The Ghosts of Tunnel Hill, Georgia
by Connie Scott

        Strange screams coming from the woods late at night, dark figures and headless phantoms lurking around an abandoned tunnel, mysterious ghost campfires, marching dead Confederate ghost soldiers and smells of rotted human flesh... these are all things one might expect to read about in the pages of a Stephen King novel. According to some residents of Tunnel Hill, Georgia, the same images also apply to their little town. Especially when it comes to the long deserted train tunnel and the fields where some of the bloodiest battles of American history were fought.

Ken Sumner of Woodstock, Georgia claims to have experienced numerous encounters with ghosts in Tunnel Hill. Widely known in the area as a civil war preservationist and reenactor, Sumner became interested in the Western Atlantic Tunnel, more commonly referred to as the Tunnel Hill Tunnel, seven years ago.

Desolate and bordering on decay, the tunnel was in danger of destruction when Sumner and others set forth to save it. Rumors of ghostly presence in the abandoned tunnel have circulated for years. It was during preservation efforts that Sumner experienced a bizarre occurrence first hand. While taking a group of people to see the tunnel, Sumner was surprised to see a shape began to take form out of the fog.

"As we drew closer," Sumner said, "it became obvious that the shape was a sharp, distinct outline of a human male standing just inside the tunnel mouth.""

Intrigued, the group began walking toward the shape, only to witness it dissolve.

Because of the fighting that took place at and around the tunnel during the Civil War, Sumner believes the presence witnessed by his group and himself could have been the spirit of a long dead soldier.

Another possible explanation is given by 14-year-old Timmy Howe of Tunnel Hill. Howe, whose boy scout troop helps direct traffic at the Civil War reenactments held near the tunnel, was told by a reenactor that a circus train passed through the tunnel long ago.

As the story goes, one of the circus workers was riding on top of the train for some unknown reason. Another passenger attempted to alert the worker of the approaching tunnel but the warning went unheard under the noise of the moving train. At the last moment, the worker looked back at the tunnel just in time to glimpse his sealed fate.

According to the legend, he was decapitated.

"I believe the accident probably happened,"" says Howe. "I don't believe in ghosts and stuff, but I still wouldn't go through the tunnel by myself.""

According to an article that ran in the March 30, 1916 edition of "The Dalton Citizen News," a showman employed by the Con T. Kennedy shows, whose name was Walter Lewis, had fallen asleep on top of one of the show wagons while passing through the tunnel en route to Rome, Georgia. The article states that when the train entered the tunnel Lewis was suddenly aroused and sat up, his head striking the top of the tunnel. He was found in a semi-unconscious condition by a companion and was taken to a nearby hospital. "His scalp was almost stripped from his head, and his injuries were critical," according to the article. The newspaper did not state whether or not Lewis lived or died.

The history of the tunnel, as well as its abandoned condition, promotes an ambience of mystery and intrigue. But is it haunted? Those curious won't have to wait long for a chance to check it out for themselves. Reconstruction has already begun and plans for a historical park, which will allow public access to the tunnel, are underway.

Not far from the tunnel lies property, owned by Kenneth Holcomb, on which reenactment of Civil War battles periodically take place.

Civil War General Patrick Cleburne and his soldiers camped there from 1863 to 1864 during the coldest winter on record for the area.

Conditions were harsh. There were very few blankets and not much to eat. Clad in ragged clothes, some of the soldiers didn't even have shoes left on their feet. A lot of suffering took place there. In addition to the winter cold and the lack of adequate supplies, there was always the threat of Yankee invasion and possible death hanging over their heads.

Five to seven battles took place there, with 277 Yankee men killed in one battle alone.

"There continues to be no truth to the rumors that this field is haunted," Sumner, known as Captain of the 35th Tennessee Infantry Regiment on the reenactment battlefield, used to tell newcomers to the site. He doesn't say that anymore.

"The joke was on me because the field definitely is haunted," he now claims. "Peculiar experiences began happening to me in 1993 and have continued since that time with varying degrees of intensity."

