HAUNTED BENTONVILLE: Some Facts behind the Folklore
By Mark A. Moore
Author of The Old North State at War: The North Carolina Civil War Atlas
For historical background and Part 1 of this series, see Haunted Bentonville: The Devil’s Racetrack.
PART 2 — Blue Jim Weaver and the Phantom Battle
Late one night in the fall of 1905, a Bentonville resident experienced a frightening incident while hunting in the woods on the battlefield.
“We had a neighbor by the name of Jim Weaver,” explained Bentonville native and area historian Herschell V. Rose in 1952. “I heard [the] story . . . as far back as the turn of the century. Time and again I have listened to Weaver tell his story which was a whopper of its kind and withal a good one.” Born on January 17, 1887, Rose was about 18 years old when the incident occurred, and thus grew to adulthood hearing one of the best known ghost stories associated with the battlefield.
Moreover, Weaver claimed a witness to the incident. “There was a fellow in the neighborhood by the name of Joe Lewis”—an Englishman, according to Rose. Lewis and a hunting dog accompanied Weaver on the expedition in question.
“[Jim] and Lewis went ‘possum hunting one dark, foggy Saturday night in the late fall,” explained Rose. “They rambled over a wide area and hunted late. Sometime about mid-night the dog treed, and they wangled through the trees and undergrowth until they found him. He was baying at the base of a hickory tree on one of the old breast works on the Bentonville Battlefield. They debated the wisdom of cutting the tree, believing that the night had run into Sunday [the pious Weaver thinking they ought not to hunt on the Lord’s Day]. At length they decided to cut the tree and take the ‘possum.”
At that moment Weaver noticed that his surroundings had begun to change. “At the first stroke of the axe they heard a noise, apparently in the top of the trees,” continued Rose. “The noise was like that of a person groaning in great pain. They gave the tree another stroke or two and voices were heard all about them expressing great pain and suffering. By this time the two hunters and the dog were horrified. They ceased to cut the tree and there in the fog and the mists of mid-night the woods appeared to flare into flame, and they began to see men running through the undergrowth, stopping momentarily to fire their pieces, and then running on, falling in behind breastworks, hiding behind trees or dropping out of sight into rifle pits. The whole panorama of battle was fought again right before their eyes. They saw horsemen bending over the saddle trying to penetrate the thick woods as they gave chase to the enemy. Every now and then a minie ball would tear through some soldier and he would either fall dead without a sound or go down in an agony of pain.”
The first day of the Battle of Bentonville had been fought on Sunday, March 19, 1865—40 years earlier. The frightened hunters were at first mesmerized by what they saw and heard. In the melee, Weaver said he witnessed the struggle for a regimental flag. A Union soldier grappled with a Confederate opponent for control of the standard. According to Weaver, when a second rebel adversary stepped in to help defend the flag, the Union soldier pierced with him his bayonet. After a further struggle, the remaining color bearer fell with a knife wound in his shoulder.
At that point, Weaver and Lewis found their legs and took off running. They fled westward past the Harper House, which had been used by the Union 14th Corps as a field hospital during the battle. According to Weaver, flashes of light appeared in the woods behind the house as they passed, and a strange glow emanated from its windows.
At length, the hunters fell exhausted on the ground near the kitchen building behind Weaver’s home, northwest of the Harper House.
Jim later told his amazing story to some of Smithfield’s surviving Confederate veterans. Among them was an old soldier who believed Weaver had witnessed his own struggle. As the story goes, this veteran had been 17 years old at the time of the battle. His arm still hung limp from the shoulder wound he had received in trying to save the flag. His older brother had been killed in the struggle for the colors.
Weaver’s account was a “whopper” indeed, but what are we to make of this tall tale? And who was the man who told it?
James M. Weaver was born in Johnston County on March 5, 1861. He grew up in Bentonville Township, and worked on his father’s farm until he was an adult. James had been four years old when the Battle of Bentonville was fought in March 1865. By 1870 he was the third oldest of six children, and three more followed before 1880.
