Georgia ghost story of a Civil War relic hunter who stumbles across the haunted site of the Battle of New Hope Church. Written by Craig Dominey, told by John Gentile.
They say there are places on this planet which have seen such tragedy and sorrow that they are forever cursed. It’s as if the earth itself holds some dark supernatural force beyond our understanding. A few years ago, I found such a cursed place just a few miles west of Atlanta, Georgia – a tiny hamlet called New Hope. And even though many people don’t believe the story I’m about to tell, my visit there haunts my dreams to this day.
At one time, I was a 35-year-old small business owner living in a tiny town in rural Virginia. I didn’t have a brilliant business mind, but my father, a rabid Civil War hobbyist, had taught me to do one thing very well – hunt for Civil War artifacts. Bullets, belt buckles, coins, uniform buttons – the Virginia battlefields were full of them. Collectors from as far away as Germany and Japan paid top dollar for these rare artifacts, so I created a website to hawk my latest finds.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit it now, but profit was much more important to me in those days than respect for the dead. It didn’t matter to me if a battlefield was located on protected land or not. Under cover of darkness, I would sneak onto the property with my shovel and trusty metal detector, and would steal away as many artifacts as I could find. But other relic hunters quickly got in on the act, and competition became fierce. Verbal threats and fistfights became common amongst rival hunters, and I knew it was time to hunt for relics elsewhere.
I remembered studying about Union General William T. Sherman’s devastating “March to the Sea” in Georgia, and figured that somewhere along that long path from Chattanooga, Tennessee, down through Atlanta, and south to Savannah there must be a treasure trove of artifacts. So that spring, I hopped in my truck and drove south to Georgia to see what I could find.
I was especially interested in a small town located near the Pickett’s Mill Battlefield called New Hope. It was here that one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place – the Battle of New Hope Church. And to understand my story, you must understand the carnage that took place there.
It was May 1864, and General Sherman had begun his relentless march toward Atlanta. His men were hungry and battle weary, but knew that to destroy Atlanta would mean destroying the heart of the Confederacy and finally bringing an end to this horrible war. Standing in Sherman’s way was a stubborn Confederate Army led by Joe Johnston. Johnston’s men resisted the Union onslaught, forcing Sherman into flanking maneuvers. But like a bloody chess game, Johnston countered each of Sherman’s moves, slamming his army into the Union forces day after day.
It was during one of these flanking maneuvers that Sherman’s men marched into the area of New Hope Church. What they didn’t know was that Confederate forces were lying in wait with sixteen cannons and some 5,000 men. As the Union troops struggled through the thick underbrush into the clearing, they were suddenly hit by a vicious firestorm of artillery. Confederate guns and cannons blasted away at them from behind makeshift log walls. The Union soldiers were sitting ducks.
As the battle raged on, legend has it that a vicious thunderstorm blew into the area – a storm unlike anything the men had ever seen. The skies turned black as night. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed around the battlefield, sometimes drowning out the relentless artillery barrage. Wounded Union soldiers desperately crawled through the torrential rain into a ravine to escape certain death from the Confederate guns. And it was said that, even with the storm and battle raging around them, one could still hear the agonizing moans of the wounded soldiers rising from the ravine.From that day forward, the Union troops gave a new name to the ravine near New Hope Church – “Hell Hole.”
Like other battlefields, New Hope was rumored to be haunted. It had a reputation amongst learned Civil War historians as being a creepy and unsettling place. But I had heard plenty of ghost stories about the battlefields in Virginia, and they had never stopped me before.
I drove into the town of New Hope just before sundown. It wasn’t as much a town as it was a country intersection, with a small auto repair shop, a couple of churches and a cemetery. But the historical markers lining the road betrayed its bloody past. I reasoned that the Confederate battle lines must have been spread out across the area where the cemetery now stood. There was a heavily wooded area beyond the graveyard that I reasoned must have been the location of the “Hell-Hole.” I spotted several homes on the other side of the woods, and decided to wait until nightfall to begin digging.
