In July, 1863, one of the fiercest, most violent battles of the American Civil War raged for three full days in the rolling fields and forests surrounding the town. When the cannons and gunfire finally stopped on July 3, 8,000 soldiers would lie dead in those fields among the 60,000 bloody casualties. The carnage included 3,000 horses and one civilian casualty in the heart of the town; a woman who had been baking bread in her kitchen was shot in the head by a stray bullet that pierced her door.
Paranormal experts will tell you that this is the exact kind of trauma that is a catalyst for hauntings -- when people die so suddenly and tragically that they don't realize they're dead, or they don't want to accept it and just continue hanging around.
I don't know about any of that, and I wasn't giving much consideration to it when I just happened to be in Gettysburg with my husband and our oldest daughter on Halloween weekend in 2010.
At the end of that October, Brittany flew in from Denver to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. Stephen and I would drive from Michigan to Pittsburgh to pick her up from the airport and drive her the rest of the way to the capitol city. We had never driven through Pennsylvania before and references to coal mines and steel mills had left us with the impression that outside of bucolic Amish country, that the rest of the state would be gray and dirty. Instead, we drove the whole way in a perpetual state of wonder. The peak fall foliage winding alternately through small towns and rolling woodlands rivaled Michigan for its rustic beauty.
By the time we rolled into Gettysburg, it was dusk and the quintessential Halloween eve for dinner in an old tavern and a slightly macabre tour through the historically preserved home of Jennie Wade (the woman who had died baking bread). Old leaves rustled appropriately under our feet, the half moon shone through overhanging tree branches over lanterned city streets, and even a mild wind gusted fresh leaves at an exhilarating rate. Jack o' lanterns glowed from random store windows and residential porches across the town.
On October 31, 2010 the entire east coast of the US went from scarlet and gold to clean white overnight. We emerged from the hotel to a breathtaking winter wonderland. An abundance of big, feathery snowflakes were drifting earthward to cover the whole town in a downy blanket. Our only disappointment was that we had planned to drive the winding roads of Gettysburg National Cemetery on our way out of town to see the monuments, and we doubted the visibility.
In the end, we decided to go, anyway, anticipating a very different experience. And it was an ethereal one, looking over the fields and imagining how the first heavy snowfall, over one hundred and fifty years ago, late in the year of 1863 or early in 1864 might have covered the land and begun to heal the souls of the people. At least that's what I was thinking.
I was deep in introspection and looking off into the snow misted fields and rows of ivory headstones as far as the eye could see when Stephen pulled off the shoulder of the road. He and Brittany had spied the Peace Light Monument up ahead, the brilliance of its eternal flame shining through the falling snow, and they wanted to get out of the car to take a picture. I chose to stay in the car, but rolled down my passenger side window and took a single photo with my camera phone. Although a headstone faced the road directly parallel to the car, I snapped the camera at nothing in particular. I just wanted to see if I could get a quality picture against the backdrop of the snow. I glanced at the picture and quickly determined that I couldn't -- it was snowing too hard -- and put the phone away.