Weaver married Elizer (Eliza) Winford Lee on December 24, 1895, at “J. W. Lee’s”—Elizer’s father’s place. By 1900 the couple lived on a farm in Bentonville and had three young children—Alexander, Leander, and Mary.
Weaver was a unique individual and well known in the area. “He was a blue man,” explained Herschell Rose. From about the age of two, Weaver had suffered from epileptic seizures. Hundreds of dollars were spent in trying to obtain relief, but nothing worked until Dr. R. H. McLean, of R.F.D. No. 6 in Dunn, prescribed a treatment of ingesting silver nitrate—a common remedy of the era. McLean told Weaver that he had never known the treatment to fail in curing epilepsy—but it came with a jarring consequence. It turned the patient’s skin blue—in Weaver’s case “a perfect huckleberry blue,” according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
The condition is known as argyria and results from the ingestion or inhalation of silver over a long period of time. Areas of the patient’s skin exposed to light are especially susceptible to the condition. Weaver stated that he had no symptoms of epilepsy after his second treatment, but the argyria suggests his intake of silver nitrate was prolonged.
In May 1907—a couple of years after witnessing the phantom battle—Weaver was in Raleigh to attend federal court as a witness. His condition drew attention and the News & Observer published a story about him. He had always borne the curiosity with grace and good cheer. “I would not be in the condition I was in before for five thousand dollars,” declared Weaver. “And the treatment cost me only sixteen dollars. Some have said they had rather have the [epileptic] fits than to have my [blue] color, but they don’t know. The color of a man’s skin is no disgrace. It is the color of a man’s heart than counts.” Given the era in which these words were uttered—at the height of the Jim Crow era of racial oppression—it is more than a little ironic that a white man would declare that the color of his skin did not matter.
According to the News & Observer, Weaver was “about forty-one” years old in May 1907. However, the known Jim Weaver of Bentonville was born in 1861, so the paper was off by about five years on his age. Either that, or old Blue Jim has been misidentified altogether. The paper also stated that Weaver had normal skin tone until he was 18 years old, but that he had been “blue for 18 years” as of May 1907. So again, their timeline was off by a few years (even if his birth year had been about 1866).
By 1910, five years after Weaver’s frightening experience in the woods of Bentonville Battlefield, James and Elizer had four additional little ones—Martha, Adolphus, Joseph, and John. The family had moved to Seventy-First Township, Currie’s Mill Precinct in Cumberland County, just west of Fayetteville. They rented a home on Center Plank Road. Part of Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union army had entered Fayetteville on the Center (Centre) Plank Road in March 1865.
By 1920, the Weaver family had moved to a farm in Dismal Township in Sampson County, east of Fayetteville. By this time they had another two little ones—James and Thomas—with eight children still living at home.
The only child missing from the homestead was Leander. Known as “Lee,” the young man had joined the military and served in Company G of the 2nd North Carolina Infantry, National Guard. The unit served along the Mexican border during the Punitive Expedition against Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in 1916 and ‘17. In February 1917, Cpl. Lee A. Weaver contracted measles and a severe complication led to pneumonia. He died of acute lobar pneumonia (lower lobe of the right lung) at 11:00 p.m. on March 22, 1917, at Fort Bliss (Hospital No. 2) in El Paso, Texas. Epyema (a collection of pus in the pleural cavity) was listed as a contributing cause.
Lee was just 19 years old and had been sick for 44 days before his death. He was first treated by a doctor at Fort Bliss on February 10, and reached his 19th birthday on February 19. His body was shipped to North Carolina on March 26 and arrived on the 31st. He was buried at 2:00 p.m. on April 1 “at his old home,” in the Weaver family cemetery along the western edge of Bentonville Township.1
Four years later, at the age of 60, James “Blue Jim” Weaver died in Dismal Township at 3:00 p.m. on April 11, 1921, of the same disease that had killed his son—lobar pneumonia. He was buried in the same family plot in Bentonville Township. (Johnston County cemetery surveys identified him as “Blue Jim.”)
