Revolutionary War Ghost Story

(This column was first published in the August 17, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Here's a true story* to tell around a flickering campfire.  It is derived from the Revolutionary War diary of American Colonel Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee.**

    In early 1781 Lee's men had played an important role in the major engagement of General Nathanael Greene's army against English General Cornwallis.  Some historians describe that battle as a major turning-point of the war because the British, who won the field, were then forced to retreat before Greene's advancing forces.  Cornwallis' losses had been so great that, when they were reported in London, one wag responded that "another such victory would destroy the British army."

    Lee's company had been dispatched by Greene to join General Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox," to harass Cornwallis' rear guard.  Lee was now camped in the wilderness along Drowning Creek in North Carolina.

    In the middle of the night the word was passed to the Officer of the Day that strange noises had been heard by one of the outlying pickets -- noises resembling a body of men moving from the surrounding swamps toward the encampment.  The duty officer had a bugle sounded and the horse patrols called into camp.  He ordered the troops to arms and arrayed them for defense.  The sentry reported that he heard enemy horsemen splashing through the marshlands, called for them to identify themselves and finally, when they did not respond, fired into the darkness at the sounds.

    Lee, now awakened, was confident that there were no other troops within miles.  He was several days march from Marion and still farther from Cornwallis.  He was prepared to dismiss the alarm when a second report came in from another quarter of the camp perimeter.  Again a shot into the dismal night with the same explanation.

    Now Lee began to take the situation seriously and he ordered a change in formation, just as a third report came in from still another direction.  Another turn of forces only to have a fourth report, this one from the picket guarding the main road they were to take in the morning.

    Were these enemies -- or ghosts?  The entire company spent the rest of the night on tenterhooks, fires extinguished, guns at the ready, their eyes straining into the darkness.

    At dawn the commander formed his men into columns and they cautiously moved out.
 Continuing in Lee's own words: "In this state of suspense we might have continued long, had not the van officer directed his attention to the ground, for the purpose of examining the trail of our active foe, when to his astonishment he found the tracks of a large pack of wolves.  It was evident that the presumed enemy was a troop of these wild beasts, collected together and anxious to pass along their usual route.  Finding it obstructed by our camp they turned from point to point to pass across the field; being everywhere fired on, they widened their circuit until they reached the road....

    "Our agitation vanished and was succeeded by facetious glee.  Nowhere do wit and humor abound more than in camps; and no occurrence was more apt to elicit it than the one we had just experienced.  Never was a day's march more pleasant, being one continued scene of good humor, interspersed with innocent flashes of wit.  For a time the restraint of discipline ceased.  Every character, not excepting the commandant's, was hit; and every salutary counsel was often imparted under cover of a joke.  Each considered himself a dupe....  The pickets, the patrols, the sentinels, and the Officer of the Day were marked as particular objects of derision.  How wonderful that not one of them could distinguish between the movements of wolves and soldiers!"

    Interestingly, today we might worry more about the wolves.

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* My source is Elswyth Thane, The Fighting Quaker: Nathanael Greene (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1972) pp. 222-225. The primary reference is Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department (New York: University Publishing Co., 1870). Two other good references on the important Revolutionary War fighting in the South: M. F. Treacy, Prelude to Yorktown (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1963) and a book considerably more favorable to Greene than others: Theodore Thayer, Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960).

** Henry Lee's son, Robert E. Lee, would gain even greater acclaim than his father as Civil War commander in chief of the Confederate armies.