The Army of the Disembodied

J. L., “A War Episode.  Physical Manifestations in the Army.” Religio-Philosophical Journal, October 3, 1885:2.

“Coming events cast their shadows before.”

The occurrence I am about to relate took place during the siege of Yorktown, in the early part of May, 1862.  To make the subject matter clearer, a portion of history becomes necessary.  After the escape of the rebels from Manassas, they retired upon Yorktown, Virginia, situated between the York and James Rivers, and with the extensive fortifications erected thereon, and in the enemy’s opinion, it was impregnable, thus guarding the approaches across the whole Peninsula at that place; and the extensive preparation made by Gen. McClellan in laying siege thereto with the Army of the Potomac at that period, indicated the seeming impossibility of evacuation.

The cavalry regiment in which I had enlisted was then encamped in dense pine woods, and on the right flank of the main army, thus protecting us during occasional cannonading from the enemy.  Our position was hidden from them.  The writer of this was detailed as officer of the guard, a Lieutenant at that time.  My duties being the guardianship of the camp, especial vigilance had been enjoined upon me by the Colonel on account of brisk firing from our gun-boats on the rivers mentioned, in shelling the enemy’s fortification.  There had been returning replies from them during the day.  Thus much by way of preface.

After making a tour of the camp to see that sentries were properly posted, vigilant, and on the alert (it being after “taps,” 9 P.M., had sounded, all lights were extinguished except in officers’ quarters), I wended my way towards one of the tents.  I heard voices inside raised in debate, and there saw several officers of different ranks seated around the mess table (chest).  The place was lighted by the dim, flickering glare of a candle stuck in the projection of a tree—a partial support for the tent on approaching, and on my entrance I was hailed by having my attention called to the subject of table tipping and Spiritualism, and the—to them—improbability of the return of the dead, and their power to manifest intelligently.  I had previously argued with a number of the gentlemen present on the subject.  It seems that they had been debating upon the theory.  I was at once, and as I thought, unfairly appealed to for proofs.  “Aye, proofs,” said Lt. Fitzgerald in a tragic manner (he having been an actor of some note previous to the war), quoting copiously from Shakespeare.  I was inwardly stirred up, the junior officer present, and suddenly felt what the ministers of the gospel often apparently feel, “a power from on high descending upon me”—a sort of inspiration.  I replied, “Gentlemen, if you will keep silence and obey my instructions, I think I can show you things little dreamt of in all of your heathen philosophy.”  They assented, and silence reigned for some five or six minutes.  After I had arranged the circle, including two negroes, (officers’ servants) who were present, around the mess chest, I directed each one to place his hands thereon, and taking a position myself, the dim, flickering, ghostly light shed its rays upon the solemn and soldierly faces.

In a few minutes, the large chest began to sway to and fro, and raised itself half way to our knees, slowly returning to the ground floor with its carpet of grass.  It then began to tip from one of its corners to the others, shake itself and then settle.  Taps were heard growing louder and louder around the sides and on top; there followed a blow underneath resembling a musket report.  Nearly all involuntarily jumped to their feet, exclaiming, “Why! it is alive! What, the devil!”  Commanding silence (fearing the conditions necessary would be broken) and saying earnestly, though jokingly, “You’ll never get out of here alive if you disobey me.  You are in the charmed circle.”  The manifestations thus far were extraordinary to them (but not to me, as stated in a former article).  Directly the taps were resumed, sounding inside and outside of the mess chest.  Its contents of tin plates, knives, forks, bottles of table sauce, ham, etc., began a medley and chorus of noises.

The expressions and glances of those present, presented a study for a painter, and a scene not easily forgotten after the long lapse of years.  My pen cannot do justice to the occurrence.  Again the noises ceased, and then the raps began in a steady business like way, and I commenced to question the intelligence alphabetically.  Its reply was to this effect:  “About midnight your camp will be shelled by the enemy.  [The enemy had not, as yet, got range of us, not knowing our whereabouts.]  The general alarm will sound, and the whole army be under arms.  Your regiment will take the advance on Yorktown and find it evacuated.”  More was given, but it would, perhaps, seem like romance, so I desist.  This was inexplicable; the very idea of the rebel’s famous stronghold being evacuated seemed nonsense.  “There are more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of by man in all his philosophy,” said Lieut. Fitzgerald, at this juncture of the affair, seconded by a loud musket-like rap, nearly overturning the chest.  This concluded the séance, as I could not longer control their comments.

In conclusion, I will add that just about midnight, as we were leaving the tent to retire to our different quarters, the rebel shells began pouring into our camp, bursting with considerable destruction among men and horses.  The bugles began their calls.  “To Arms! to Arms!!”  The general alarm among the infantry, cavalry and artillery of the whole Grand Army of the Potomac followed, but all was darkness amid the rain of shell in our camp.  In the morning before daylight our regiment did take the advances of the army.  Some casualties followed, but this I desist from alluding to.  We did find Yorktown evacuated, and the enemy gone.

But few of the witnesses to this incident are now living; the others have joined the army of the disembodied and no doubt now believe in the truth of an existence after earth-life.  Philosophizing on these manifestations, I could say: Can such possibly be accounted for on any other hypothesis than the work or manifestations of intelligent beings?

J. L.
Des Moines, Iowa.


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