It is well understood that every old house has its creaks and moans, but how do you explain when the creaks turn into footsteps and the moans turn into voices heard in the next room? Some people blame such phenomena on ghosts. Long Branch itself has been the site for reportedly paranormal activity. The previous Historic Site Director, while giving me a tour of the house on the first day of my internship, casually mentioned that the servant’s bell connected to what used to be Adelaide Nelson’s room occasionally went off on its own. She continued the tour of the house without pausing, but my interest was piqued. Several weeks later, I asked the current Historic Site Director, Kris Allen, whether or not he had experienced paranormal activity at Long Branch. He had. While working alone in the house, he had heard the heavy stamping of wooden-soled shoes coming from the upper floors of the house. Spooky. I then asked Long Branch’s Operations Manager, Lizzie Ryan, the same question. Although she had never heard phantom footsteps within the house, she too had heard the servant’s bell inexplicably ringing. That wasn’t all. She had heard the disembodied voice of a male coming from the basement of the house.
Do you believe in ghosts? Some people cling to the idea of ghosts as proof of an afterlife, while others brush them off as mere figments of the imagination. There are many theories behind the phenomena of ghosts, ranging from spiritual to scientific.
According to the Spiritual Science Research Foundation: “When a person dies only his gross [physical] body ceases to exist. His subtle body (consisting of the subconscious mind, intellect, ego and soul…) however continues to exist…” Humans also have a “vital body,” composed of our life sustaining energy. While our vital body is released back into the universe after we die, our subtle body may either ascend to a higher plane, or remain on Earth to continue filling its fleshly desires through manipulation of the living. Thus, does a subtle body become a ghost, enveloped by black energy. Whether or not we become a ghost depends on a wide range of factors. Being a moral person while alive does not guarantee ascension to Heaven, for example, if said person died in a certain way or was not buried properly. Or destiny may control whether or not you becomes a ghost. This may be why people so often report seeing ghosts of those who lived a tragic life or died a tragic death.
Blogger Andrew Black believes that ghosts have a scientific explanation: The Quantum Theory of Ghosts. This theory, developed by Professor Max Bruin, PhD, proposes that what we perceive as ghosts are actually indents left by emotional energy on the “quantum fabric” of the universe. Now, a fundamental property of quantum mechanics must be kept in mind when considering this theory: a particle under observation is altered because it is being observed. So, Dr.Bruin argues, these indents we perceive are actually remnant waves of energy that we have “solidified” by observing them. The more you focus on them—the more energy you give to them—the more real they will seem to be. Black gives the example: “Death of a loved one can cause profound negative emotions from multiple sources, all centered around memories of the deceased, which can then amalgamate into a ghost that appears to be the deceased.” The quantum theory of ghosts could explain what are called “residual hauntings:” an apparition that appears in the same area over and over without ever interacting with the living.
Another scientific theory on ghosts is the Tangent Universe/Parallel Worlds Theory. This theory is based on an academic article published in 2014 by three scientists: Dr. Dirk-Andre Deckert of the University of California, and Professor Howard Wiseman and Dr. Michael Hall of the Griffith’s Centre for Quantum Dynamics. (The article’s findings are summarized here). The parallel worlds theory suggests that ghosts are not remnants of the dead, but are result of the fabric of our universe tangling with another universe only thinly separated from our own. The division between the two universes could conceivably be diffuse enough in places to allow for interaction. Considering this, the ghosts we see could merely be other people—or even ourselves—going about their daily business. They may be just as surprised as we are to see somebody who isn’t really there.
So, are the ringing servants’ bells a phenomenon of faulty wiring or are they being rung by Long Branch spirits who failed to reach Heaven? Are they the shadows of our other-worldly selves just trying to say hello? Is it possible that the footsteps Kris hears are more than his imagination, or did his own focus enable their existence? Can we be so sure that Hugh Nelson Jr. does not still gives tours of Long Branch’s basement to long-dead guests, proudly showing off his new copper plumbing? You decide.
-Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Intern
The deaths that resulted from prisoner of war encampment during the Civil War accounted for more than 10% of total war casualties. Created to hold captured soldiers until the war’s end, the POW camps would be more heavily utilized than they were ever intended to be. Both the North and the South constructed prisoner camps ill-suited to accommodate the incredible number of inmates that would come to inhabit them. Records from camps such as Elmira Prison in New York and Belle Isle in Virginia reveal that, as a result, prisoners were often left without proper shelter or supplies, braving both winter and summer exposed to the elements. Worse still, overcrowding in camp often meant that prisoners drank and lived in the very place they toileted, and disease ran rampant. Physical illness and exposure were the major killers in POW camps, but mental illness contributed as well. After meeting survivors of Belle Isle, poet Walt Whitman described his disgust at what the prisoners had endured: “…despair, hope utterly given out, and the more and more frequent imbecility.”
On some occasions, the conditions of the POW camps were a result of cruel camp commandants. Camp Douglas in Illinois carried a reputation for negligence. Union camp leadership purposefully cut ration sizes and quality for personal benefit, and upon its closing, the United States Sanity Commission reported that the filth of the camp (comprised of human waste as well as rotting bodies) could be cleansed with nothing but fire. Though some of the camps were run by sadistic commandants who operated only for selfish gain, the conditions of the majority of camps were more often than not outside of their control. A food and supply shortage struck the nation during the war years, and some camp commandants who were accused of cruelty genuinely did not have enough supplies to feed their overcrowded camps. Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia, was executed as a war criminal for not providing adequate supplies to prisoners. However, more recent interpretation of evidence indicates that it was likely he simply did not have the supplies to give.
George Washington Nelson, nephew of Hugh and Adelaide Nelson, found himself prisoner in Johnson’s Island, Ohio after being captured right outside of Long Branch in Millwood, Virginia in October of 1863. He was transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland shortly thereafter. Nelson’s early letters reveal a tolerable, if dull, life. He read, exercised, and took walks around the Point. This changed dramatically upon his transfer to South Carolina’s Morris Island. Upon his arrival, George became one of “The Immortal 600:” six hundred Confederate officer POW’s who were kept in an open stockade in front of Union batteries, in the line of fire of Confederate troops nearby. George and his fellow prisoners were exposed to 45 days of continual friendly fire before leaving Morris Island. George Nelson was again ordered to be transferred to another POW camp. Diseased, malnourished, and pining for his love at home, George was suddenly faced with the decision to pledge his allegiance to the United States. With a heavy conscious, George reluctantly pledged loyalty to the enemy nation, abruptly ending his two years of imprisonment in the Civil War POW camp system.
–Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Historic Site Interpreter
US Route 50 is a transcontinental highway connecting Ocean City, Maryland with Sacramento, California. Eighty six of Route 50’s 3,000 miles run through Virginia. You may be familiar with the scenic valley views Route 50 offers as you wind your way through Fauquier and Loudoun County, or perhaps you’re more used to the miles of brake lights stretched before you as you bravely venture through Fairfax traffic. For the majority of its extent through historic Northern Virginia, Route 50 is known as the John Mosby highway, named for the famed Civil War cavalry leader, John Singleton Mosby.
Though Mosby’s legacy as a brilliant Confederate cavalry leader and spy survive him, he had unfavorable beginnings. He was bullied early in his childhood, and learned to fight back at a young age. This propensity towards retaliation led to his arrest in 1849, when he shot a classmate of his at the University of Virginia during a confrontation. After his release from jail in 1854, John Mosby dug in his heels and changed direction from the delinquency of his youth; he studied law and was admitted under the Virginia bar in the same year. Mosby quickly established a practice in Howardsville, Virginia, and shortly thereafter married Pauline Clarke.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Mosby joined the Virginia Volunteers, a mounted infantry division. In 1862, Mosby was noticed by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart for his intelligence gathering skills, and was appointed as one of Stuart’s cavalry scouts. Stuart placed Mosby in charge of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry in January of 1863, and Mosby was promoted to the rank of Major. This cavalry regiment famously (or infamously, if you asked a Union sympathizer) came to be known as “Mosby’s Rangers.” The Rangers conducted lightning raids on Union supply lines and couriers, with the aim of both gathering intelligence and wreaking general havoc. Mosby often sneaked behind enemy lines. In one of his most daring missions, Mosby disguised himself as a Union soldier in Union General Edwin H. Stoughton’s camp. Sneaking up to the Stoughton’s quarters and finding him fast asleep in his bed, Mosby took the opportunity to slap the general’s ample behind and inform him that he had been captured. Mosby, a colonel by the end of the war, continued to gain Southern admiration up to the very end of the Civil War. In perhaps his most defiant act, Mosby refused to formally surrender even after the war had been lost. He continued conducting raids after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and finally disbanded his men on his own terms several months later.
