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Historic Gettysburg battlefield and its environs refuse to give up the ghost

Sunday, October 26, 2003

By Mark Hoffman

"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and bodies disappear; but spirits linger."
-- Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg

GETTSYBURG, Pa. -- The Battle of Gettysburg claimed more lives than any other event on American soil, with more than 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured and missing during those three July days in 1863.

It should come as no surprise that many people consider the town of Gettysburg and its Adams County environs to be America's most haunted place. In turn, that makes the historic Farnsworth House Inn, the town's premier bed-and-breakfast, the most haunted inn in the land.

If you go

The Farnsworth House Inn, 401 Baltimore St., Gettysburg, PA 17325; 1-717-334-8838;

Gettysburg Battlefield Tours, 778 Baltimore St., Gettysburg, PA 17325; 1-717-334-6296;

Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, Box 4117, Gettysburg, PA 17325; 1-800-337-5015;

-- Mark Hoffman


Reports of spectral visions may draw guests to the 191-year-old inn, but many stay for the elegance and the excellence of its fare and lodgings. In fact, I consider the inn and its people to be extraordinary, while its hauntings are rather ordinary.

The Farnsworth is a maze of mud-colored buildings on Baltimore Street. In 1863, the inhabitants of the inn stood witness as the armies of the blue and the gray trudged up and down the hot, bloody, dusty road fronting the inn. The Farnsworth was in the thick of things and proudly bears its scars, including the marks from about 150 bullet holes that pepper its walls.

Today, its armies of tourists wander along sun-dappled Baltimore Street as patrons of the Farnsworth sip iced teas from comfortable chairs in the tree-shaded garden patio. Tiny birds dine on crumbs next to the small stream that courses through a garden.

The Farnsworth is actually a U-shaped complex fronting the thoroughfare. On the left is the Gettysburg Quartermaster, a museum-like shop featuring thousands of quality military pieces. There's a gallery specializing in the dramatic Civil War art of Don Troiani and the region's most complete Civil War bookstore. The center of the U is the newest section of the Farnsworth House and is formed by three guest rooms, as well as the Tavern, a casual dining establishment featuring memorabilia from the movie "Gettysburg." On the right is the Farnsworth House proper, which features the formal dining room and the original guest rooms, all of which the innkeepers claim are haunted.

"We have good news for you," said Beverly Bittle, then the Farnsworth's marketing director and hostess, as she welcomed me. "We have had a cancellation. You will be able to stay in one of the haunted rooms."

Before I ventured to share a room with any spirit, however, I asked to see the room I was giving up.

Bittle led me to the Eisenhower Room, named in honor of the 34th U.S. president, who retired to a farm abutting the battlefield. The room, with its green and gold interior, features a queen-sized brass bed, a large oil painting of a monkey as well as working fireplace, antique wardrobe and a camelback trunk.

Bob Withrow, guide for the Candlelight Ghost Walk of Gettysburg, stands on the steps of the Farnsworth House Inn. "Look at your feet," he tells those on the tour. "You are probably standing where sone soldier died." (Mark Hoffman photo)

"The new rooms, like the Eisenhower, are nice, but the rooms in the original part of the house have their own unique embellishments. The new rooms have TVs, but the old ones have other entertainment," said Bittle, as she ushered me into the old part of the Farnsworth Inn.

The stairs creaked as we went through a narrow hallway to the Shultz room, named for the inn's current owners. The tiny room, done in gold and green floral wallpaper features a Bradbury & Bradbury ceiling and hallway panels, ornate mosaics of wallpaper. In addition, there's a high, queen-sized, cherry fourposter bed, an antique oak wardrobe and corner chair.

"The Jennie Wade Room next door has had several hauntings, as has this room. All the rooms on this floor, come to think of it," Bittle said. The Jennie Wade room, named for the only civilian killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, is done in warm, maternal colors. It features pink and white floral wallpaper, a queen-sized iron bed, and a Victorian love seat.

Despite the room's disarming appearance, guests have reported seeing babies floating in midair and the disembodied spirits of boys and men in Victorian dress.

After changing into proper battlefield walking attire -- sturdy sneakers, shorts, T-shirt, sunglasses, hat, camera, binoculars, map and backpack -- I strode up the street to Battlefield Tours and a two-hour exploration of the battlefield from both air-conditioned and double-decker buses. Opting to brave the elements, I took the double-decker bus. Seated next to me was Francesca, a teenager from Great Britain who remarked that the two-story vehicle was delightfully reminiscent of London.

I took off my hat, carefully tucking it underneath the seat and joined everyone in putting on earphones to listen to an authentic dramatic re-creation of the three-day battle featuring the voices of Raymond Massey and others.

