Richmond’s turbulent history makes it a prime candidate for investigating ghostly activity…if you dare!
It’s October, and Halloween is upon us! Since we’ve already taken a bit of a dark turn in this column with stories of executionsand shootings, I thought it would be fun to take a short break from 1863 and talk about some of Richmond’s haunted places. Richmond’s turbulent history makes it a prime candidate for ghostly activity, and there are no shortage of “haunted Richmond” books populating the shelves of bookstores and gift shops in town. As you can imagine, many of Richmond’s ghost stories center around its years as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
I won’t get into telling all the stories (you’ll have to go read them yourself), but instead I’ll offer up my patented “Phil’s Civil War Ghost Tour of Richmond” which will 1) give you a fun excuse to check out some Civil War sites now that the weather has cooled down and 2) provide the best possible chance at seeing actual ghosts in Richmond. Before I begin, I must caution that ghost sightings are not guaranteed and will ultimately depend on the existence of ghosts which is unconfirmed at this time. Proceed at your own risk. Also, sadly, most of these haunted spots are closed after dark, so unless you enjoy the thrill of trespassing/jail time in addition to the thrill of ghost hunting, stick to the daylight hours.
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This one is clearly a no-brainer for ghost hunting, but also a great spot for a picturesque drive or bike ride in the fall. Head to the Confederate section of the cemetery where you’ll find mass graves of unknown Confederate soldiers from battles like Gettysburg and Manassas. It’s a fact that unknown soldier ghosts haunt way more frequently than their clearly-identified ghostly brethren, so keep an eye out especially here. People have reported hearing sounds of battle or moaning of dying soldiers in this particularly spooky section of the cemetery. After searching here, head to the Presidential Circle for a great view of the James River and perhaps some more distinguished apparitions.
Formerly used to house Union prisoners during the Civil War, Belle Isle is a perfect spot for ghostly inhabitants. Many prisoners died on this island from malnutrition and sickness during the war. Some brave and reckless prisoners died while trying to swim across the James River to escape. Back in my more adventurous years, I ventured on to Belle Isle after dark once and was thoroughly creeped out. I do not recommend doing this.
Libby Hill Park
This park, located in Church Hill, offers one of the best views of Richmond’s skyline, but is also home to the ghost of “Crazy Bet.” Elizabeth Van Lew, a famous Union spy and Richmond resident during the war, often disguised her spying activity by acting like a crazy person. Her erratic behavior earned her the nickname “Crazy Bet” and allowed her to work undetected to undermine the Confederacy and report back to Union operatives. Her home was located on the corner directly across from the park. Some say her ghost can be spotted walking along the sidewalks of the park.
This area was the heart of working-class Richmond during the Civil War, not to mention the only spot on my tour where you can pop into a bar to grab a drink (depending on how many ghosts you’ve seen at this point, you may need one). Many of Shockoe’s buildings date back to before the Civil War. Buildings that were once tobacco warehouses, hospitals, and slave auction houses now hold offices, condos, and storefronts. The odds of a ghost or two milling about this neighborhood are pretty high–something the mayor should keep in mind before deciding on a spot for the new baseball stadium. Haunted Squirrels, anyone?
Cold Harbor Battlefield
This battlefield is located just north of the city in Mechanicsville and has a reputation for spectral activity. The battle of Cold Harbor took place in the Summer of 1864 and it was a bloodbath for the Union. General Ulysses S. Grant, determined to break Robert E. Lee’s army before it could fall back to the safety of Richmond’s defenses, ordered a full-frontal assault against Lee’s entrenched forces here. Many Union soldiers, knowing the futility of the impending assault, pinned their names and information on scraps of paper to their shirts so they could be more easily identified after they’d been killed. Thousands died in the battle and many more wounded were left to die on the field when neither general agreed to put up the white flag of truce to retrieve them. Over the years, people have described seeing a strange mist that hangs over the battlefield here along with hearing sounds of battle in the distance.
photo by acousticgirl