The 13th Floor

“You Can Still Hear the Screams of People Burning Alive”: The Ghosts of Virginia’s Wilderness Battlefield

It was several years ago that I found myself driving from Washington, DC to my parent’s home in Charlottesville, VA. It was early evening and still light out when signs appeared along the highway for the Wilderness Battlefield. I knew the history of the site, and I also knew that it was supposedly haunted. With night approaching, I decided it was the best time to check it out for myself. I pulled into the parking lot as the sun was beginning to set through the trees creating a red glow through the branches. With a light jacket and a cheap flashlight, I set off down the trail. Located just west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Wilderness Battlefield is a labyrinth of dense vegetation and was the site of one of the most intense and deadliest battles of the American Civil War.

On May 5th, 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Potomac and IX Corps, with over 100,000 troops, met with Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his 65,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Wilderness Battlefield would be the first time these two generals faced each other in battle. The fight raged on for two days, with neither side gaining ground. Despite causing tremendous casualties, no side was able to advance. As cannons tore through the battlefield, small forest fires began to erupt, and the wounded could do nothing more than watch as the flames closed in around them.

By the second day of the battle, the air was thick with fog and smoke, forcing both sides to fire blindly into flames. Bullets whistled past frightened soldiers before ripping through the trees. The forest continued to burn, and the screams of men burning alive could be heard all over the battlefield. On May 7th, Grant pulled his men out of the battle ending the fight in a stalemate. Grant suffered 2,246 dead and over 12,000 wounded. Lee on the other hand only suffered half of the that with 1,477 soldiers dead and 7,866 wounded.

Only slightly less frightening than the battle, itself, was what was left behind. Trees still carry their battle scars, and some of them hold cannonballs that have become a permanently affixed in the bark. After the fight, the field remained littered with the bones of the dead. Carts were loaded with remains, but some bones hidden deep in the woods remained hidden for decades and are still occasionally discovered by hikers. Not long ago, one tourist to the site came across a boot with a fully skeletonized foot still inside.

Supposedly, the victims of both sides of this bloody battle haunt the field and surrounding woods to this day. While it’s rumored that bodies are undiscovered in the ground, still resting where they first fell, some locals say you can sometimes still hear the screams of people burning alive.

 

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