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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Spirits of ’76: Revolutionary Ghosts in the Berkshires

The history of Berkshire County’s involvement in the Revolutionary War is a rich one, full of noteworthy participation in some of the most important actions of the war (the taking of Fort Ticonderoga, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Battle of Bennington, etc) and exotic characters (General John Patterson, James Easton, the “Fighting Parson” Thomas Allen, etc). Given this, it should not be surprising that legends of lingering ghosts from this period abound in the area. As a special Fourth of July installment of These Mysterious Hills, I will present two of my favorite such tales.

The first concerns Franz Wagner, a Hessian soldier attached to General Burgoyne’s forces. Wagner was wounded at the Battle of Saratoga, and died while making his way south after his company was scattered. Some men from North Egremont buried him in the old burial yard there, but it soon became clear that he refused to rest in peace. Within a few days of his burial, rumors began to spread that the Hessian had been seen wandering about at night. He had been seen, with his full uniform glistening in the darkness, wandering around the cemetery, and floating along the banks of the Green River. As whispers of encounters with this formidable specter multiplied, some village men decided to investigate. Two men, Joe Tanner and Tom Hendricks, bolder than the rest, went ahead while the rest of the group trailed a safe distance behind. They advanced slowly to the place where the Hessian had been interred, seeing nothing and beginning to feel slightly silly. When they were nearly upon the grave itself, however, a diaphanous form leaped up from out of the ground. The two men stood there silently, paralyzed with fear and awe, watching it as it slowly drew closer. Wagner’s ghostly form appeared to be moving its mouth, as if trying to speak to them, but no words were heard. This was too much for them, and they turned and ran, the other men fleeing in front of them.

As news of their encounter made its way around town, the level of slight unease in Egremont grew to a state almost akin to a panic. People stopped going out after dark altogether, even for prayer meetings. They even began blocking up their doors. Joe Tanner, convinced that there must be a way to rid the town of the ghost, got together some of the heartier of the men in town to discuss the matter. Tanner suggested that perhaps, if they moved the Hessian’s grave to some other location, he would move on with it and leave them alone. There was some uneasiness about the idea of disinterring a corpse, and some concern that they might get in a bit of trouble with the authorities. In the end, though, they decided that is was the best plan anyone could come up with, and preparations for the task were made.

When the night to enact the gruesome bit of business came, the men assembled, and Tanner brought his wagon along to carry the soldier’s coffin. Sentries were posted at both sides of the cemetery to keep an eye out while this secret project was conducted. Wagner had been a rather large man, and so all the remaining men were required to help haul his coffin up from the grave and move it into the wagon. Once completed, they started out in the darkness heading northeast, Joe Tanner and two others in the wagon with the Hessian and the rest on horseback. When they reached the eastern side of Tom Ball Mountain they found they could take the wagon no farther, and Tanner and the other two men left the others with the coffin while they went ahead into the forest to look for a good burial spot.

They didn’t get far before they heard clamorous screaming behind them. Running back to the wagon, they saw a horrible sight: the vapory Hessian was sitting atop his coffin in the back of the wagon. Once again, he appeared to be trying to talk, but no sound came out. The men all around the wagon scrambled down from their horses and took cover, fearing some sort of violent reprisal from the ghost. When they looked over again, he was gone. They leapt to their feet and grabbed the coffin up, heading into the woods with it as quickly as possible. They went a little ways up the eastern base of the mountain to a natural hollow, at which point they grabbed their spades and began digging as fast as their arms would work. When they dug a suitably deep hole, they deposited the coffin inside (carefully, lest they arouse the Hessian’s anger any further). They rode out of there that night, and did not speak of the incident again until sometime after, when the threat of getting into trouble had subsided, and the whole story came out publicly.

In later years it was said that the Hessian had been seen, from time to time, wandering the woods on the side of Tom Ball, and around West Stockbridge, but he was never again seen in Egremont.


Another tale of spectral soldiers dates back to the spring of 1977. Caleb Hudson, who deserted from the Continental Army at the Battle of Breed’s Hill, was on his way to a meeting of Tories at the home of Jared Musgrove in east Lee. Word had it that General Washington was on route to meet up with the colonial troops positioned in Connecticut and eastern New York, where they intended to stop the advance of British troops under General Tyron.

The Berkshire area Tories new that many attempts had been made to kidnap Washington, but none so far had succeeded. Now, another such plot was being hatched. It was decided that to avert suspicion falling on the Connecticut Loyalists nearest to the area, the plan should be handled by Berkshire men, who could slip into the Patriot encampment unrecognized under the auspices of joining up. They could then get close enough to steal away with the Continental commander in the night. Six men were selected from their midst to undertake the operation. Caleb Hudson was among them, much to his chagrin. Caleb, apparently, did not have much of a stomach for real war action on either side, though he was not above joining in on the looting of Patriot farms when the risk of being caught was minimal.

It was decided that each of the six men should ride south separately, so as not to be noticed, and meet up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, from whence they would proceed with their devious mission. So Caleb set out on horseback, and began making his way south. He never made it very far. As he reached south Lee and prepared to cross the Housatonic River, he saw a regiment of continental soldiers on the march. Fearing that they might be looking for recruits and that he might be conscripted into service, he hung back in the brush while they passed by. The troops marched by, hundreds of them, eight abreast, and slowly it dawned upon Caleb that there was something not right. They were making no noise at all. Not a single sound was coming up from any of them.

His horse began rearing and snorting, clearly disturbed. Hudson tried to calm the mare but she was becoming increasingly upset and would not be still. He feared the soldiers would take note, but they never looked up, just proceeded to ford the river silently. Caleb looked on in horror as dozens or rows of pale, deathly still soldiers entered into the river. Not a single soldier came out the other side. They simply vanished.

At this point his horse took off, with him holding on for dear life, and sped off. He rode and rode and did not stop or slow until he reached the South Lee Inn, where, pale-faced and trembling, he told his tale (minus the nature of his journey south) to the bemused bartender there. That was the end of Caleb Hudson’s involvement in the Tory cause.


Coxey, Willard Douglas. Ghosts of Old Berkshire, 1934

Belland, Debra & Frederick Talarico. There's no place like home: a journey through the rich legacy of the Berkshires, 2000


Berkshire Patriots

Berkshire Tories

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