Ask Tom Canfield of Marathon how Civil War soldiers in 1863 in Gettysburg, Pa., felt hiking miles through Pennsylvania's woodlands, and he’ll tell you. He’s been there, wearing period-accurate outfits and wielding age-old rifles.
Although he comes from a technical background, Canfield said he’s seen unexplainable things on the Pennsylvania battlefield and spoke Saturday at the Central New York Living History Center in Cortlandville about some of his more paranormal experiences at Gettysburg.
Canfield – a Civil War scholar, collector and reenactor – was on the committee for the Lewis Armistead Monument there in 1996, but hours before its dedication, he was committed to hiking the former battlefield like a soldier.
“It was a long weekend, and I was out there for four days in 90-degree weather, in wool uniforms,” Canfield said. “My friends came to pick me up in a station wagon. I get in the car and they start rolling down the windows and say ‘we’re taking you to a motel, you can't go like this.’ I had to go to one of their rooms and take a shower before the dedication.”
He presented five stories from historic Gettysburg locales: Cashtown Inn, Home-Sweet-Home Motel, Wheatfield, Slaughter Pen and Railroad Cut, and gave military background on each of the Civil War battlefields he visited.
“Culp’s hill was occupied by Union troops all three days of the battle, and was the critical right flank of the Union's defense at Gettysburg,” Canfield said. “The 12th Army Corps arrived to reinforce the hill, including the 1,400-man brigade led by Dorchester Green."
He detailed how Green's men begrudgingly began setting up breastwork fortifications on the hill. They didn’t expect to be there for long, but held the hill through the entirety of the three-day battle, including the assault of Gen. John M. Jones and his men, Canfield said.
“Jone’s brigade of Virginians had to cross the deepest, most difficult and steepest part of Culp's Hill when they attacked,” he said. “They scrambled up the slopes only to be met with Union rifles and breastworks on the crest.”
Canfield detailed his experience there in 1996, which he says he still can't explain. He was still in Union uniform after a reenactment, hiking through the lower banks of Culp’s hill, where Confederate soldiers were shot down more than 130 years earlier.
“I moved about taking positions behind the rocks where I'd seen Confederates in paintings, firing at the Union line,” he said. “It's what you do when you're a reenactor, you gotta put yourself in those locations.”
“Suddenly I felt a shove from behind.” He said. “I quickly turned but no one was there. It had seemed much colder and darker than it had before, but that was probably due to my imagination, which was working overtime by then.”
Canfield said he felt another shove, and retreated behind where Union lines once were, behind the breastwork, not feeling any more mysterious shoves.
“My still being in a federal cavalry uniform was not appreciated by the Confederate line,” he said and laughed. “I was not supposed to be there, and I haven't gone back since.”
Canfield wasn't the only one who felt he’d seen something paranormal on the Civil War battlefields.
“A friend of mine, he was at Gettysburg as a reenactor,” Donald Colongeli of Cortland said. “He had two busloads of actors leaving toward dusk. As they were leaving, the first bus looked over to one of the battlefields and saw a full regiment of soldiers marching. The second bus never saw it, but every man in that first bus saw that phantom regiment.”
A scholar of federal cavalry and Civil War regiments, Canfield could tell you of Cortland’s Civil War soldiers, too, with a collection of everything from sabers to letters with ties to Maj. Gen. George Gordon to back him up.
“I had 32 original letters from George Gordon’s son, from when they dedicated a monument to the 6th Pennsylvania in Gettysburg, to various people inviting them to the inauguration of that monument,” Canfield said. “One of them went to Cortland, he was with the 10th New York Cavalry. He wrote a three-page letter back, and his biggest complaint was that the infantry got all the credit for Gettysburg, and he was madder than a hornet about it.”
Canfield said he’s gotten estimates of more than $80,000 for his collection, but he said he is thinking about donating it to the Living History Center.
“I wouldn’t want to break it up,” he said. “It’s a big collection and its mostly local items, from Cortland, Marathon, Harford, Etna, Virgil, all the local hamlets. Back then, the Grand Army of the Republic was in all the villages, and they all had their own badges. I had a ton of those.”
“I’ve been talking to them about donating it but there’s nothing official, yet,” he said.