A friend once told me that sensitivity to ghosts runs in families. They might be right. As a child, I remember my father telling me about a ghost he’d encountered when he was a kid in the backwoods of Alabama. He doesn’t call it that, however. He just calls it “something supernatural.” I’ve heard the tale more than once, and I think it’s safe to say he’s recounting a good old fashioned ghost story.
My father’s story is his own to share, and it is a bizarre account worth hearing if you ever get the chance. I’ve heard it many times over the years, as have my sisters, almost always at our request. As kids, we were determined to poke holes in his story, to expose it as a fraud, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We listened carefully each time in our attempt to detect any inconsistencies. We never found any.
No matter how many times he told it, my dad never wavered in his conviction that the story was true, nor did he ever vary or omit any of the key details. Upon cross examination, my aunts (my dad’s sisters who had seen strange things of their own) always corroborated my father’s account.
Despite the consistency of his tale and the oaths he and my aunts swore about its veracity, I always harbored doubts.
That is, until I had an experience of my own.
Not long ago, I uncovered something that shed new light on a strange and terrifying encounter I had in childhood. Given what I have learned, I now believe that I too may have seen a ghost. Strangely, that’s not even the most surprising part of this tale.
Summer of ’83
In the late summer of 1983, I was a Smurfs-obsessed second grader with a shag haircut and a collection of Masters of the Universe toys. I lived with my father, stepmother, and stepsister in a small house on top of Lookout Mountain.
A view from Lookout Mountain.
Most people think of Chattanooga when they hear “Lookout Mountain,” but its southernmost edge extends further south, all the way into DeKalb County, AL. That is where we lived, in a rural community where we relied on well water and whatever television signals we could catch with an aluminum antenna.
It was a quiet, peaceful place.
We were situated on enough acreage that we didn’t have any immediate neighbors, although we knew the four families that lived closest to us very well. I used to play with their kids, catching frogs, swimming in the creek, and hiking across a cow pasture to get tea cakes from the woman everyone called “Aunt Libby,” whether she was their aunt by blood, marriage, or not at all. She lived on a nearby farm with her husband, who everyone knew as “Uncle Lloyd.” They were very, very good people.
To understand how disturbed I was by the encounter I’m about to describe, you need to know something about life in a place that’s sparsely populated: visitors are uncommon, and strangers are practically unheard of.
Our part of the county sat outside the city limits, and in the early 80s there were very few people who lived out that way. My 2nd grade class was made up of a total of eight students, and that was at the county school. Even the closest town, which was down in the valley, wasn’t that big in terms of population. My point is that there were few, if any, opportunities to cross paths with someone you didn’t know personally.
When you did, it was news.
Four families lived within shouting distance from us, but these were the only folks anywhere near our home. Of course we knew them pretty well. When you live out in the country like that, everybody knows the people in closest proximity: what cars they drive, who visits them, and what cars they drive. Any deviations from the norm are noticed, reported on, and gossiped about.
There is an unspoken agreement about boundaries and privacy in the rural communities. You may be on the friendliest of terms with the people living closest to you, but you don’t cross their property or show up to their house uninvited or unannounced. Some southerners may take issue with that statement, given our reputation for “southern hospitality” and all.
I’m not saying that southern folks aren’t generous or accommodating, I’m just saying that they are more likely to be so if they know you’re coming. (Most of them are also armed, so that’s something else to consider before you go surprising anyone down that way.)
This point about respecting boundaries is important. I bring it up because behind our home was a tract of land, about 10 acres, that was nothing but forest. There were no roads or trails that cut through it, no homes or development of any kind.
There were no shortcuts, no footpaths, no interesting sites to see. Just trees, rocks, and a small spring that was really just a perpetual mud puddle. No one ever had a reason to be in those woods. Not for convenience. Not for curiosity.
Behind me, the woods at about the time of the incident. This photo was taken just a few steps from where it happened.
Even my sister and I, as widely as we roamed, rarely went to that place. It’s not that we were forbidden; we just never felt compelled to spend time there. We preferred to play in the woods on the other side of the house, out by the pond.
