Ghost Hunting amid the Echoes of Tragedy and Carnage at Saylor’s Creek
Midnight came and went across the woods and fields of a 118-year old Civil War battlefield. With a firm grip on powerful flashlights turned off, we crept along the edge of the bridge and peered downstream into the darkness for ghosts. Well, for a specific ghost in particular, a ghost named Headless Sally. The three of us stood there in the dark feeling stupid and scared all at once. It was cold, too, down there in the damp mini-valley of Saylor’s Creek. A full moon hung in the sky casting shadows through trees and thickets leafless in Winter.
Earlier during the day we had agreed to hunt for Headless Sally under a full moon in a relatively clear and calm night sky. Luna draws out the madness in people, draws out mindless ghosts questing about on soulless autopilot, the objects of long-faded desires lost to spiritual dementia. And here we were, three Witches of Silverwood, leaning over the bridge railing facing downstream looking for the ghost of a floating head or perhaps her headless torso. We were confident of our abilities to protect ourselves against harmful or mischievous spirit entities. Besides, we figured after midnight on a cold weeknight there would be far less traffic on a lonely country road to disturb our focus than earlier in the day or on a weekend.
We have visited with ghosts nearby at the Hillsman Farmhouse at the epicenter of the Battle of Saylor’s Creek. Fought on Thursday 6 April 1865, as heavy rains fell and the creek rose, the fields, woods, creeks, and farms were the scene of a ferocious and savage three-part battle between Confederates and Federals. American Civil War combat was often at close quarters with severe injuries from up-close discharges of firearms and artillery as well as hand-to-hand fighting.
The Hillsman home was occupied by the Federals and used as a battlefield hospital. The family and servants there were forced downstairs into the basement, but afterwards helped dig mass graves for the dead. I don’t know if the “servants” were Black slaves, lowly-paid Whites, or White indentured servants. Indentured servants as an institution, shockingly enough, endured in the U.S.A. until 1917, long after slavery itself was legally abolished. Few narratives from Civil War battles more than mentioned the presence of slaves as if they were a bothersome afterthought.
The medical staff operated on screaming Union and Confederate wounded without question. Stories were told of so many amputations deemed necessary as the gory battle unfolded, the pile of severed limbs and body parts tossed out the windows reached up to the windowsills. Soft lead Minié ball bullets tore large holes through soft tissue and shattered bones. Cannons firing loaded canisters bursting with lead and iron balls packed in sawdust mowed down troops on both sides.
Sanitation was unknown, and this lack of hygiene helped generate severe rates of infections such as gangrene. Doctors and nurses, including surgeons, may care for their patients and feel passionate for their professions, yes. Their knowledge and technologies, unfortunately, were surprisingly Medieval during what many historians consider the first Modern, Industrial Age war. No wonder so many ghosts haunted the area. Sally, however, didn’t die in the war.
The Confederates suffered heavy losses and lost the battle. Over half of their forces were killed, surrendered, or rendered missing in action. Union losses were also high, and their forces and supplies vastly outnumbered the Rebels. General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered his command to the Federal’s Lieutenant General U.S. Grant three days later, on 9 April 1865, after losing the Battle of Appomattox Court House. It took a few more months for the war to fully end, but for all practical purposes the carnage and bloodletting was finally over. The battlefield became notorious for its hauntings, especially in and around the old Hillsman “hospital.”
The battlefield has multiple and confusing spellings. Today the Commonwealth of Virginia officially refers to it as Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, but the National Historic Landmark Program lists it as Sayler’s Creek Battlefield State Park. Back in the 1700s an increasing number of English and French settlers established scattered and remote farms and homesteads across the Piedmont region of Virginia. The battles of Saylor’s Creek yet to come were to sprawl across this wild, border region of rolling hills and ravines shared by the new counties of Prince Edward, Amelia, and Nottoway.
