If there’s any place in Nashville you’d think would be haunted, it’s Fort Negley, sitting atop St. Cloud Hill, just south of downtown. The Civil War-era fort was built by roughly 3,000 African-American workers — some free people of color from Nashville, some escaped slaves from the surrounding countryside — who lived and slept out in the open on the back side of the hill.
The conditions were brutal, and experts put the deaths among workers at somewhere between 600 and 800 people. Those bodies were then hauled across the train tracks and buried in the nearby city cemetery.
This geographical arrangement of a fort with a large workforce near train tracks and a cemetery led Union officials to start sending railroad cars full of bodies, thousands of bodies, of Union soldiers to Fort Negley to be buried temporarily until they could be dealt with after the war.
All that suffering, all that death, all those unquieted graves — this has to be a recipe for ghostly encounters, right? This has to be a ghost-hunter’s dream.
But as it turns out, no.
I recently spent an afternoon at Fort Negley talking to Krista Castillo, the museum coordinator, and Tracy Harris, its education and programs specialist, about ghosts and how historical sites with ghostly legends deal with the visitors who come because of those legends.
Castillo told me that most places have mixed feelings about their haunted reputations. On the one hand, if you’re open for visitors, you want visitors, and people looking for ghosts count as visitors. On the other hand, Castillo said, “I think most historical sites take the approach of ‘we’d rather not make a mockery of history so let’s steer clear of allowing ghost-hunters.’”
Castillo and Harris share others’ concerns that ghost-hunters represent a large risk for a site, because they might damage the site or be injured in the dark or both. But when ghost-hunters get permission from the city to hunt there, Fort Negley has accommodated them. Yet only two groups have ever bothered, and as far as Castillo and Harris know, neither team turned up anything.
Harris wondered whether the park’s low profile was contributing to the lack of interest. He said, “I think part of the issue with regular people not knowing we exist is that the ghost-hunters don’t know we exist.”
So how do you protect a historical site, make sure guests come away with correct historical knowledge, and still make room for people who have come because of the ghost stories?
Because President Andrew Jackson is involved in two of Tennessee’s most famous ghost stories — the Bell Witch and the one I’m about to tell you — I put this question to Howard Kittell, president and chief executive of the Andrew Jackson Foundation, which owns and operates Jackson’s house, the Hermitage.
First, the ghosts.
The story, as recounted by Mary Dorris in her book “Preservation of the Hermitage, 1889-1915,” goes like this: Two women, one of whom was young and brave and spunky and may, indeed, have been Dorris herself, decided to stay in the Hermitage the very first weekend the Ladies Hermitage Association took ownership of the house, because a caretaker had not yet been hired and the women didn’t want the old house vandalized. While trying to sleep on a pallet in the front parlor, they were awakened by noises that sounded like someone ransacking the butler’s pantry and shaking chains, and then a ruckus like someone, perhaps Jackson himself, riding his horse through the main hallway.
There have been some minor changes to the legend over the years, most notably that the sound of crashing dishes and pans that wakes the women is often said to come from the kitchen, though the house’s kitchen is a separate building. And now the horse-riding ghost is without a doubt Andrew Jackson, and he rides his horse galloping up and down the interior stairs of the house, which, if you know anything about horses, is quite a feat.
Having a good ghost story about a place that has been passed around widely for 10 decades is the kind of marketing most tourist destinations wish they could buy. And the Hermitage certainly knows the value of those stories. Kittell knows that people come to the house specifically because of those stories.
But appreciate the conundrum this represents for them. The Hermitage is trying to distill a complicated man who led the country through unprecedented times, and who is both widely loved and loathed even now, down to an experience you can have in an afternoon.
“At Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage we attempt to sort out the stories, provide an unbiased/balanced presentation of the history (or stories) surrounding his life, and make them relevant and meaningful to today’s public,” Kittell said. “As a presidential museum, we are driven by a need to present the history accurately and respectfully.”
This is no small matter. A few years ago, I visited the Hermitage on Jackson’s birthday, to take advantage of the free admission. In the grass near the parking lot, Native Americans were demonstrating against Jackson. In the slave cabins, African-American visitors stood in solemn quiet. On the lawn, a Jackson impersonator cut a birthday cake with a sword to the delight of children.