The Facts and the Phantom Battle
James Weaver was semi-literate. Documentary evidence reveals that he could somehow read without being able to write. “The description of the [phantom] battle given by this victim of epilepsy, now cured by silver nitrate, was very dramatic,” said Rose in 1952. “Of course I do not remember all of it now, it having been told to me nearly half a century ago. Weaver was an unlettered man but . . . Singularly enough, it does not materially contradict the historians as to how the forces fought.”
Is this true? Can the events Weaver described be documented or corroborated? To begin with, we do not know exactly where he was on the battlefield on the night in question. Rose says that Weaver’s hunting dog treed a ‘possum on one of the old breastworks. There are more than three miles of surviving Union and Confederate earthworks snaking through the forests at Bentonville—a lot of possible ground. But Weaver’s tale of the struggle to capture a flag narrows it down quite a bit.
On the afternoon of March 19, 1865, in the woods and swamps south of the Goldsboro Road, Brig. Gen. James D. Morgan’s Union division became surrounded on three sides. In defeating a Confederate attack in front, two members of the 14th Michigan Infantry captured the colors of the 40th North Carolina. A coastal artillery unit, the 40th fought as infantry attached to Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s Division at Bentonville. The engagement won the unit the sobriquet “Red Infantry,” for the red piping on their uniforms, which signified the artillery branch of service. The Confederate battle flag was captured by Cpl. George W. Clute and Cpl. Gershom H. Swayze—and Clute was awarded the Medal of Honor for this action in 1898. Did Weaver witness a ghostly version of this real-life encounter?
Two other rebel flags were captured in the same general area. Having defeated the attack in their front, two of Morgan’s brigades were forced to jump to the opposite side of their breastworks to fend off an assault from behind them. The aggressive Union troops then counterattacked, and a Confederate soldier from the Army of Tennessee dubbed this hot spot the “Bull Pen.” Here, the 14th Michigan captured the regimental flag of the 54th Virginia, a unit of Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Palmer’s Brigade, Army of Tennessee.
Late in the afternoon, Brig. Gen. William Cogswell’s Union brigade advanced across this same ground to plug a wide gap in the lines of Morgan’s Division. This maneuver surprised the Confederates behind Morgan’s lines, and members of the 33rd Massachusetts Infantry captured the colors of the 26th Tennessee, another unit in Palmer’s Brigade. Were the woods of Bentonville haunted by ghostly soldiers struggling for one of these other flags, 40 years after the battle?
The capture of all three flags is well documented, from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies to unit histories and others sources published in the late nineteenth century and beyond.
What about other details from Weaver’s story? Herschell Rose told of Weaver describing how “the woods appeared to flare into flame.” This could easily describe the musketry fire of the opposing armies on this area of the battlefield. There are numerous vivid accounts from veterans of the battle, describing the awful sights and sounds of the infantry fight below the Goldsboro Road. As dusk gave way to night, the orange-yellow flashes from the muzzles of thousands of firearms were something to behold. Moreover, the woods here literally caught fire during Cogswell’s extended engagement with the Army of Tennessee. Burning pine trees flared along the lines, casting an eerie light through the woods at nightfall. Smoke from the flaming pines combined with acrid gunpowder smoke to form a thick pall among the trees, choking and stinging the eyes of soldiers on both sides.
Rose also said that Weaver described “horsemen bending over the saddle trying to penetrate the thick woods as they gave chase to the enemy.” There was no cavalry engaged on this part of the battlefield. However, there would have been curriers on horseback, along with certain officers—and these would likely have become more active after nightfall, when the battle began to die down.
All of these real-life details are described by veterans of the battle, in both published and unpublished sources.