One of those 18th Century farmers was Mr. Saylor and his family. A 1751 map, one of the earliest discovered of the area showed the creek as “Sailer’s Creek.” During the American Civil War, however, the surname was somehow recorded as “Sayler,” then mistakenly changed to “Sailor.” Among the combatants was a Confederate naval squadron of several hundred shipless sailors. Real sailors fought at Saylor’s “Sailors’ Creek.”
The Hillsman House is also called the Overton-Hillsman House. The owner of the farm as war broke out was James Moses Overton Hillsman. Mr. Hillsman joined Amelia’s County’s 44th Infantry where he became a Captain in the Confederate Army. The 44th was part of “Lee’s Sharpshooters,” but Captain Hillsman was captured by the Federals the previous spring in the nearly two-week long Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Capt. Hillsman was part of “The Immortal 600” Confederate prisoners placed by Union forces in the fall of 1864 directly into the line of fire from Confederate artillery during the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina. Both sides deliberately placed their prisoners of war under their respective enemies’ massed bombardments during the siege in what today would be considered war crimes.
The Captain’s wife, Lucy Blanton Hillsman, their two young children, her aging mother, and six servants remained on the farm and ended up in the basement. Soon after the battle and the subsequent mass burials, they left their farm never to return. Capt. Hillsman was freed as the war ended and returned to Amelia County to join his family. The traumatized couple moved on with their lives and lived at Rocky Hill in Blackstone until they passed away. Lucy died there in 1917 at about 77 years old, and the Captain died in 1918 at the age of 83 years old.
Neighbors in the Saylor’s Creek Valley also were affected by the battles. The Lockett Farm of Piney Grove nearby also got caught up in heavy fighting. Their old, white clapboard farmhouse was pocked with bullet holes, big Minié ball bullet holes. James Lockett and his family hid down in their basement from fusillades of gunfire. Union forces also seized their home and turned it into a field hospital soon surrounded by mass graves. The Lockett house remains riddled with those bullet holes over a century later. I’ve seen them.
The various names of the creek reflected the constant confusion. Making matters swirlier, the older war records referenced the battle and stream as “Little Sailor’s Creek” while today its known without the “Little.” There is a Little Saylor’s Creek flowing into Big Saylor’s or just Saylor’s Creek. Most of the fighting, however, took place not along the Little but the main creek. Together they flowed northwards into the Appomattox River. I choose to use the name of the original farmer, Mr. Saylor. I can’t find any reference to any Native American names for the creek. So Saylor it is for now.
Aware of all the bloodshed and horrors of wars and battles, we could almost hear the screams and shouts and cries and yells of those long ago soldiers giving everything they have in service to gruesome combat for a war soon to end. We weren’t there for battlefield ghosts, however. Instead, we were there for the ghost of Headless Sally.
The legend of Headless Sally was somewhat brief, as the telling of the tale has become so garbled over time. We didn’t even bother to verify the persons and events of her life as so much was buried in rolls and rolls of microfilm and hard-to-access county courthouse docs. A number of people we trusted claimed to have seen Headless Sally. Most of them ran away screaming and drove off in their cars and trucks spinning gravel. Yeah, maybe some of had a few beers, but no psychedelics.
Apparently once upon a time in a year no one seems to remember, Sally was decapitated in a hideous automobile accident upon the bridge over Saylor’s Creek. She was a White woman with long blonde hair. The country road we walked on, Route 617 or the Saylor’s Creek Road, narrowed from a small, two-lane road to being almost one-lane wide at the bridge. This narrowing at bridges is typical for rural roads. Saylor’s Creek Bridge, however, sat in the middle of a sharp bend in the road at the bottom of the valley. Cars tend to rush downhill from both directions, and drivers are often challenged by the sharp curve in the road at the bridge. Something horrific went awry for Sally and her car, and she died a gruesome death. We didn’t know if other people were involved or even what her surnames were.
People have sworn they saw her ghost. Ghosts are often associated with the scene of great and unexpected trauma. These entities are theorized as possibly lost souls drifting around searching for something and unaware of or unaccepting of their bodily deaths. Others feel ghosts are self-aware earthbound spirits choosing to stay behind to haunt, extract revenge, or to help, comfort, and warn the living. They’re incomplete, although once they’ve served their purpose and feel they’re done, these ghosts vanish into the higher realms of the Afterlife. Yet other researchers who believe the evidence for ghosts is solid consider ghosts to be nothing more than lingering psychic residue, an energy cyst of some sort, a fragment of a spirit perhaps, but not a true soul.