The incongruity of all these emotions was uncomfortable, but I felt, and still feel, that the fact that I saw all these people having these different responses to Jackson and that I didn’t know what to make of it or for sure how to feel about it was the most meaningful and informative history lesson the Hermitage could have given me about Jackson.
But a ghost story is often a way of distilling a place or a person down to one thing – creepy. Now you’re not at the Hermitage to understand Jackson, but to see whether you can catch a glimpse of him.
“We limit the amount of supernatural content on site, and make certain that these stories are always couched in terms of legends and are lighthearted in nature, not to be confused with verifiable, documented history,” Kittell said. “We have so much interesting content about Jackson, the Jackson family, the enslaved community who lived here, the presidency, and the history of The Hermitage, that we set the supernatural stories aside for special evening tours.”
Those tours, which take place in the fall, always sell out.
What Kittell said got me wondering about what ghost stories do, what makes them so irresistible. I asked Jason Sizemore, editor in chief of Apex Publications, home of many horror novels and fictional ghost stories, for his thoughts. (Disclosure: Sizemore has published my work in the past.)
“If you assume that ghosts are, indeed, real, then you have a certain validation that there is an afterlife of some type. It verifies that we are more than our lifetime on Earth, that we have a spirit … a soul. It’s a comforting thought. It’s a scary thought,” Sizemore said.
“Ghost stories are often based on artifacts of the past. Like a display in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, the stories allow us to relive and memorialize our history. Specifically, ghosts are constructed as a way for us to come to terms with humanity’s past.”
This seems to be at play at the Hermitage. Most of us are not Jacksonian scholars. We’re never going to know Jackson the way Kittell does. But a ghost story or the chance at a ghostly experience is something available to everyone. It is a way of being in relationship to the past that anyone can have.
This idea of ghost stories, of hauntings, as a way of bringing us intimacy with history brings me back to Fort Negley.
Ghosts may not appear to the staff at the fort, and they may not cooperate with ghost-hunters. Everyday visitors might not be having strange encounters on the hillside, but there are ghost stories about the fort.
Castillo told me that the Civil War re-enactors who are often at Fort Negley do report sometimes hearing the noise of battle or seeing people in uniform whom they don’t recognize. She struggled to put into words the dynamic at play in the reports of these experiences.
The re-enactors at Fort Negley who are having these experiences are members of the 13th United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Their goal is to portray the one group of men you can say unequivocally fought in the Civil War to end slavery, a group largely overlooked in the popular understanding of the Civil War. These men are trying to reinvigorate the memories of the men they’re portraying, so many of whom we know so little about.
Just take a moment to consider how powerful this is — to pick a person who would otherwise be lost to history and to figuratively say to that person, “For the time I wear this uniform, my face will stand in for your face. My voice will be your voice.” Then, in response, you are shown a glimpse of the past you are honoring or you hear the true noises of what you’re pretending.
This connection is what Castillo struggled with naming. Is it holy? Sacred? She didn’t want to put too religious a spin on it, but it is obviously a deep connection being made and reaffirmed between the living and the dead — the living portraying the dead in order to honor them and the dead responding, the haunting an acknowledgment that the honor has been received.
It also feels very private, like, if I ever did catch a glimpse of a ghost at Fort Negley, I might feel like I had accidentally opened a letter intended for someone else.
Ghost stories aren’t good history. But after these discussions, I’ve come to think that they serve an important function for a place, that they signal to people, “Here is a spot where you might experience the past going to work on you.”
We all are, of course, deeply and fundamentally shaped by history, but the scope of the influence is so vast that most of us can’t begin to comprehend its magnitude. A ghost story, then, gives your mind a place to focus, an experience small and intimate enough that you might begin to make sense of it.
But that is a metaphysical experience, not a historical one, so it makes sense that historical sites wrestle with how to make room for you to have that experience, should it happen for you there, without letting that change their mission to provide accurate history.
Betsy Phillips blogs on the Nashville Scene’s political blog, Pith in the Wind, where she offers her opinions on politics and Nashville history.