The Stones River Battlefield houses the resting place of many Civil War soldiers, many whose souls may be unrestless, including the headless spirit of Union Lt. Col. Julius Garesche. (TMP Photo/D. Whittle)
Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series.
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- There are numerous paranormal events reported at Stones River National Battlefield each years, but the Headless Horseman tops the list of inquiries at the park and cemetery.
“Garesche is the ‘star’ among all our reported sightings,” veteran park employee Bill Reese said. “We have a dramatic increase in tourists and inquiries each year as Halloween approaches.”
Reese is speaking of Union Lt. Col. Julius Garesche, who had a premonition of his death before mounting his steed for the Battle of Stones River. It was Garesche’s first and last combat of the Civil War.
His premonition held true when a cannon ball ripped his head off while riding into battle at the southeast corner of the present-day Stones River Cemetery near the railroad, toward the Round Forest.
That cemetery, built initially by former slaves who served with the Union army, is one of the oldest Civil War cemeteries in the nation.
“Garesche’s headless body is interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.,” said Teresa Watson, an administrative officer of the park.
But his ghost has been spotted back at Stones River Battlefield multiple times by nearby railroad workers and Civil War-period re-enactors.
West Point graduate Garesche was a classmate of Gen. William Rosecrans, Union leader of the Cumberland Army.
Devout Catholic Garesche had numerous premonitions of his death in battle, something he discussed with his brother, Father Frederick, a priest, who also felt his brother would be killed in battle.
“Despite being convinced he was destined to die a martyr for the Union cause, Garesche applied for field duty with his old friend Rosecrans, who appointed him his chief of staff,” history records show.
On Dec. 31, 1862, Garesche took communion in preparation for the day’s activities, which soon became a battle as Confederate Gen. William Hardee launched a surprise attack.
Garesche prayed daily and kept a prayer book.
“Fearing his friend Rosecrans was exposing himself to great danger by riding ahead and gathering his troops, Garesche dismounted his horse in order to read from his prayer book,” Watson said.
“Remounting, Garesche galloped into battle, only to be met with a blast from a cannon,” Watson said. “His white stallion continued on with the headless body for approximately 20 yards, before the corpse tumbled to the ground.”
The battle took place in a location now known historically as the “Slaughter Pen,” an apt description since thousands were wounded and died there.
Noted Civil War historian Jim Lewis, who has worked as a park ranger at Stones River National Battlefield for more than a decade, says the Slaughter Pen was given its gruesome name because a third of Union Gen. Phil Sheridan’s division and three brigade commanders were killed in the cedar forest after Confederate soldiers took them by surprise.
A local ghost hunter has been quoted as saying there are “thousands of spirits” in the battlefield/park, making it perhaps Murfreesboro’s most ghost-inhabited site.
But, there’s more ghost sightings than the “Headless Horseman.”
As a youthful Middle Tennessee State University student, Jeffrey T. Leathers was camping near Tour Stop 3 with fellow re-enactors in 1978 when he noted his canteen was empty.
Leathers, who later became a Stone’s River Battlefield National Park employee, headed to the park’s main office.
“Heading to the Administration Building to refill it (canteen), he came around a bend in the path only to see a man dressed in a period uniform, standing behind some bushes,” Watson described. “Thinking his young re-enactment friends were playing a joke, Jeff called for the man to come out in the open.
“As the man approached, he raised first one hand and then the other, as if to surrender,” Watson shared. “Fearing for this safety at this point, Jeff called out to the man that he had a gun and would shoot.
“But, just as Jeff uttered the last word and raised his rifle, the man fell to ground, disappearing into the darkness. No evidence was ever found of the man — no footprints, nor a single broken twig.”
Where did the man figure go?
Former Stone’s River Battlefield Park Ranger Laura Stresemann, who resided in park housing, recalls multiple “walks” with her dog, a greyhound named “Abby,” when the large canine would balk anytime nearing the main flag pole in the park.
“Abby would stop, stand still, but then she’d start shaking when we neared the flag pole area,” said ranger Stresemann, now assigned to the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. “She wasn’t acting like she was seeing a rabbit. Abby would shake uncontrollably.
Stresemann also cited other unusual phenomena.
“I don’t know how to explain this, but in walking across park grounds, I oftentimes recall walking into a ‘cool spot.’ Sometimes maybe 10 degrees cooler on a hot summer day,” Stresemann added.
Stresemann, who was stationed at Stone’s River Battlefield from 1997-2003, was asked: “Do you think there’s paranormal activity at Stone’s River National Battlefield?”
“I’m sure there are,” she said.