As my records of these matters were lost in a devastating house fire in March of 2010, I am writing this essay from memory. In addition I searched through Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Virginia, maps via Google Earth, and a small number of American Civil War battle sites. They helped refreshed my recollections regarding the details of Saylor’s Creek. My source for the information on indentured servants is David W. Galenson’s article, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis,” in The Journal of Economic History/Vol. 44/Issue 01/March 1984. You may read the abstract here at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=4142924&fileId=S002205070003134X.
The three of us were involved in Silverwood, a coven of Wiccans or Modern Witches, a prominent tradition within Western Neo-Paganism. We were what some call Celtic Reconstructionists, although we regarded ourselves as far more eclectic than affirming mere reconstruction of “the Olde Religion.” Silverwood eventually grew into one of Virginia’s largest Wiccan circles.
My two companions were involved with Silverwood before me. One was my wife at the time, Margaret Manuel, who was raised Roman Catholic in New Jersey and revolted against the Church. Margaret and I were young in love and as horny as rabbits in Spring. Paul was the founder of Silverwood, a gay refugee from the Pentecostal Protestantism of the West Virginia-Virginia border country. Me? I grew up yo-yoed between Southern Presbyterians and Southern Baptists before I grew to embrace the Goddess.
Why were we down in those dank swamps searching for ghosts? Well, we were curious as all get out. Many ghosts have been sighted at Saylor’s Creek, including one fool who ran along the edge of the woods under a white sheet going “Woooooo, Woooooo,” and almost got his ass shot off. Real ghosts don’t do stupid shit like that fella did. Especially since the hippy dude under the bedsheets could have been misidentified as one of those racist, homophobic KKK terrorists.
We also felt a certain responsibility to free earthbound spirits from their attachments to this world so they can move on into the Afterlife. It was part of our training and practice as initiated Wiccan Flamens and Flamencas, our Pagan terms for priests and priestesses. The three of us reassured each other we weren’t afraid of ghosts for they couldn’t possibly hurt us if they were indeed real. Nevertheless, our Christian programming around FEAR remained deep and palpable. It didn’t matter if it was fear of God or fear of the Devil; we were all bound to end up roasting in the icy fires of Hell for all eternity. Intellectually, we dismissed such dogma as superstition and nonsense. But emotionally, oh my goodness, our stress hormones flooded us into hyperalertness way past the 12 o’clock Witching Hour. These fears were melted into our brains.
Having already spent time on previous adventures walking across the battlefields and ghost hunting in and around the old Hillsman House, we sought to “help” poor Headless Sally find her body. Witnesses have seen her head floating hither and thither through the woods and along the creek north of the bridge and around the bridge. Often her long once-blonde hair hangs in tangled ghostly tresses as her mangled head bobs about looking, looking, and looking.
As one stands on the bridge and faces downstream or kinda north, we look into extensive forest. Nearby were large, grassy cowpastures and cultivated fields. Behind us to the south were more swampy forests thick with brush. Other folks, however, claimed to see her headless body bobbing slowly through the air. Both parts of Sally’s ghost were described as semi-transparent and bluish-white in color.
The time frame was either the Winter of 1982-1983 or 1983-1984. It could have been as early as late November, too. Leaves were gone, and the air was damp and chilly. We stood there on the bridge staring about in the dark, shivering and whispering.
Where was Headless Sally? Where was her mangled trunk with her arms and legs casting about? Where was her head, torn off at the neck, floating about trailing pale tresses of Death?
“C’mon, Sally Dear, it’s cold out here!” I muttered.
“Quiet!” said Paul with an amazing capacity to bark and whisper at once.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Margaret said as she twisted up her face in a bemused scowl.
