The Ghost of a Young Confederate Soldier
by Samuel De Lemos
Hurricanes have an odd way of disemboweling one’s living arrangements. Even being inland from the gulf as far north as Kentucky, the howling winds screeched upon the tallest trees and bent them as if they were twigs. We knew from weather newscasts that the hurricane gale winds were coming. Being incredulous as always about weather predictions, and like most Californian transplants, we were naive about everything Southern.
Louisville, Kentucky, is a charming city nestled right under the Ohio River south of Indiana. From certain areas in Louisville, one can see Indiana across the blue-grey river.
Across the river lies the North, and everything below is considered by the natives as the South. South of the Ohio River, you can get sweet tea and moon pies; these local delicacies are a sure bet you’re in the South. At least that’s what I was told.
Louisville, Kentucky has a swagger about itself. It’s metropolitan enough to be cool, while still maintaining, in certain sections of the city, a small town feel. The locals are good people, and helpful, with lots of pride for their illustrious city. After all, the Kentucky Derby, a local favorite and nationally renowned horse racing spectacle, is held here among other things.
Also, some of the best booze is made in Kentucky, and local lore has it that Al Capone and his cohorts travelled all the way down to Louisville during the prohibition to stock up for the speakeasies of Chicagoland. I was treated to some excellent Bourbon here, stuff I’d never seen anywhere else, and wish I could get my hands on some again.
We were living in the Saint Matthew’s area of Louisville, a quaint suburb with beautiful green lawns and majestic trees. The locals were mostly born here and had the Southern drawl to prove it. The homes were older, brick built and sturdy.
During the summer, the katydids sang their raucous melodies, which I found enjoyable. It was nature’s white noise, and with a glass of cold lemonade or iced sweet tea, one could sit outside on the porch, listen to the night music, and find the experience quite pleasant and downright romantic.
Pizza, for us, is a must. Every town that we travel to, in any state of the Union we visit, we search out where will be our next pizza place. Louisville was no different. As soon as we arrived, we asked the local where we could find the best pizza in town. As with any larger city, there were mixed reviews; some locals preferring one pizza joint over another. We tried them all, but ironically the best pizza place for us was not in Louisville, but in a town further south called Elizabethtown, or E-town, as the locals know it.
E-town, like most small towns in Kentucky, has its very own stories. Elizabethtown, during the Civil War, was a bustling community that had train rails heavily used by the Union to transport troops and logistical support for the war effort. Some interesting Civil War battles were fought in E-town. This I would learn while marooned there, a result of the devastation from the over-zealous gulf hurricane that decided to make its way up to Louisville, Kentucky.
Kentucky was a divided state during the Civil War, meaning some were for the Union and some were die-hard rebels. I didn’t know that when I first arrived. In fact, I assumed it was a full-blown Confederate state, but after some investigation, I learned that, like Tennessee, it was divided. That war, the war that brought meaning to North America, was like that. It divided brother against brother, family against family, and town against town. And nowhere was that point made more poignant, than when I was staying in Elizabethtown.
When the hurricane blew through the St. Matthew’s section of Louisville that year, I was inwardly panicked. My darling wife was lying on the sofa half-comatose from a stomach flu.
The weekend prior, we were invited to stay for the Sabbath at the home of friends whose kids were approximately the age of ours. Both our families were recent residents of Louisville, and we clicked. Since they lived closer to one of the synagogues in town, we stayed at their house as often as they’d invite us.
Both our ladies made matzah ball soup and kept it on a hot plate overnight. The next day after services we came back to my buddy’s home to eat our midday meal. My wife tried a quarter teaspoon of the soup, and immediately felt it to be bad. Apparently, the hot plate was not hot enough, and the soup was spoiled. She ingested enough spoiled soup to knock her into a severe and wretched sickness.
As my wife lay on the sofa trying to convalesce back at our place, our kids were playing until the wind started to shake the house, and silence descended on our home. The howling winds were not going to let anyone in my house trivialize them, no sir.
At one point, all of us were staring out the windows trying to figure out how far the giant trees would bend before they snapped. These were the self same trees that gave our neighborhood its lovely, aristocratic southern splendor and cool summer shade.