Because of his success as a subversive and a general pain in the Union’s side, John Singleton Mosby grew to folklore legend status. Mosby’s Rangers had so dominated the area surrounding and accessed by Route 50 during the war that it was known as Mosby’s Confederacy . John Mosby embodied a romantic notion of cunning and bravery that made Virginians quick to adopt him as their home-grown hero, an attitude that remained decades after Mosby’s Confederacy fell.
–Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Historic Site Interpreter
The word “archives” usually brings up images of boxes of secret documents stored away in a locked vault, only to be seen by authorized eyes. In reality, archives are an integral part of the way in we interpret history. The archives here at Long Branch contain letters, blueprints, ledgers, and other documents from the original and subsequent owners of the house. The documents have allowed us to get a glimpse of the lives of this house’ inhabitants over the span of 200 years. Letters between Robert Carter Burwell and Benjamin Latrobe give us some insight into the original construction of the house. A farm ledger and the 1860s census records reveal how what instruments and manpower was needed to keep a wheat plantation functioning.
Unfortunately, the records that survive time often paint an incomplete picture of the past. Consider your own life: do you keep every receipt, every birthday card, every note you’ve ever written? Probably not, and people in the centuries before were no different. Sometimes documents were lost due to negligence, and sometimes they were simply deemed unimportant and thrown away. It is a historian’s job to sort through what remains, piecing together as whole of a picture of history as they can. They can do so by placing the remaining evidence in a position in time. Historical context can help flesh out an incomplete historical record. Looking at archives which contain evidence from the same time period or location can also be helpful. The 1860 Census information I mentioned earlier, for example, was found in the Clarke County Historical Association archives. Piecing that information together with what we had- Hugh Nelson’s ledger- gave us a more solid idea of how the Nelsons ran their plantation. Archives may also include objects in what is called a “collection.” The collections are usually composed of mundane items, but these, too, contribute to completing the picture of history. (A blog post which includes the history of one of the more exciting collection items, the Marquis de Lafayette saucepan, can be read here). Archives aren’t exclusively made up of primary documents. For example, a large part of Long Branch’s history was passed to us orally through Sally Page Nelson.
If you have any records, stories, or tall tales about Long Branch, please let us know! Contact the Historic Site Administrator, Kris Allen, at [email protected], or call at 540-837-1856. We would love to hear from you.
-Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Intern
Abram Hewitt and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Long Branch Plantation in 1957 to breed racehorses. Hewitt had always had a passion for breeding racehorses, and had done so quite successfully, breeding a dozen stakes winners. This passion was interrupted with the outbreak of the second World War. Abram Hewitt became a member of the newly-created Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. In service to his country, Hewitt traveled to Sweden in order to gain intelligence on the inner workings of the Nazi Party in an attempt to turn Heinrich Himmler against Hitler.
In the late 1930s, with the increasing threat of rising fascist and communist powers looming on the horizon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged the arms of the intelligence departments to form a more cohesive unit. In 1941, he formed the Coordinator of Information (COI), which duplicated many of the preexisting intelligence branches. The COI was the first nondepartmental intelligence organization to operate during peacetime. The OSS developed out of the COI in 1942 to handle operations abroad, but was a short-lived agency. It died along with Roosevelt in 1945. The new president, Harry Truman, had no intention to keep the department and it was officially dissolved on October 1, 1945. The OSS did not entirely vanish: the decision was made to preserve the Secret Intelligence (SI) and X-2 branches. The SI, a foreign intelligence service, and X-2, the counterintelligence branch, were combined and renamed the Selective Services Unit (SSU). This unit was then transferred to the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), which became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1947, under the National Security Act. Though the CIA differs from the OSS, mainly in that the OSS was a wartime operation whereas the CIA functioned during times of peace, the OSS is considered the forefather of the modern CIA.
-Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Intern