THE GHOST DEER OF CHICKAMAUGA

I’m still on my writing hiatus from Jack Mallory (though I do miss him), but I’m two-thirds of the way through this reinvention of an old Civil War manuscript, The Edge of Hell. Once through, I’ll return to Jack, Ketch, et. al. For now, however, I’m enjoying this re-immersion into the lives of the men of the 11th Michigan Infantry.

Back in the 1990’s when I first wrote The Edge of Hell, I went to the battlefield of Chickamauga in north Georgia, as mentioned in my previous blog post. I spent a couple of days there, both in the library researching and roaming about the battlefield to see the places where the men of the 11th Michigan had fought during those two days in September 1863.

As many people who visit Civil War battlefields will tell you, often they experience strange, inexplicable things while walking upon hallowed ground. Time after time I’ve heard and experienced firsthand the strange anomalous misbehavior of photographic equipment while on battlefields. In fact, it is so common that I admit to the perhaps illogical tactic of offering up a plea to the ghosts of Chickamauga before going there that they might allow my photographs to survive the process. Fortunately, they acquiesced to my request. In fact, I found the ghosts of Chickamauga to be particularly benevolent when it came to my research. They provided me with yet another of those inexplicable experiences, something that remains with me to this very day.

One of my goals while walking the vast battlefield of the fortunately well-preserved national park was to locate a number of markers and tablets, marking the various positions of Stanley’s brigade of which the 11th Michigan was a part. The tablets were large metal fixtures located throughout the grounds that told the story of the battle at specific locations and times; a very helpful resource. If I’m remembering correctly, there were five that I had identified beforehand and set out to find, not expecting any difficulty in so doing. How wrong I was.

By the second day of my sojourn upon the battlefield, one tablet eluded me. This one marked the position of Stanley’s brigade north of the Kelly Field at 10 a.m. on 20 September. Although I knew the brigade’s position, I was stymied by the fact that the marker was nowhere in sight. Perhaps, I thought, my orientation was off; perhaps the marker was deeper in the woods west of the Kelly Field. So I decided to come into the woods from the north in hopes of finding the marker from a new direction. Surely it was hiding in plain sight. This was my last hope in finding it.

During the 1863 battle, the woods of Chickamauga were very dense, limiting the sight of the fighting men, adding to the chaos. When I visited, it was springtime, but even then I found the woods remarkably thick. I hadn’t penetrated very far before I realized a slight panic, a feeling of disorientation amidst the undergrowth. Suddenly I understood how easy it was to be lost. I calmed the illogical feelings because, after all, couldn’t I hear the passing cars to the east on the Lafayette road? Simply walking that way would solve my problem.

It was at that instance that I became aware that I was not actually alone after all. I found myself nearly surrounded by a small herd of diminutive deer, amazingly close. The one directly in front of me stood mere feet away, looking at me with an astonishing calm. They remained unaffected by my presence as they browsed upon the tender spring greenery. I remained frozen there, not wanting to startle them but at the same time wondering where the hell they had come from. It was as if they had materialized out of thin air. Why weren’t they alarmed? Perhaps they were used to park visitors but even then I found it difficult to account for how close they were to me.

They began to collectively drift toward the east, unhurried, at least one of them looking back at me with a strange, inviting gaze. I felt an overwhelming impulse to follow them, but my previous unease about being lost made me decide to turn around and head north, to leave the forest for the McDonald Field from which I had entered.

My time at the battlefield was waning, but I was still determined to find that last marker, so I returned to the place just west of the Lafayette road where I had been before. Oddly enough, something caught my eye not far into the woods. Plunging into the underbrush once again, I came upon a small cleared space, the ground littered with last autumn’s leaves. There before me was the last marker I had sought.

Smiling in triumph, I stood before the tablet and read the inscription. Just then, I again experienced that feeling of being watched, of not being alone. I lifted my gaze from the marker and there, only a few feet away, directly in front of me and the marker, stood a deer, staring at me with a look that I swear said, “We were leading you here if you had just followed.” Then I saw the rest of the herd beyond, still peacefully grazing. I shook my head in amazement then finished reading the tablet. When I raised my head, the deer were gone…all of them…as if they had never been there.

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