Suddenly, those once lovely trees became menacing monsters ready to crash into our living room windows. At least, that’s what I was thinking. Perhaps the kids were ooh-ing and aah-ing, but I wasn’t. I was thinking the worst case scenario, and through shut lips, I was praying to the Almighty to spare our house.
The winds only grew worse. Too afraid to look out any further, I decided to close the curtains, expecting the inevitable. It wasn’t long before the lights went out. There wasn’t a chance in Hell that I was going outside in that weather to investigate, either. Branches the size of houses were falling in our neighborhood, and I wasn’t going to risk life for limb. So, we waited.
I made some phone calls and was told that half of Louisville was going to be out of electricity indefinitely. The utility company workers were overextended, and this obscene gulf storm laid waste to hundreds of power-lines throughout the city. There was no way we were going to get our power back anytime soon. Southern summer heat without an AC is intolerable, at best. It wasn’t long before we were sweating uncontrollably, both from the Kentucky heat and the gnarly danger of falling trees.
Quickly, I thought, the best thing to do is get out of Louisville and go to Elizabethtown, get a hotel, and make a mini vacation out of this nightmarish storm.
I packed up the kids, gently helped my beloved into our Suburban, and off we went. The road trip from Louisville to E-town is very wooded and charming, and by then the winds had died down significantly.
While on the drive to E-Town, I kept drifting into a recurring daydream/fantasy I’d picked up while browsing a travel magazine sometime back. The magazine devoted that month’s issue to river cruises. And it seemed that every time I crossed the Mississippi recently, I found myself wanting to take that “Mark Twain” cruise up and down the Mississippi in a steam boat.
I grew up on healthy doses of Mark Twain as a kid, and in my mind, it made sense, perfect sense, to dress oneself in a white suit and smoke a corn pipe, with bourbon in hand, while standing outside, smelling the murky air somewhere on the Mississippi.
I don’t know why this daydream recurs at the most inopportune times, but here I was in my mind, dressed in a white suit, fantasizing about the mighty Mississippi on an old time steam boat, while driving my family to E-Town; all of us recent refugees of a misguided gulf storm. Little did I know that my little adventure was just starting.
The sign read, “Welcome to Elizabethtown,” and we were happy to have arrived. We checked into a hotel, ecstatic to have electricity and a TV. It was getting dark so we got a quick bite to eat and came back, lounged around until we were all fast asleep.
The next morning we all lazily got up, not much in a rush to do anything, not really having a plan. We were stranded in a small Kentucky town with our kids and no apparent direction. It wasn’t a planned vacation, so we were just going to wing it. After breakfast we all decided to go downtown and walk around a bit and kill some time.
There’s a little museum in downtown Elizabethtown that displays the history of the area. I thought it a perfect place to take the family to get some local culture.
I love museums. When I was a child in California, my parents took me to a local Egyptian museum. I absolutely cherished it. The architecture was Egyptian; the outside gardens felt as if you were walking by the Nile overlooking the Sea of Reeds.
My generation grew up on Cecil B. DeMille’s masterpiece, “The Ten Commandments.” It came on television like clockwork every spring, and we eagerly anticipated it. We were glued to the TV, soaking in every piece of dialogue and anticipating every God-ordained plague.
We could identify Egyptian aesthetics in my generation through The Ten Commandments. So as little kids, when we stared at the mummies through the plate glass windows at the Egyptian museum, it was pretty significant. I grew up privileged that way; my parents made sure I got some culture, and I happily obliged them.
The E-town museum was laid out in time-line order. The first inhabitants of Kentucky were natives, obviously. The Iroquois named the area south of the Ohio River, “Can-too-kee,” or “Meadow Lands,” and the name stuck and morphed into Kentucky, which true to its name, is rich in meadow lands. I’d say they’re some of the most beautiful ones I’ve had the privilege to see.
It wasn’t until the Civil war erupted and the battle lines were drawn that Kentucky became a coveted landmark, especially for the Union. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who quipped, “We lose Kentucky and we lose the war.” With that in mind, the war came to Kentucky with fierceness.
Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan of the Confederate States Army was born in Huntsville, Alabama, but made his home in Lexington, Kentucky, prior to the war. He attended Transylvania University, which during that epoch, was the best education you could get in the South. When Kentucky seceded, Morgan chose to be a fighting Kentuckian with the CSA.
Known as a fierce combatant, he brought hell to the Union troops as often as he could. A dashing cavalry man, full of bravado, his guerilla tactics during the war were legendary. No doubt it brought a shiver of fear and dread to the Union troops stationed in Kentucky, knowing that he was lurking in his back yard and in his element.
Louisville and E-town have their cemeteries, and among the dearly departed lay both Confederate and Union men; men who once faced each other at rifle shot length. This bit of history is non-existent in California, so being in Kentucky and actually standing on battle grounds brought a dose of excitement to me, as I’m a sucker for historical interactions.
While at Elizabethtown, we visited the local cemetery. Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by them. Very few people know that as a fifth grader, I used to skip school. Playing hooky and with books in hand, I’d go to the cemetery to read my favorite authors; Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Twain, or I’d wander around the grounds reading tombstones.
I enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the final resting place of those lying there, the sun shining through the beautiful oak trees, and the birds singing their dirges, which only the living can hear. The groundskeeper and I, with mutual understanding, knew how beautiful cemeteries could truly be.
I was giving myself, through these novels and literature, an indispensable education. While my classmates were stuck behind schoolhouse walls learning the basics, I was in my element with the departed dead, learning about life in Paris, Cannery Row and the mighty Mississippi. In my mind it was a thorough education.
The E-Town cemetery was rich in history, as a very fierce battle took place here during Christmas of 1862. The protagonists in this drama wore blue and grey, both marching to different drummers. In the battle for Kentucky, they faced off in order to dispatch each other in the most murderous way. It was a chess game of death, in the end, to see which side had better positioning. There’s a finality to this drama that’s hard to describe. But, looking at the tombstones all neatly lined up, like soldiers in their battle lines who in life were all lined up, row after row. . . .
The United Daughters of the Confederacy kept the hallowed grounds of the cemetery neat and tidy, placing confederate flags on each deserving tomb. These slaughtered men were, at one time the cream of their generation. It was so unfortunate that the scythe of war, during that troubled time, indiscriminately cut down the flower of Southern youth. Here they were laid to rest having given up their lives for a military cause. To the South it was personal. It was their territory that was being invaded. In Southern thinking, the war of Northern Aggression as it’s known, has always been about kicking out the invaders.
John Morgan started his campaign of guerilla tactics to disrupt Union forces in his Kentucky homeland. A large percentage of his troops were native Kentuckians and eager to kick out the Northern invaders. The war effort for Kentucky was lost as Union forces were pushing toward Tennessee, amassing troops and supplies. The hub of this effort was Elizabethtown. Morgan’s orders were to make it impossible for the Union to push forward. His task was to destroy key bridges and train tracks. In other words, his goal was to wreak havoc on the Union.
At Cemetery ridge, where my family and I were standing, Morgan and his troops laid siege to the Union forces stationed there on that fateful Christmas. He set up a Parrott rifle and started battering the boys in Blue. Before the Civil War, the ridge in question wasn’t, just yet a cemetery. It was just a high spot in the city, which Morgan took advantage of to shoot at the enemy at the bottom of the hill.
When the dust settled, Morgan’s men had the advantage, as the Union garrison surrendered after a fierce pounding. With white flags in hand, the men in Blue gave up their resistance.
Morgan and his men laid waste to train tracks, munitions, and anything else that could be used by the Union forces. After paroling Union prisoners, Morgan took what he needed and returned to Tennessee victorious, his mission completed with few losses.
As my kids and wife surveyed the cemetery grounds, I felt I needed to have from this place, a memento, a souvenir of being at the site of the Battle of Christmas Day, as it’s come to be known. So while no one was looking, I took a confederate flag from a fallen soldier’s tomb. I quickly placed it in my pocket, met my family, walked around a bit more, and soon departed, going back to our hotel.
That night, after everyone was asleep, I was visited by the fallen Confederate soldier, from who I so blatantly stole the flag. In that moment between sleep and reality known as twilight, the man appeared to me. It was not a grotesque sight, but I could clearly see where he had been shot. He had a mortal wound just above the pancreas and his brown vest and crisp white shirt had a hole in it and slight blood stain with drips reaching down to his grey trousers.