“Has anyone actually thought what we’re going to say to her if we do see her ghost?” I asked.
“Good Heavens to Betsy,” exclaimed Paul. “I shall tell Ms. Sally she’d best get her ass the Hell on out of here.”
Margaret and I laughed.
“That doesn’t sound very spiritual,” I said.
“But it’s true! She needs to learn to git, to just git! Leave this place be and move forward and get on with her afterlife.”
“I’m gonna start calling her and see if she comes,” Margaret announced softly.
“Sally!” she called. “Over here! Are you out there? Sally? Sally! C’mon outa the woods! Over here by the bridge!”
“Yeah, Headless Sally!” I chimed in. “Over here by the bridge where you wrecked and died!”
“Good Lord,” said Paul, sounding slightly exasperated and amused all at once. “You don’t want to piss her off. We don’t really know what ghosts can and cannot do. Especially when they’re pissed off. May the Goddess have mercy upon us all.”
“Look!” Margaret shouted and pointed downstream.
We stood there silently, and then we saw what she spied. A roundish, glowing ball of light moved slowly back in the woods along the creek. At first it appeared yellowish. As the light moved closer, it appeared blue-white in color. The light was bright yet faded at the same time, which seemed a bit odd.
“Must be coon hunters waving flashlights,” I said. “People hunt raccoons late at night in these parts. Full moon nights in particular. But, I can’t really explain why, it just seems a bit odd to be out coon hunting right now and right here.”
We watched the round ball of light moved slowly back and forth between the trees. It stopped still.
“Hello! Hello out there!” I called out and turned my flashlight on and off a few times so as to signal any hunters. “Is anyone there? Y’all coon huntin’? Shoot any raccoons?”
“Now this is truly weird,” Paul said. “If they are hunters, I’m going to reckon they’re a bunch of good old boys. This place has a reputation for being haunted. Dead bodies never recovered from the war still lay back in these woods. Maybe even in the creek. Most country folks would be too damn scared to be hunting around all these dead people.”
“Maybe they don’t believe in ghosts,” Margaret said.
“Either way they’ll bound to shoot us if we don’t identify ourselves,” I said. “If we scare the bejesus out of them, they’re gonna think we’re ghosts and shoot the shit out of us. And if they get up here and see us Pagans, well, they’re gonna think we’re a bunch of Devil-worshipping, homosexual, Asian job stealers…”
“And shoot the shit out of us anyway,” my wife finished for me and laughed. She was three-quarters Filipino with a dash of Spanish, one-quarter Irish, and all American from urban New Jersey. Most Whites and Blacks she encountered outside of large Northern urban cities automatically assumed she was “Chinese-Japanese” from “somewhere in Vietnam” and sneaked in here on “some damn boat” to steal their good ol’ White folks jobs. None of us had patience for such ignorance.
“Hey! Are you hunters?” we shouted again as we flicked our flashlights on and off.
As I grew up in these parts and coon hunted before, I knew what actions hunters tend to exhibit. If these were hunters, they weren’t demonstrating anything. Most hunters are keen on safety, and would likely yell back or at least flick flashlights on and off in response. No one really wants to get shot or to shoot someone, especially as accidental shootings do happen once in a while. These hunters did none of this. Coon hunters often hunt with dogs, loud, baying coon huntin’ hound dawgs. We didn’t hear a peep, just the sound of Saylor’s Creek gurgling in the dark.
One round ball of pale bluish light continued to bob gently in the trees. It didn’t dissipate in fraying clouds of marsh gas. The glowing orb seemed to pivot and before we could shout it zoomed quickly through the vegetation towards us. It followed the creek the whole time. We did not hear any sounds of hurried men and dogs crashing through vegetation and cracking sticks underfoot.
Glowing a pale yellow now, the orb stopped short without approaching too close, then it drifted slowly back downstream. The orb paused again. Then the glow dimmed without the orb moving any further. The light faded without any flickering and faded until nothing was left but the darkness amid the shadows cast by the Full Moon.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Must have been Sally,” Margaret said and laughed. “Wasn’t much.”
