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Maryland’s Civil War Ghosts

from Bay Journal News Service / By Lara Lutz

Volunteer Ranger Bob Cricwkenberger is a man of facts and action. His track record at Point Lookout State Park in Maryland makes that clear.

For 34 years, Crickenberger has trekked to this windswept spit of land at the mouth of the Potomac River and unearthed history. He has helped restore a Civil War fort and marked the location of a “prisoner pen” where thousands of Confederate soldiers died. He researches historic records and organizes events.

He does not, as a rule, believe in ghosts.

Civil War SoldierGhosts have been reported at Point Lookout, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, since the 1960s. Crickenberger has seen none of them. Still, the scent of smoky canvas once stopped him in his tracks.

The scent was sudden and strong, near the site of the Civil War prisoner pen. “I do a lot of re-enactments, so I spend a lot of time around campfires and canvas tents,” Crickenberger said. “I know that smell. But there wasn’t a tent or a campfire anywhere around here.”

It would be hard to work at Point Lookout without occasionally wondering if past and present sometimes mix.

Eerie experiences at Point Lookout and its famous lighthouse are both persistent and plentiful. Some seem to have grown from nowhere, traceable to little more than human myth-making. Others are reported in earnest.

Twentieth-century park managers and lighthouse tenants have seen people in the lighthouse building and along the grounds who disappear suddenly. In the 1970s, a ranger repeatedly saw a man running with long strides across a particular section of road toward the woods, reminding him of Point Lookout’s Confederate prisoners and their many attempted escapes.

The Point Lookout lighthouse, often called the most haunted lighthouse in the United States, has been the scene of many ghostly encounters. Built in 1830 with a traditional house at its base, the light tower was a beacon for ships on the Chesapeake and those traveling the Potomac River from Washington, DC

Most unexplained encounters happened after 1966, when the lighthouse was replaced by an automated tower and the decommissioned lighthouse was opened to tenants. There were glimpses of ghostly forms and frequent sounds of singing, talking and even snoring from various empty rooms in the lighthouse.

Lights behaved oddly, and photos revealed swirls and orbs of light not visible to those in the room when the picture was taken.

Hans Holzer, known for his investigations of paranormal activity in Amityville, NY, brought a team to Point Lookout in the 1980s. Their investigations produced recordings of 24 unexplained voices uttering phrases like “fire if they get too close to you” and “my home.”

Yet, many people who have lived or worked at Point Lookout report nothing but wind, sun and summer crowds at the park.

Bob Crickenberger still considers himself a skeptic, but says that the past has undoubtedly left its mark.

During the Civil War, Point Lookout was a place of suffering and barely managed chaos. “Prisoner of war camps were sort of a second thought, because nobody expected the war to last so long,” Crickenberger said.

After Gettysburg, there was a pressing need to house prisoners. A Civil War hospital serving Union troops already existed beside the lighthouse. Now, thousands of men in both blue and gray swarmed the peninsula.

“A lot of these guys had just finished firing at each other in Pennsylvania,” Crickenberger said.

Prisoners were housed in a 40-acre tent city designed to hold 10,000 men that swelled to 20,000 within a year. Union soldiers patrolled the prison pen from atop its high wooden wall. The guards included African-American Union soldiers with guns trained on white southerners. One man warned prisoners that “the bottom rail is on top now.”

There were instances of kindness and cruelty but, overall, life was grim. The camp was filthy, with little food and poor shelter. Men died from cold, hunger and disease. In summer, they dug shallow holes to escape the heat. In the winter, some went “snow blind” from the glare.

In a cruel twist, safety lay in constant view. Prisoners could see Virginia across the river. Beyond their camp, they were surrounded by Southern Maryland sympathizers.

Escapes were creative, but most failed. The prison pen opened to the water, and Union troops moved across the beach at the end of the day, stabbing the sand with bayonets–in case a prisoner had buried himself with hopes of a nighttime escape.

Death estimates range from 4,000 to more than 10,000 over the course of two years. There were large grave sites, some of which are now underwater. The federal government once considered Point Lookout for a national cemetery.

The entire complex was dismantled at the close of the war, but the aura of suffering lingered. Developers struggled to revive Point Lookout as a tourist destination. “The place never reached its potential because of the stigma,” Crickenberger said.

Even in recent years, as Crickenberger gathered local history, he encountered resistance. “One woman told us she’d rather it just sink back into the water so everyone could forget about it,” Crickenberger said.

That hope seems futile. Volunteers are working hard to recapture the history of the lighthouse and the Civil War history of the parkland. If anything, past lives at Point Lookout are becoming even more tangible.

The Point Lookout Lighthouse Preservation Society is actively fund-raising to restore the lighthouse interior, while Crickenberger and others have dedicated countless hours to restoring the remaining Civil War fort, locating important sites on the peninsula, and creating a small Civil War museum and archives.

Re-enactors bring the saga to life during Blue and Gray Days each spring and during a “spirits” tour every Halloween.

Their efforts, like so many others in the Chesapeake region, encourage us to experience the ways in which the past has touched the present.

Those who have encountered the ghosts of Point Lookout might say that the past is already speaking for itself.

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