To this day, no one ever visits that part of the property. It just sits there: silent, lonely, and undisturbed. It was here, at the edge of these woods, that I saw something that scared the hell out of me.
Not supposed to be there
At the time of the incident, our family kept a dog. An old, retired bird dog named Maple. He was a gentle creature, never bothered a soul. Just sunned himself in the yard and let us kids pet him from time to time. A real good boy, just living out his retirement in the sticks with the rest of us.
Maple was an outdoor dog, so we fed him outside. In addition to the Ol’ Roy brand dry kibble my dad kept for him in an old garbage can, we gave Maple any scraps that were left over after family meals. It was my chore to take the leftover food and put it on the dog’s plate. It was a round steel pan that sat at the foot of the old oak tree that kept the boundary between our back yard and this quiet stretch of woods.
To get to the tree and the pan that sat at its base, I would take the back door out to the porch, down a steep set of stairs (our house was built on an incline) and then cross a narrow strip of yard that ran right up to the edge of those woods.
Just as every other time I fed the dog, I knelt down to scrape the food onto his plate. Only this time, I was careless and some of it fell off to the side. As I glanced in that direction, my eye caught something shiny. It was a boot. A shiny black boot.
I can still remember being both terrified to look up and yet powerless to stop myself from doing so. There, about 4 feet in front of me, was a stranger. A tall, brooding figure that stared at me without a word. He was as still as a statue. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
I did not stare back for very long. I remember dropping the pan and scrambling up the back steps like an animal on all fours. I threw open the sliding glass door and just as quickly shut it behind me. I yelled to my father “There’s somebody in the woods! Daddy there’s somebody out there!”
Having spent parts of my life in cities and densely packed neighborhoods, I know that a stranger in close proximity is not always a cause for alarm. A person in your yard, when your neighbors are right up next to you, or when there’s lots of foot traffic around, can be considered normal.
This was something else. Both my father and I knew it. Someone was not just on our property, but right outside our door. This was a violation, a trespass, a threat.
My dad immediately ran out the back door and stood on the deck, but there was no sign of the man. My dad walked out to the edge of the woods, and still nothing. No evidence of the encounter except what I told him, and my obvious fright.
He asked me to describe the man. I can still remember what I told him: “It was a blue man. He was all blue. He had a funny looking hat. He had something wrong with his eyes.”
“His eyes?” my dad asked.
“Yeah something was wrong with his eyes. They looked scary.”
That was the best description I could give him. I was terrified.
After some consideration and a good bit of time calming me down, he decided that my imagination had gotten the best of me. He theorized that my fascination with the Smurfs (and too much TV) had somehow shaped the whole encounter, and that what I was actually describing was something from that show, projected into the woods behind the house by my overstimulated child’s mind.
It made some kind of sense, I suppose. The Smurfs was my favorite cartoon and I had several Smurf brand toys, as well as a watch, drinking glasses, scotch tape, and a stuffed animal.
Smurfs were blue. They lived in the woods. They had funny hats, and weird eyes.
My dad’s explanation was better than the alternative.
I still own some of my childhood toys from back then.
As I grew older, the memory of the fright faded but did not disappear. I would still think about it from time to time, and on occasion my dad would jokingly refer to the time I saw a “little blue man” in the woods. I don’t know where he got the “little” part, I guess because he was determined that what I had really seen was a cartoon character, or something like that.
Many years later I was planning a trip to visit my folks, who still live in the same house, next to the same woods where I saw the blue man. I am now living in Tennessee and the drive to see my parents runs through Chattanooga.
On a whim, I decided to look at some of the places in Chattanooga that I might want to visit. Places that I hadn’t been in years: Rock City, Ruby Falls, Raccoon Mountain.
As I’m reviewing the area in a Google maps view to see where else I might want to explore, I see the Chickamauga Battlefield & Museum. The last time I was there was on a field trip, probably at around age 11 or 12. For those not in the know, Chickamauga was the site of the Civil War battle that preceded the Battle of Chattanooga.
This set me off on a research tangent, and that is how I came across a photo that changed my mind about some things. Especially about what it meant to have seen something in the woods. Something blue.