Sumner and a group of fellow reenactors set out to clear an area for the reenactment campsites. While walking through an extremely wooded area Sumner was overwhelmed by a sickening odor.

"It's like a death stench, the smell of rotted human flesh. On the first occasion I was affronted with it, only myself smelled it. None of the other men did, even though they were only a few feet away from me," Sumner relates. "Since that time, many others have smelled it. Sometimes as many as five or six at a time smell it," he said.

Strangely, each time the death smell presents itself, some people on location can experience it while others cannot.

In the heat of the battles fought in Tunnel Hill, countless soldiers were slaughtered. The smell that has come to be known as "the death smell" is a constant reminder of the tragedies that took place.

Several reenactors have seen ghost campfires over the years. On one occasion campfires appeared along the side of a hill. Sumner and another man when to check it out.

"When we got about 75 feet away, we saw legs in gray uniform pants behind the fire. A set of hands reached out to the warmth of the fire. Then we saw another set of legs. As we approached the fire, the legs disappeared without a trace. Then when we retreated to the top of the hill, the fire reappeared," Sumner said.

That night the fire lasted two and a half hours, but the soldiers materialized for only a few minutes.

"It was a cold December night. Most of the sightings I've experienced in Tunnel Hill happen in the coldest part of winter," Sumner relates.

On that same night Sumner witnessed a Confederate solider walk the length of the picket fence behind his tent.

"It was a particularly windy night. Every so often the wind would just stop without warning. It would get dead still. That's when I heard the footsteps. It got a little scary that night," he relates.

Sumner believes the ghost he heard and saw that night was that of a camp guard, because it was performing the duties of a guard.

"I've seen solider ghosts walk around the perimeter of the camp in spring, around a big fog that rises up that time of the year on the battlefield. It's a circular type of fog that surrounds the camp. They just walk around the edge of the fog like camp guards securing their posts. I've also seen some of them trying to get in and that gets scary, but they haven't ever really bothered us," Sumner says.

The ghosts have gotten so bad in one particular area that some of the reenactors won't go back there. Some of the things the ghosts do to scare their human visitors include banging pans together, banging logs against trees and generally just walking around. Once a group of people witnessed a ghost lantern floating across the field, and campers have reported hearing strange screams coming from the woods at night.

The ghosts are most commonly described as dark figures in human form. Their faces are hard to distinguish, according to Sumner.

Kenneth Sumner

The reenactors wear Confederate uniforms that look authentic. When they camp out, it sometimes feels as if they have been transformed back in time. It's not always easy to distinguish reality from supernatural.

For example, one night a Confederate soldier walked out of the fog beside a reenactor sitting on a gun position. The reenactor thought it was a buddy until the solider disappeared before his eyes.

On another occasion a group saw a Yankee solider lying beside the road at the campsite. He had his head lying on the pack and had apparently fallen asleep. The group carefully passed him, in an effort not to wake him, only to look back and see him gone.

"Last year at the 7th annual reenactment a Whitfield County historian informed me that where I built the artillery fort is where the actual fort was located during the war," Sumner says.

Sumner named the fort after a captain he admired, a man by the name of Keys. It became "Key's Battery Fort."

Sumner could have been knocked over with a feather when he learned the name of the fort had actually been "Key's Battery Fort."

"This is something I just learned last year. Prior to that I had no knowledge," Sumner insists. "Strange parallels continue to amaze us as we research the area history."

The artillery fort is where most of the hauntings occur.

"Out here your imagination can get away with you," Sumner says. "But when groups of people see the same things it's pretty clear something is going on."

"Ghosts have to remind everybody `Hey, we suffered here.' If you're sincere they pretty much leave you alone. If not, they try to run you off. If you don't hold reverence, they aren't always pleasant. I've seen people run out of the woods screaming," Sumner says.

He believes the ghosts just want visitors of the fields to remember the suffering they endured. He believes they want the war participants to be remembered, whether northern or southern. But most of all, he believes they want us to learn from and never repeat what happened to them long ago.

Sumner will continue to camp the battlefields of Tunnel Hill. He expects to see ghosts.

Especially if it's cold and windy.

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