He wore a hat that looked more brown than grey. I could see that his family had some means, as his uniform was tailored, and his vest was of fine silk-like quality.
He stood there looking at me, a tall young man, and he began to speak. His words were articulate and strong. I remember his youthful ruddy face had slight facial hair and was pale, with a bit of wispy brown hair, unruly strands that peeked out from under his hat, and could be seen as unkempt. He was explaining a card game he and his comrades in arms were playing the night before he got shot. They were playing a gambling game in which he had won a handsome amount. His face was sullen and sad, death having gotten the better of him.
This went on for some time before I fully woke up. The vision of what just happened was so real to me, that my body was covered in goose bumps and my heart was racing. My wife lay next to me completely quiet and restful, oblivious to what had just transpired. I got up out of bed and paced around the room, playing back in my mind what I’d just seen. It was eerie. I wanted to forget and pretend it never happened, but I was in too deep and it was too real of an occurrence to easily dismiss.
I immediately knew that the flag that I had taken had to be brought back at first light. And so it was that I became determined without any doubt, to return this Confederate soldier’s flag, the symbol of his cause, to its final resting place. It was that, or else face more grueling nights of his death stories, which I could not endure after the first visitation. He was there because I’d taken something of value from him. I had disturbed his rest.
At first light, I woke up, had a cup of coffee, and considered the nightmare that I had gone through. My family was still enjoying their slumber, while I was making plans to return to the cemetery.
At this point, I wished I had a stiff drink. No one knew what I was facing. We were scheduled to check out of the hotel and return home. As far as my family knew, everything was kosher.
Meanwhile, I was facing the embarrassment and awkwardness of explaining why we had to return to the cemetery. That, in itself, was anguishing. So, over a morning cup of coffee and my distracted thoughts, I decided to wake up my family and delicately explain my dilemma.
My family was understanding, and, after a lengthy question and answer period, mostly from my boys, we all decided to return the flag to its proper place. This was my problem. I caused it through my imprudence. I had to man up to it and right the wrong.
When we arrived at the cemetery, I was so caught up in the moment and so focused on the task, that I don’t remember the peripherals. The gravesite was above the Parrott rifle, on the south end of the cemetery. I found the young man’s resting place, gently placed the flag back where it belonged, and tidied up the site with extra care. I stood back, got into my best attention stance and saluted the fallen soldier. I asked him to forgive my indiscretion, did an about face and hurriedly went back to my vehicle, satisfied that I had done the right thing. Elizabethtown, the place we escaped to for shelter from the howling winds of a gulf storm, had taught me a lesson in humility–a lesson I won’t soon forget.
The aftermath of the storm was significant. When we returned home our power was restored. Of course, everything that was in the refrigerator had gone bad. In many ways we got off easy. Our home was not damaged except for our back screen door that was blown off its hinges and some roof tiles, which had come undone. On the other hand, surveying the damage around the neighborhood, the wreckage was discernible. One of our neighbor’s detached garage took a massive branch, the size of a truck, directly. When he went out to see the outcome, his garage was demolished, completely. A few houses down from him, and what I was fearing would happen to me, a neighbor took a branch right into his living room, which was still visible when we saw it, a few days later. The branch stuck out from his roof and window like an ugly distorted hand.
Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, continued to lead raids into Union territory, but eventually fate caught up to him. He was killed in battle, while attempting to lead a raid out of Greeneville, Tennessee. He was laid to rest in Lexington Cemetery, Kentucky.
I explained this story to a fellow Kentucky resident and historian. As he explained it to me, the ghost that I had seen, was in fact the ghost of John Hunt Morgan. As he explained it, Captain Morgan was a military officer who demanded nothing but the utmost best from his men. He handpicked who would ride with him on his famous, raids. That being said, Captain Morgan, was also a father figure who looked after his men, zealously. Apparently, even after their death.
There are many more stories of wreckage and destruction from the displaced gulf storm that hit us that year. However, this one is mine, and as of yet, the ghost of the confederate soldier who visited me has left me alone.
© Copyright 2013 SamuelDelemos