Headless Sally

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.

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