Photo of a Union soldier.
I sat staring at my laptop: Black boots. Dressed in blue. Funny looking hat.
Could this be the blue man I saw as a child, or someone like him? Could those woods be haunted be the spirit of a Union soldier?
This scenario made no sense to me. I had never heard of any Civil War activity taking place closer to my home than Chattanooga, which was 70 miles north.
At least I didn’t recall anything of the sort. Keep in mind, I went to public school in Alabama, where local history wasn’t part of the curriculum and state history was only taught in 4th and 9th grades. So I kept looking, trying to figure out if there was something more to this eerie similarity between a childhood fright and this photograph.
As it turns out, there was. While reviewing some notes on the history of DeKalb County, I learned that there were skirmishes further south than I previously thought. Union soldiers had been seen close to those woods. Very, very close. Maybe even in them.
According to Civil War records cited by the Landmarks of DeKalb County, Union troops were in the area in the lead up to and in the aftermath of the Battle Chickamauga, which was fought on September 18 – 20, 1863. Chickamauga is 70 miles north from where I saw the blue man, as the crow flies.
On September 5, 1863, a salt works was destroyed by (presumably) Union soldiers in a place called Rawlingsville, AL. No such community exists today, but if it did, it would be located inside what is now the city limits of present day Fort Payne. The woods now sit inside those same city limits.
Wherever the salt works were located, they could not have been more than 5 miles from the woods where I saw the blue man. Another report from about the same time includes details of a skirmish between Union troops and locals (not Confederate soldiers) in Lebanon. That’s a community 13 miles south of the woods where I had my encounter.
Even more surprising, another Confederate scout reported 40,000 (yes, forty thousand) Union troops were camped at White Hall near Valley Head during this time. There is a White Hall Cemetery in the present town of Valley Head, and that is 10 miles north of those woods.
And still another scout reported seeing between 4,000 and 5,000 Union troops camped on Lookout Mountain the same day. The precise location isn’t provided, but if they were on the mountain, they were likely very near my childhood home.
Finally, after the Battle of Chattanooga, a fight broke out between Union and Confederate troops near Cedar Bluff, Al. This is less than 30 miles east of those woods.
I have to admit I was shocked, and not just by the realization that I might have seen the ghost of a Union soldier. How could I have grown up in this place and not ever heard about this part of its history? I reached out to a few friends from the area, as well as my dad. None of them knew anything about these events. The common folklore told us that the area had been mostly spared involvement in the war because the mountain was an obstacle to transportation.
It is, of course, my responsibility to read about history and educate myself about these things. Yet it seems strange to me that this series of events does not have a more prominent place in the local consciousness. I had never heard of Union troops being in DeKalb County, and yet the place was virtually occupied. I suppose no one wants to remember that kind of trauma. Maybe entire communities repress memories too.
I was already floored by this new information, but there was still one thing more to learn:
On September 9, Major General Alexander McCook (Union) was informed that the Confederate troops at Chattanooga (under Gen. Braxton Bragg) were retreating south. McCook was ordered to cut off their escape by heading to Summerville, GA (29 miles east from the woods).
To do this, they had to cross the mountain. Once they had crossed Lookout, new intelligence arrived that told McCook that Bragg and his troops had halted just south of Chattanooga. McCook and his men were to double back across Lookout Mountain and proceed north to Chattanooga to meet them.
I haven’t been able to determine their exact route on a map, but it is possible, even probable, that they crossed those very same woods on one or both trips. The same woods where I saw a stranger standing over me so many years ago.
Even if the people have forgotten about the soldiers in blue, it seems the land they occupied has not.
2 thoughts on “Something Blue: A Lookout Mountain Ghost Story”
Great blog post! The story of your encounter with the blue man is both intriguing and spooky. The information you uncovered about DeKalb County’s history during the Civil War is fascinating. Have you looked into any other possible explanations for what you saw that day, besides it being the ghost of a Union soldier? Maybe someone from the nearby community? Or was it truly a spiritual encounter?
I am convinced it was something otherworldly.
LikeLiked by 1 person