire, musket volleys, and burned to cinders by the massive blazes ignited by exploding shells, had regrown, now choking the old roads and weed locked pastures with a very thick layer of organic vegetation.
As I proceeded to set up my large, cabin- style tent in the middle of a clearing, located beside a small, running brook, I happened to switch on a portable radio system, and continued to work, hammering in posts, unraveling the canvas, and building a fire site, as well as unloading masses of other gear from the rear of the SUV, (a Chevy Blazer 1996), despite the growing heat from the midday sun, along with the mosquitoes whining about in the dense overgrowth.
In the midst of a newscast on the radio, an announcer had broke in, stating "....A severe thunderstorm warning has been issued by the National Weather Service for parts of Richmond, North Anna, and Fredericksburg counties, along with a Tornado Watch issued for portions of Sectors 105, and 107 located along Yorktown. These warnings mean that the storms may pack winds of up to 70 miles per hour, with large hail, dangerous lightning, and the possibility of tornadoes in the region. Please stay indoors if the weather should turn severe......).
The report at first meant little to me, as the storms are forecasted to arrive late in the night, besides, the possibility of a large tornado striking a wooded area is very slim.
The evening proceeded for me as a soothing, relaxing experience, around a crackling cedar fire, which sent clouds of dry, fragrant smoke into the clearing. I had just came to realize that the section that I was camped on is located right on the former "Salient", nicknamed the "Bloody Angle", as most of the battle's bloodiest combat had occured in the area, marked by a small, stone fence, where the massive columns of the Union and Confederate armies collided, firing into the opposing ranks at almost point- blank range.
That night, a truly powerful thunderstorm struck most parts of the Wilderness. I was fast asleep inside the open tent when gusts of ferocious wind blew handfuls of torrential rain into the interior, as I got up quickly to zipper up the flaps of the tent, lightning flashed in incessant beams, flooding the trees with constant flickers of bright, blue-white light, accompanied by the ear splitting blasts of thunder. Soaked wet, and wide awakened, but thrilled, I sat up inside the tent, as the flooding downpour continued to rage outside, propelled sideways by the howling wind.
It was past 1:00 pm when the weird incidents started to occur, as the storm continued to hammer and blast the already drenched forest floor. The first thing I noticed was that a brilliant blast of lightning has struck near the campsite, accounted by the terrific explosion of noise that followed. But most lightning flashes are a blue tinged white, as the powerful electrical current is unleashed into the ground, but this particular flash was fiery orange, with massive spheres of burning red. Even inside the tent, I felt the heat of the blast come overhead. Worried, thinking that a fire must have been ignited, I opened the shade to one of the sliding windows of the tent, and was mystified, and surprised, as the thickets surrounding the campsite was burning almost out of control. Despite the incessant rain continuing to down from the heavens, flames shot violently from the overgrowth, as clouds of acrid smoke filled the landscape.
For a sudden moment, the ghastly cries of wounded and dying men could be heard above the thunderous volleys of rifle and artillery fire, the bright stabs of light coming from the barrels of a thousand muskets being discharged, were visible through swirling clouds of smoke, and rain, as the ghostly blaze continued to burn out of control, although I could feel it's intense heat nearly overwhelming me. Suddenly, in the midst of the shadowy Union and Confederate soldiers firing and dropping amongst the burning thickets, there was a single, horrific shriek, as a cannon shell plunged down from the sky and exploded near the campsite. The searing wave of heat and the brilliant flash of fire sent me dodging into the sides of the tent flaps, unable to just take my eyes off the whole battle scene.
To the west of the fierce fighting, I happened to spy a single soldier, a Confederate infantryman, by the brim of his hat, slouched along a tree, doing something with his musket- loading it. For a split second, I thought the figure raised his head and peered in my direction, but he was actually looking toward the far end of the distant hazel grove, raising his musket, taking aim.
The musket went off with a bright flash, and something, perhaps someone, standing atop the distant columns of Union troops, collapsed . As rapidly as the scene unfolded, it ceased suddenly, the cries, screams, and explosions of battle fading abruptly into the steady rhythm of the falling rain.
For the rest of the night, I fell into an uneasy sleep, unable to process the vivid images in my head. The next morning surprised me even more than the previous night, as I climbed out of the tent to survey the scene. To my awe, and shock, the woods were just as it was the day before, the storm had ceased, and the thick foliage was still dripping with rain. However, as far as I could see, there was not a single scorch mark in sight, or even the odor of smoke and burning gunpowder, from the vicious battle fought overnight. Despite the intensity of the fighting, the trees remained intact, dotted with the silvery glimmers of cobwebs on some branches, while the wildflowers carpeting the forest floor swayed in the gentle breeze following the thunderstorm.
By mid morning, I left the campsite for a short while, heading into the nearest town of Fredericksburg, by the side of the riverbank, a single man was fishing, casting his line. He saw me, and spoke, "Hey fella, have you heard, a tornado struck a dockyard near the river, leveling some trees, n' destroying a couple of sailboats n' overturnin' some folks' cars, but no one was injured".
"Tornado?", I found myself asking. "Yeah", the fisherman replied. "Struck yesterday night, 'bout one in the mornin', must have been a big F-3, but thank great Lord no one was hurt, it just smashed through a small area" Following this incident, I tried to put it off, by reassuring myself I was hearing and seeing the force of a tornado's near miss on the previous night, but what really baffled my instincts, is when I drove the rental SUV home the following week, and was packing my tent and sleeping bag back into my closet, when I recongnized, an object, buried neatly into the foam of the sleeping pad, was a single fragment from an exploded shell.
I was thrilled, even mystified, as I realized I had witnessed the ghostly Battle of the Wilderness, near the fierce fighting of the Bloody Angle, where the Union General John Sedgwick, commander of the 36th Pennsylvania Infantry, was gunned down by the bullet of a Confederate sniper, as he tried to rally his falling troops. It was a brilliant experience, it might even add more vital information on this turn- out- to- be great historical novel.