Gettysburg Hosts Its Ghosts
Candlelight Walking Tour of Downtown Gettysburg Uses Folklore to Illuminate One of the Bloodiest Battles in American History
Sandy Kime believes in ghosts.
And she won’t tell you that just because it’s part of her job, although as a guide for the Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tour, it certainly helps for her to believe in what she’s selling.
No, Kime has a history with apparitions, and she says not all ghosts are the malicious spirits portrayed in film and literature.
Her first experience with the supernatural occurred more than a decade ago on the morning of her mother’s funeral.
In the early morning hours, her husband was downstairs and she lay in bed, trying to muster the courage to face the day’s events. Suddenly, she was aware of her mother’s presence nearby.
“I felt this weight on the edge of the bed,” Kime said. “And I felt a complete calm, and I knew I could do it.”
Kime’s open-mindedness and experiences, coupled with her background as a substitute teacher, make her the perfect guide for the Ghosts of Gettysburg tours, which often revolve more around entertaining guests with the bloody history of that infamous battle in the first days of July 1863 than around actual ghost sightings.
Mark Nesbitt, the founder of the Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tour, first began collecting tales of ghost sightings that he would hear from people who visited the town and battlefield when he was a National Park Service ranger at the Gettysburg Battlefield during the early 1970s.
“I’d persistently hear the stories of what appeared to be ghosts,” Nesbitt said. “People who were obviously sane would come into our offices and ask if there had been any sightings or strange noises reported out on the battlefield.”
He left his job as a park ranger during the late 1970s to work in advertising and finally got around to writing the first installment of his “Ghosts of Gettysburg” book series in 1991. Three years later, Nesbitt was approached by a Gettysburg Visitors Bureau official who was trying to increase tourist interest in the downtown area. Nesbitt developed a series of downtown walking tours based on the ghost stories in his books and launched the first tour in June 1994.
Seventeen years later, the Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tour has flourished into a series of five routes that combine the supernatural with the historical to create an educational experience for visitors.
“I think you can use folklore, in other words ghost stories, to make the history more memorable,” Nesbitt said.
Tour guides, many of whom are local teachers, dress up in Civil War-era clothing and lead visitors on a candlelight walk through downtown Gettysburg, pointing out local landmarks and relaying the history and ghost stories behind the buildings.
As the guide recounts the history, listeners soon realize that if ghosts do exist, there’s probably no better place to hunt them than in Gettysburg. The Civil War Preservation Trust states that the casualties for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg numbered 46,000 to 51,000, and the guides spare no gory detail as they usher tourists through the town’s history.
Participants are told stories of makeshift field hospitals set up in Gettysburg residents’ homes, where hundreds of amputation procedures left limbs piled high in the streets and floors slippery with blood. The dead were hastily buried wherever room could be found, but inclement weather and heavy rain a few weeks after the battle left the bodies uncovered and washed up, resulting in the creation of the Gettysburg National Cemetery to properly house the deceased.
Kime points to Gettysburg’s bloody history to explain why she thinks the town is the “most haunted place in America.”
“The battle was so horrendous, and the men who died were so young,” she said. “I just don’t think they know they’re dead.”
Nesbitt doesn’t guarantee that visitors will see apparitions on any of his tours, but if willing and open-minded participants look past the name of the tour company, they’ll realize the experience is less about trying to spot a ghost and more about humanizing one of the most turbulent and pivotal moments in our country’s history.