I parked across the street behind one of the churches and waited. An hour later, I was blessed with a beautiful, clear night sky and a full moon. As I crept through the cemetery with my equipment, I noticed that the tombstones seemed to reflect an eerie white light from the bright moon above. More fainthearted relic hunters might have turned back at that point, but not me.I reached the woods and soon found myself struggling through a thick jungle of thorn bushes, vines and trees. For a brief moment, I thought about what it must have been like to have been a solider back then, already weary and hungry and now having to fight your way through this hellish Georgia forest. But then my thoughts drifted back to the business at hand.
The ground suddenly sloped downward, and I figured I was on the lip of the ravine. Since I was now totally enveloped in the forest, I figured it was safe to use my flashlight. Shining it around the ravine, my heart sank. Some of the residents were now using the ravine as a garbage dump. There was plenty of scrap metal scattered about, including a rusted old car. But I had come this far, so I was going to at least give the place a try.I crept down into the ravine, chose an area that seemed the least polluted, and began clearing away some of the garbage. Once that was done, I swept the area with my metal detector and picked up plenty of readings. Whether or not this was from buried garbage I did not know, but I soon began digging in earnest.
In fact, I was so intent on my digging that I didn’t notice a strange noise – heavy raindrops plopping onto the thick canopy of leaves above. This seemed impossible to me, as the skies were beautifully clear just a few minutes before. But as the raindrops fell harder, I looked up into the sky and saw that a sudden storm front had blackened out the stars and moon, leaving me in total darkness.
A jarring blast of thunder shook the forest, and I quickly moved into the only shelter I could find – the inside of the junked car. I didn’t want to run out of the woods and be caught, and I hoped this was one of those hit and miss thunderstorms so prevalent in Georgia. But the storm grew louder and more intense, the booming thunder shaking the earth, and the torrential rain drenching everything, even through the thick trees.
It was then that I heard it – a low moan drifting out of the bottom of the ravine. At first I thought it must be some wounded animal, or perhaps a dog lost in the storm. But as it grew louder and louder, I realized the voice was definitely human. Soon other agonizing moans could be heard, seemingly feeding off the horrifying thunder crashing around me.Then I smelled a repugnant odor that I can only describe as the smell of rotted flesh. It must be from a dead animal, I thought, desperately trying to rationalize what I was experiencing. But the odor seemed to grow stronger and stronger as the moans grew louder.
A bolt of lightning suddenly illuminated the forest, and in that brief second I swore I saw a shadow darting though the woods – a human shadow. As the storm reached its crescendo, the intense lightning lit the forest like some harsh florescent light, the gnarled trees taking on odd and terrifying shapes. My blood ran cold as I spotted more of these shadows darting amongst the trees, as if fleeing in terror from the storm. And in the bright flashes of lightning, I began to notice details on the shadows – a military cap here, a rifle or bayonet there. They could only be one thing – soldiers.
But the worst was yet to come. The temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees around me, and I was hit with the most sick and agonizing feeling I had ever felt. I can only describe it as a feeling of devastating loss and pain, as if I had learned that my entire family had suddenly died at the same time. I couldn’t take it anymore – I kicked the car door open and hopped out into the storm. Then I was hit with a debilitating feeling of exhaustion that raced through my whole body, as if I had walked a hundred miles. I left all my equipment behind and desperately clawed and sputtered through the rain-drenched forest until the cemetery was finally in sight.
As I burst free of the forest, the storm inexplicably stopped. The clouds blew away, and I found myself standing in the midst of the glowing white tombstones. I had seen enough – I crossed the street and ran back to my car, only to spot the silhouette of a man standing beside it, peering into the windows. I stood frozen in my tracks until he yelled out in a warm, inviting Georgia drawl, “Hello there! I was getting worried about you!”It was the minister of the church. He had come out to check the building after the storm, and had discovered my car. Road maps and Civil War books scattered across the seats had betrayed me as the tourist I was.
I tried to avoid telling him what I was doing in New Hope by commenting on the thunderstorm that had passed, and how I had never experienced such a ferocious storm. The minister chuckled and replied, “Yeah, we seem to get them this time of year, especially on this date. Some folks think this place is haunted, but I don’t believe in such things.”
My blood suddenly ran cold, and I heard myself ask him, “What’s so special about today?”
The minister cocked an eyebrow at me and grinned. “Well, from all them Civil War books in your car, I thought you’d know. Today’s May 26th – the Battle of New Hope Church was fought 136 years ago today.” And that’s my story of the Hell Hole.
- THE END –
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