The haunting of Fort Monroe
October 28, 2011
FORT MONROE, Va. -- "I've got to tell you guys, and I mean this. I don't come through here at night," Heather McCann, deputy public affairs officer at Fort Monroe, Va., said as she led us past the Casemate Museum.
Lamp posts illuminated the area, but touring a reportedly haunted site at 10 p.m. hours is eerie, nonetheless. I, along with two other colleagues, was there to investigate the fort's ghost legends. We all chuckled nervously when McCann pointed out a parted curtain over the window of a closed off room. She insisted it should not be parted and was indicative of a ghostly presence. I asked the suspected presence to state a name.
"Something just touched me," she declared. McCann speculated that the touch may have been a large bug, but I didn't see anything bigger than a gnat buzzing around us. "That was really bizarre," she said.
Incidents like this are prevalent throughout the fort, specifically in and around the buildings inside the moat. Apparitions from the Civil War era are those seen or heard most often, though the installation has been around in one form or another since 1608. Construction of the official fort was finished in 1834.
Built as peacetime garrison for about 600 Soldiers, its original mission was to provide coastal defense. It supported around 5,000 Soldiers during the Civil War, and remained part of the Union despite being surrounded by Confederate territory.
Jefferson Davis was imprisoned there after being wrongly accused of plotting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Davis was taken for evening walks along the ramparts during his stay, and his wife would watch for him from a nearby house to make sure he was doing well.
Davis' ghost is seen walking the ramparts at night to this day, and the window in the house where his wife stayed will vibrate with her presence.
Quarters Number 1 is reportedly visited by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, McCann said. A crew of paranormal investigators has also caught electronic voice phenomena inside the house: a recording of a little girl calling for her cat, Greta. Currently used as office space, workers have seen the specter of a gray cat disappearing around corners, McCann added.
The same paranormal crew that investigated Quarters 1 also gathered data from the Casemate's embrasures, or gun-wells, and the Postern Gate area. They recorded the sounds of disembodied voices, horse hooves, and took pictures that showed orbs, which can be visual indicators of ghosts.
Jane Polonksy, author and former resident, has been collecting ghost stories about Fort Monroe since she had her own encounter in the 1960s.
"I lived in the house across the street from the Casemate Museum," she said. One night, she brought her dachshund downstairs to let him out. She didn't turn on any lights and sat down to wait. "And then I heard knocking at the back door."
Polonsky knocked and scratched on a nearby wall as an example of the sound.
"That was the kind of noise I heard-and I thought 'what is he doing'' And I got up to go and let him in and I walked through the dining room, and there was a man standing by the fireplace in the dining room," she continued. "Very arrogant looking. He had a uniform shirt from a much earlier period, probably mid-eighteenth century, and he had his arm on the mantle."
"I was stunned," Polonsky said. "He just looked at me very arrogantly and just disappeared, just like that. And meanwhile I backed all the way through the living room, out the front door."
Her dachshund came bounding down the street to her-he hadn't been near the door to make any noise. Polonsky's son also saw a strange mist in his bedroom while living in that house. The current resident reports the same mist.
Polonsky collected accounts of paranormal experiences from other residents on the installation and compiled the stories in a book, "The Ghosts of Fort Monroe," which was published in 1972. She has become the ghost-story expert for the area, and was able to share some of the more prevalent hauntings.
The story of the white lady is one of the better-known tales. The lady was a captain's wife-her husband shot her for having an affair.
"She had married this captain who was stodgy and boring," Polonksy explained, "and she was very frivolous and lightheaded."
When the woman's husband went away one weekend, she found a handsome young Soldier to entertain her, and took him back home. "And big surprise, her husband came back home, caught them in bed together, and shot the wife," Polonsky said.
The wife roams the fort in a white nightdress. She's been seen walking the boardwalk and lurking in "ghost alley," searching for her boyfriend, Polonsky said.
The Chamberlin Hotel is notorious for its ghosts as well. A female specter dubbed Esmeralda, a ship captain's daughter, is said to haunt the hotel. She's been sighted on the eighth floor, waiting for her father to come home, Polonsky explained. An apparition in a top hat has been seen on the porch of the hotel as well.
"People like to say that's Edgar Allan Poe," Polonsky said. Poe came to a hotel-it is debated whether it was the Chamberlin or not-about a month before he died and recited poems on the porch to a young lady.
Poe enlisted and eventually served as the sergeant major of the artillery while at Fort Monroe, McCann explained. He accomplished quite a bit while at Monroe, and was considered brilliant in mathematics. After being commissioned, Poe discovered he no longer wanted to be in the Army and started to show up on the parade field wearing nothing but his hat in an effort to get kicked out, McCann said.
Of course, not all of the paranormal activity is from years past. There has been a report of a haunting beginning two months ago-one that is ongoing. Due to privacy concerns, the resident has asked not to be identified.
The resident moved into a house on base that was built in the early 1900s. The family pets, two cats and one dog, did not like the house at first. The animals would stay close to their human counterparts, often completely underfoot, the resident reported, which was unusual behavior for them.
Not long after the resident moved in, strange things began to happen. A camera vanished from its normal storage space and reappeared under the sink in the downstairs bathroom. The resident heard the sound of a door closing when he and his wife had gone to sleep, and could find no normal explanation for the sound.
The resident and his wife also reported hearing disembodied footsteps and voices.
"Out of the corner of your eye you can catch sight of things and when you turn to look they're not there," the resident said. In the upstairs dressing room he "distinctly caught sight out of the corner of my eye of a woman tending a crib. And the woman was in maroon, what I thought at the time was Victorian-era dress."
The resident and his wife believe they are sharing their house with a family presence, perhaps a family waiting for their Soldier to return home. Neither of them feels threatened, despite the odd happenings, and the pets soon became accustomed to the house.
"It feels like this is a family dwelling and you very much feel at home here. There's no bad feeling to this house at all, it's not malignant," the resident said.
"If it is indeed a family waiting on their Soldier to return, OK. They're welcome in the house. If it's...wind bouncing in the house, well okay, the wind is welcome to come through too," he said.
Oddly enough, most residents on the installation don't seem to mind the ghosts and they coexist with the strange phenomena happily.
"Most people are really happy about the ghosts," Polonsky said, though she would be just as happy if she didn't encounter one again.
Fort Monroe will be closed under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, but many of the buildings on the installation are protected as national historic landmarks, according to the base's official website at www.monroe.army.mil. One can only imagine the stories civilians will have when they encounter the ghosts that remain behind when the Army leaves.
In the last few minutes of my nighttime tour of the base, McCann took the group up to the ramparts. The photographer went to take a picture and saw a bright flash through the viewfinder. She looked up to see what it was, and found nothing. When she looked back through the viewfinder, the light was gone. "That was bizarre," she said.
Maybe it was a ghost giving its final farewell.
(Editor's note: This story originally ran in Soldiers Magazine in 2009.)