“I must say I feel a little disappointed,” said Paul. “I would have loved the blessed opportunity to help a poor, suffering, lost, spirit ghost move on up the tunnel of light and on into the Afterlife.
“Well, at least we saw something ghostly that didn’t fit any other known possibility,” I reminded them. “Whatever it was, that ball of light was not ball lightning, not marsh gas, and not coon hunters with dogs and flashlight. It wasn’t a bunch of rednecks trying to light their farts on fire either.”
“That is so prejudiced,” said Paul. “You’re one to talk as I’ve heard you’ve tried such foul tricks yourself.”
“I’m a curious man,” I responded, feeling slightly peeved.
“He’ll do almost anything gross,” Margaret said about me and laughed. “I’m glad we didn’t get shot by coon hunters or possessed by evil spirits feeding off the weird energies around here.”
“That’s why we went through the trouble to magically protect ourselves before we left the house,” Paul declared, sounding a bit like a weary tour guide.
We got back inside our car and drove on home with the heater cranked up high. Excited yet half-asleep, we wondered what we saw and speculated about the mysteries of the Afterlife and the spirit world. Sally was a tragic figure shrouded in garish tabloid sensationalism. Who was she before her death? Did she have a lover? Any children? Was she from around here, or a tourist from far away? What was her last name? When did this accident occur? Is there any connection between small floating orbs of light associated with paranormal activity and some UFOs?
Did Sally even exist in the first place? Was she real? Or did all who saw her conjure her up in their imaginations because they believed so strongly in ghosts? What about those who didn’t believe in ghosts and had their minds changed by experiencing such mysterious entities? There were no clear answers. Maybe it all had something to do with our ignorance of quantum mechanics beyond magazines for laypeople.
The three of us Wiccans felt deep down Headless Sally was once a good woman, a good person.
Not so for another person who died in a brutal motor vehicle crash some time afterwards. Roughly halfway between my parents’ farm of Riverview and the village of Rice was a bad T-bone intersection. This was before Sandy River was dammed up and flooded. Rt. 605, now the Gates-Bass Road, made a hard left to Rice. That stretch is now Fairlea Road, a new name for me. The road before it became Gates-Bass kept going straight. It was a wicked T-bone intersection with steep, sandy bluffs for roadside banks.
There was a particular young man from a White tobacco farming family. They lived a rough life of hard work, alcoholism, and violence. This man, son of the tobacco farmer, had been in and out of jail for rape, assault, and robbery. He was mean, and he was a thief, and he abused women. Most everyone hated him, which feels sad in retrospect. Many were disgusted our legal system failed to keep him locked up forever. He behaved as a brutal bully. His behavior grew especially worse as he poured down the beer and liquor. This fella was possessed by the Demon of his own self-hate. This was in the mid-1980s, and violence swept through generations of families as a wild, secret contagion.
Late one night and fresh out of prison he left his parents’ farm in an old truck and went out and got drunk, smashingly drunk. As he roared home in his old truck, he shot across the bridge over Marrowbone Creek at the bottom of two steep hills and rolled uphill toward the T-bone bluffs. He floored the gas to drive uphill faster. Instead of turning left toward home, he drove straight ahead into the cliff-like high banks along the top of the T. His truck crumpled and exploded in flames. The man died. Most of us not of his family whispered about how this served him right for committing those brutal rapes and robberies.
For a while we called this place Dead Man’s Corner and sometimes Dead Man’s Wall. Several of us kept eyes out for ghosts. No one saw anything. Darn, he didn’t linger around as some angry, mournful, murderous ghost.
The drama faded into history and out of memory, and so did the names Dead Man’s This and Dead Man’s That. No one cared to remember him, which in itself raises topics for ethical inquiry. We all forgot even his death. I can’t even recall his name. He’s not even an echo. Imagine a ghost losing its cohesion.
Headless Sally, however, still haunts the woods along Saylor’s Creek near the old bridge where she died.
William Dudley Bass
1 April 2013…& no foolin’!
* Copyright © 2013, 2015, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you. *