Things That Go Bump . . . The Ghosts of Guilford Courthouse

Today being Halloween, everyone is primed for a good ghost story. Or, even, a bad ghost story!

I’d be the last to judge what this story is. Honestly, it’s just a foggy memory now, a moment when something presented itself to me– be it ghosts, spirits, the weight of history and the responsibility of remembrance, or simply a stubborn curiosity that sets my mind reeling and senses on high alert when I know there’s a story to be told that I will never be able to tell. Curiosity. About things that aren’t yours to know. Maybe that’s what haunts us as much as anything.

Well, there’s a way to end your story before you start it! Ha!

Oops. Let me start over. Forget you heard that first part.

“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” William Faulkner

It was a dark and stormy night. As nights are want to be. I was in my early 20’s, working a summer job for a law firm that had ramped up operations to a nearly around the clock venture while embroiled in a high stakes courtroom battle involving big tobacco and wrecked human lives. Tobacco being the lifeblood of the NC economy for many years, the high stakes and potential for human wreckage on either side of this courtroom struggle created a true war theater atmosphere.

Teams of attorneys from NC and DC gathered. Court reporters typed furiously all day and transcribed late into the evening. Students in need of summer jobs were paid small stipends to be part of the grease that kept the wheels of corporate litigation moving smoothly. Sometimes these students served as “runners,” picking up documents and reports here, dropping off memorandums and documents there, acting as the pony express on a battlefield littered with lives and money. I reported for duty.

It’s no surprise that, as a small player and running messenger in this theater of struggle, I might find myself confronted by souls from another struggle for a brief but impactful moment. Historical harbingers. Etheriel reminders. Young souls, fated to find themselves caught in the theater of war at another time, who might simply whisper in my ear as I crossed their hallowed ground.

Let me set the stage:

It was 1989, a late summer night, and I barreled across the Battlefield at Guilford Courthouse on my trusty, albeit rusty, steed: a 1981 Honda Prelude. Red. My first car, bought used and lacking in air conditioning, because I could either afford a car with air conditioning or a car with a sunroof– there was no having both. I had my priorities and looked back with no regrets . . . although I spent many a summer sweating profusely. But that’s another story.

It was as hot as Hades, the moon was full, or nearly so, and (if you’ll forgive the dramatic observation) the hour was roughly midnight.

It had been a routine evening up to that point. I was leaving my evening shift, while dozens of attorneys and paralegals were still slogging away at desks in the years just before email made communication across town, or across the world, virtual and instantaneous. I was asked to make a late stop at someone’s home to pick up a court document for the office. That home was in the area around the old Guilford Battlefield.

1st Maryland Regiment at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15th March 1781 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by Frederick Coffay Yohn

I’d been to the battlefield park in the daytime before. I’d read the plaques, stuck to the manicured paths, seen the statues. I knew the textbook version of events. But I’d never really wondered about the soldiers, the actual lives being lived and lost on that battlefield. A total failure of imagination on my part– thinking history was the dull and dusty stuff captured on a weathered page.

My attitude must have offended those souls who knew better.

Enter my trusty steed, racing across the battlefield–sticking to the roads, but cutting through an area flanked by fields, scarred patches of ground where rocks and dark, rotten sticks jut up out of the soil where life’s struggles have planted them. A rugged spot with no paths and plaques to lead you safely through the textbook story.

It was a dark and balmy night, and I drove my Honda with windows and sunroof open to the elements, down a quiet road crossing the battlefield, flanked by split rail fences. But no sooner had I turned down this path than my anemic headlights yielded something astonishing. I was suddenly surrounded by dense clouds. The air was still and soundless, until the “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” of my Honda pushing through the fog became deafening.

Was it fog?

Suddenly, it seemed that I was pushing through bodies of fog, regiments of fog marching through me in lines, in battle formations– ranks of shadowy soldiers still marching into combat.

The waves of fog rolled in, breaking upon me, pressing through me, every trembling cold hand, every thread-bare knee, every face, determined or terrified, unaware that time had entwined them with my century. Through the fences they marched, through the rough split rails into the grassy fields and into the scarred patches. Lanky and lovely, they marched where the dew would soon form on the grass, where now the smell of sulfur and flesh has given way to the smell of fresh cut grass and occasional car exhaust. They marched to the middle of the field and disappeared from view.

Dumbfounded, I barely idled down the road for a moment, confused but keenly aware that I was breathing deeply, filling my lungs with the smell of this soil that holds tightly is victory and loss. Humid, heavy air that, it seems, catches fast the impression of every hand, every face, every soul whose fate has been bound to her.

How had I ended up in this theater of war? Me and my careworn Honda, running messages for corporate litigators waging their own battles– I couldn’t even tell you today whether I stood on the side of the right or wrong in that battle. I was just the Pony Express, just the pawn to the deal makers.

I’m sure there were young soldiers in 1781 who found themselves on that battlefield with little more understanding of the power struggle at hand than I had that night in 1989.

On All Hallows’ Eve, moving toward All Souls’ Day, I pay these soldiers my respects. How their timeline crossed mine, I’m not sure. Whether their corporeal spirits crossed mine, I’m not sure. But of this, I am sure: the universe gifted me an unbidden and unexpected moment of curiosity. A moment to lift the dull, dusty textbook story from its library shelf and place its real-as-you-and-me lives in my path. And, after shaking off the shock, I was amazed and grateful.

You can keep your slasher movies on Halloween– they unsettle my spirit and make my skin crawl. But I’ll gladly embrace the stories, the souls, and the power of curiosity whenever and wherever they choose to visit me.

Happy Halloween!

One thought on “Things That Go Bump . . . The Ghosts of Guilford Courthouse

  1. What an extraordinary story, atmospherically told. I don’t know what to believe about this. I tend to be pretty sceptical about para-normal events, but I’ve heard enough strange stories from reliable witnesses to think my scepticism may be misplaced.

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