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Exchange Museum Ghosts

The Civil War Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville

                by Clarke Crutchfield


     Here’s a promise: the staff won’t try to scare you on the Ghost Tour of the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville. Scared anyway? Can’t help you there; giving reassurance isn’t their line as they lead you through the former hotel and Civil War hospital in Gordonsville.  What they can do is give you the facts to face the mysteries of the house’s permanent residents,  as the staff politely calls them. Ghosts, you could call them.

    Let’s start with what the police see when they’re patrolling on the night shift.  The officers sometimes park in the back lot of the ornate Georgian-Italianate mansion after hours because it gives them a good view of the neighborhood. Some nights, they get an eyeful, but it has nothing to do with crimes of this world.     

      “What they see is a candle passing back and forth in the windows of the rooms upstairs” in the mansion, said Bob Kocovsky, museum curator and my guide on a recent tour. Funny thing is, “the candle moves at a fairly rapid rate, and there are walls” that wouldn’t permit anyone to pass from room to room so quickly.

     “The cops have got this really blasé attitude toward it,” Kocovsky said, though other locals aren’t quite so casual about sightings of strange presences at the house. “Just go to a local convenience store and say, ‘We’re meeting people at the Exchange Hotel’ and ask for directions,” he says. “See what they say.”

     What did Kocovsky have to say about all this? He shrugged.  “There are various levels of so-called seeing things,” he said carefully. “We don’t pay attention to slamming doors or squeaky floors anymore.” Too common.

    It’s not just strange lights or sounds; visitors to the house often just sense things. Kocovsky recalled a group that took the tour.  “One woman stopped and said, ‘Something is at the top of the stairs!’ Looking at her face, it was like watching someone walk barefoot on hot sand.”

    It’s something people have to deal with in their own way, Kocovsky implied.

     Then there was the guy a few years back who was painting the outside of the house. “He was on a ladder painting outside that window,” Kocovsky said, pointing as he led guests around the third floor. “Suddenly the ladder tipped back about a foot” and hung there in the air for a moment before settling back against the house.”

   What did the worker do? 

    “He went home.”  

     The museum staff can show you dozens of pictures in which photographers have captured strange lights in the house that can’t be explained by reflections or distortions in the camera lens. Kocovsky believes, and he says independent experts agree, that the images have not been altered.  Some pictures show what appear to be misty objects floating over stairways or the grounds outside.

      The pictures and other reports have brought the house to the attention of serious ghost hunters. “We get some mediums in here” to check things out, “and some psychics bring groups.”

      They tend to leave the house impressed. “One lady felt a cold spot in the Tavern Room,” Kocovsky said -- a traditional sign of a spectral presence. This cold spot, the lady said, measured about four feet by six feet.  

    Since 1989, there have been at least 80 reported incidents – sightings, sounds and other phenomena, Kocovsky said. “This is one of those places where the outside is as active as the inside.”

       One of the regular sightings is of a woman believed to be named Anna, a free-black servant (she’s in the historical records) who ran the summer kitchen. What is believed to be her apparition can sometimes be seen walking on the “whistle walk.” It’s the path she and other servants followed when they brought food from the kitchen, which was outdoors. They were required to whistle to prove to their bosses they weren’t sampling the food on its way to the tavern room. Her ghost is said to reflect the “irascible nature and … ungovernable temper” of the real-life Anna.

        Then there’s the sighting of a white man behind the house, pushing a wheelbarrow bearing a rectangular wooden box. That might be a real-life German immigrant who served in the Confederacy’s 12th Alabama Infantry and wound up as a gravedigger at the hospital.  Historical records show that George Heinrich Plant died of typhoid a month after he came here – and was buried in one of his own graves.

         Then there’s the mysterious black dog that runs “about two feet off the ground” of the front yard, Kocovsky says. “You can see its little doggie elbows,” but no feet.

    Shaggy-dog ghost stories or not, the documented story of the Civil War hospital, the northernmost of the Confederacy, is almost as remarkable. When Maj. Gen. Wesley Merrit arrived on April 16, 1865, to bring the hospital under Union control once and for all, he had the hospital’s records preserved – or at least did not destroy them. The records show that 70,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were treated here, and that doctors and staff treated casualties from each side with equal care. The hospital had an almost incredibly low death rate. In a war in which 22 percent of all wounded men on either side died, this hospital, which treated only the most seriously wounded soldiers, reported just 696 deaths – 663 Confederates and 33 Federals. That’s less than 1 percent of those treated.

     Well-trained surgeons were one important reason – but not the only one.    For one thing, the Exchange Hotel was cleaner than most Civil War hospitals. Patients lay on horsehair mattresses rather than straw, which made a less hospitable environment for germs.

    The local people who worked there as nurses and in other jobs brought their own skills. They were mountain folk, Monacan Indians and African-Americans. They drew on medicine of their native cultures that many people believe worked better – and was perhaps safer than the allegedly scientific treatments of the day.

    Science and spooks, history and lurid legend – take your pick as you tour the Civil War Hospital at the Exchange Hotel. You’re sure to find explanations to solve some mysteries of life – and death – in another era.

   And, perhaps, you’ll encounter some mysteries that even your knowledgeable guide can’t quite explain.

  Clarke Crutchfield lives in Fluvanna County near Charlottesville.


barn photo by Grace E. Pedalino
all museum photos copyright Virginia Real Magazine


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