Editorial: Ghost Tales of the Civil War

I’m much more of a history buff than a haunted house fan, so Candlelight Theatre’s new production, “Ghost Tales of the Civil War,” sounded right up my alley. With my best friend in tow, I headed downtown to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site where we watched small performances by actors in each room of the museum.

According to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site website, the play features spirits of people who died during the Civil War, and now haunt the property. The first thing my friend and I realized was that we were the youngest patrons there by about three decades.

The tour group was small with 16 per group, and the performances were  intimate. Our tour guide introduced herself as Emeline Piggott, a Confederate spy, and showed a stolen note she had hidden under her belt while she told us her story. She then took us from room to room, interacting with other ghosts and griping about the eventual Union victory. The show started with a bang and set the tone for the evening; a man in a Confederate jacket came  into the first room, screaming about the carnage he saw on the battlefields, the thousands of lives that were lost under his command and the nightmares he now sees. Some of the oldest guests were clearly shocked as the man yelled in their faces, “Can you forgive me? Because I can’t forgive myself, my hands are stained with their blood!” Clearly, the evening was off to a great start. 

Though multiple tours snaked through the house at a time, they did an incredible job of coordinating so that we never saw or heard the other groups. The Presidential  Site was  the  perfect location for the  performance. The antique furniture and decorations in the museum helped us immerse ourselves in the experience. The house felt sprawling and empty, excluding the hollow sounds of soldiers or slaves singing from the halls as we went to the various different rooms.

We met actors who played spies, commanders, nurses, soldiers and even Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. As we neared the room upstairs, we heard a deep sorrowful voice singing “Go Down Moses,” and drawing out the final line, “let my people go,” as we filed into the room to find her kneeling. Harriet Tubman’s monologue was piercing yet triumphant, as she described bringing  slaves to Canada to live in freedom. 

“We had the right to two things: liberty and death. If we couldn’t have one, we’d have the other.”

The actors were well prepared, but also ad libbed as guests moved slowly throughout the house. They’d converse with each other over Confederate/Union divides or ask the guests things like, “What year is it again? I get so confused.” 

What I noticed about the actresses we saw in the first few rooms was the intricacy of their costumes. Period dresses, wigs, elaborate hairstyles and fancy hats enhanced the believability of their performances. However, the men’s costumes were surprisingly lazy. They often wore coats that were too big and modern shoes that stood out. Even Abraham Lincoln was wearing navy blue pinstripe pants with a black jacket, a classic fashion faux pas. 

Despite taking some historical liberties, the last room was my favorite. We saw a rendition of the first and only trial of an American to ever be tried for war crimes against other Americans. After the man and his associates were sent to the gallows, President Lincoln entered the room, and described to his wife, Mary Todd, a dream where he sees his own corpse in a coffin in the White House. Mary waved off his concerns, then said, “Come along dear,” and mentioned that they’d be spending the evening at Ford’s Theatre to see a play. That was   definitely the cheesiest line of the show. 

Overall, I really enjoyed the  experience at “Ghost Tales”. The actors were  entertaining and the stories were engaging.  I loved  getting to experience the stories within the eerie halls of the Presidential Site, where they  played up the low green and red lighting to highlight each scene. However, at about $18 for an hour and 10 minute experience,  I wouldn’t recommend going if  you  aren’t a big fan of history. In that case,  I would  suggest  celebrating  spooky season  with a horror movie on your own couch.