We must have been a sight -- 100 people riding along in a double-decker bus, dodging tree limbs and telephone wires, while disembodied voices coursed through our bulky earphones, transporting us back 138 years to the hot dusty chaotic days of the battle.

The audio re-enactment took us on a winding trip through the hallowed ground of Gettysburg. The ride through the virtually deserted battlefield was eerie. Although there was nothing special to see, the headphones reverberate with the screams, hoots, hollers, cannon fire, gun shots and death cries associated with the battle.

Landmarks such as Little Round Top, Devil's Den, and the Wheatfield drift by -- infamous places where thousands died but that literally refuse to give up the ghost.

We passed Gettysburg College, known at the time of the war as Pennsylvania College. The institution of higher learning was pressed into service as a hospital, but it ended up serving primarily as a morgue and a way station to eternity.

It is easy to see how the grounds of the campus and nearby Gettysburg Seminary, both now filled with students lounging in the midday sun, were littered with the blue and gray clothed bodies of the dead and the dying.

During the past 130 years, there have been many reports of disembodied sentinels in bell towers and other such spectral sightings on both campuses. One compelling story is that of the repeated sound of unseen heavy books dropping to the floors -- books undoubtedly used as cushions to prop up the heads or the injured torsos of dying Union soldiers.

Several members in my party followed up the motor-powered tour with a 19th-century horse-powered guided tour of the battlefield. The slow, quiet pace of a ride on horseback sets an impressionable mood, and visitors can almost smell the gunpowder. (Actually, several of the bus riders do smell sulfur, a common happening in Gettysburg, according to folks at the Farnsworth.)

Sights and sounds not withstanding, the day at the battlefield made us hungry, and the army of chefs and servers at the Farnsworth House rose to the occasion.

Dining at the Farnsworth House was a most pleasant surprise. The room, which seat upwards of 48 at one time, is decorated in a much-welcomed understated Victorian style. Apart from the large portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade, there is nary a suggestion of the Civil War.

My meal began with goober soup, creamy and fresh, followed by spoon bread, a creamy, sweet custard-like concoction of melt-in-your-mouth cornbread eaten with a spoon.

For the main course, I chose game pie, the Farnsworth House signature dish, featuring duck, pheasant and turkey cooked in a delicate sauce and served piping hot in its own flaky crust. The meat had no "gamy" taste at all but was substantial and tasty -- an authentic original, evocative of a supper prepared by your great-grandmother.

The side dishes, which could easily have doubled as desserts, were pumpkin fritters and sweet potato pudding. I saved room for one of the Farnsworth House signature desserts, an intoxicating rum cream pie, topped with zesty nutmeg sauce.

After a meal like that, it was time for a walk, but not just any walk. I was in the mood for a Candlelight Ghost Walk, and the Farnsworth House was most accommodating. Bob Withrow, a senior tour guide, regaled 40 others and me with bone-chilling tales of ghostly visions of soldiers and animals as we strolled through the neighboring high school campus.

"Look at your feet," he said, as lightning punctuated the darkened night sky behind him. "You are probably standing where some soldier died. But don't bother moving, because wherever you end up, odds are some soldier died there, too. The battlefield is a couple of miles away, but death was everywhere."

He told stories of sightings of Confederate and Union soldiers and regaled us with anecdotes relating to the 14 documented spirits that roam the grounds of the Farnsworth, including apparitions of orphaned boys seeking their parents, grieving fathers with open arms searching for their children, wounded soldiers seeking a place to lie down and Mary (more about her later).

Withrow took us up toward Cemetery Ridge where the Union made its stand as well as down High Street where visions of ashen-faced boys in gray are often reported. The 90-minute tour left most of us a bit shaken and anxious to return to our beds.

But what about me? I was going to go to sleep in a haunted house! I gingerly walked home through the lightning and the thunder, trying to dodge the raindrops (while not letting my feet touch the ground). I climbed the creaking stairs to my room and got ready for bed.

I stepped up into the high bed and back into time. Sleep did not come easy. Withrow's stories, visions from the battlefield and noisy neighbors in the rooms nearby arrested my slumber.

I stepped out into the hall to see what was causing the murmuring of voices, shuffling of feet and closing of doors. Residents of the Jennie Wade Room said they had been awakened by the smell of sulfur and gunpowder, a "rotten egg" smell so strong it jarred them from their sleep. That night, two teenage boys staying in the room next door strolled by confidently with a Ouija board -- their passport to the past.

I went back to my room, turned on the light, climbed into bed and fell asleep immediately.

The next morning I could tell the staff that rather than being disturbed by any ghostly visits, I had enjoyed the best sleep in years.

"Must have been Mary that was looking in on you," said an employee, with an impish wink. "She's the spirit with grandmotherly touch. Looks after a lot of our guests."

Mark Hoffman is a Lititz, Lancaster County, Pa.-based writer

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