The fact that Weaver described how he and Joe Lewis fled past the Harper House provides another clue to their location on the battlefield that night. From the area south of the old Goldsboro Road (SR 1008), they would have traveled westward to pass the house. While it remains purely conjecture, it is feasible that they would have passed along SR 1008, possibly cutting cross country east of the house to pick up the road toward Mill Creek Church (SR 1188). The Weaver family home was in that area. Such a trek would have covered more than two and a half miles.
Weaver described seeing flashes of light in the woods behind the house as they passed. There was no combat in this area. The 14th Corps field hospital at the Harper House was behind Union lines. However, there would have been anything from lamplight to torchlight and campfires related to the field hospital, on the grounds and among surrounding trees. Could Weaver have seen a ghostly replay of such lights? As for the eerie light emanating from the house’s windows, any light source from within or without could have caused such a perception.
What Did Blue Jim Experience?
There is no doubt that Jim Weaver had a profound personal experience on the battlefield. He told the story repeatedly for the rest of his life. The question is . . . what did he experience?
It is a known medical fact that people suffering from epilepsy can experience hallucinations. Jim Weaver grew up hearing stories about the Battle of Bentonville all his life. The battle had stained the land he was born and raised on. Was Blue Jim really cured of his condition after lengthy ingestion of silver nitrate? Did some aspect of the brain disorder still linger? That night in the woods at Bentonville, did he suffer a prolonged series of hallucinations populated with imagery he had envisioned for so many years?
Neuroscientists describe such episodes as “psychic seizures,” and have studied them extensively. Moreover, people suffering from epilepsy can also become psychotic.
In the late 1890s, the captured battle flag of the 40th North Carolina was returned to the Old North State after being housed by the state of Michigan for more than 30 years. This occurred during the era when Union and Confederate veterans made well-documented efforts at personal reconciliation. However, this sectional healing among military veterans took place against the backdrop of the Jim Crow era, when post-Civil War social and professional gains by African Americans were severely rolled back in the South. The era had a divisiveness, turbulence, and violence of its own.
The return of the flag was a major news story in both North Carolina and Michigan—and it also made national headlines. It was a big deal, locally. The people of Bentonville Township would not only have heard about the flag’s return, but would have been keenly interested in the story. If Jim Weaver suffered epileptic hallucinations on the battlefield in 1905, did news of the flag’s return a few years earlier help shape his delusion?
[NOTE: For an in-depth history of the flag’s return, see “FRATERNAL BONDS: Union Cpl. Gershom H. Swayze and the Confederate Battle Flag of the 40th North Carolina Regiment.”]
On the other hand, did Weaver’s epilepsy give him true psychic abilities? Did his condition allow his brain to tap into something that most people cannot access?
Did he witness what paranormal investigators call a “residual haunting?” Under the right atmospheric conditions, researchers believe, one may see not ghosts or spirits but rather a “playback” of a past event. Herschell Rose said that Weaver described his experience as occurring “in the fog and the mists of mid-night.” While it did not rain on the first day of the battle, there was significant precipitation on the third day—and it had been raining frequently in the weeks before the battle.
Did Weaver look back in time? In his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (published posthumously in 2018), famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking declared that “Travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding.” If he did not travel back in time, did Weaver somehow gain access to a window on the past?
Was it something far more profound than a simple past event?
Weaver’s story, as handed down by Rose, tells us that a surviving veteran of the battle thought Weaver had seen and described the actions of a younger version of himself—a battle participant who was still alive at the turn of the century. If that was truly the case, then Blue Jim had not seen “ghosts” as we understand the concept.
Could Weaver have witnessed an alternate version of reality? While Stephen Hawking did not believe in God, he did subscribe to beliefs and theories that would astonish religious zealots across the globe. String theory and quantum mechanics have opened all sorts of fascinating questions for scientists. Hawking believed in the theory of a “multiverse”—a theory that multiple parallel dimensions exist at the same time. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an atheist astrophysicist who seeks to explain complex scientific topics to the masses, also subscribes to the theory of a multiverse. What does it mean? In short, parallel dimensions could include multiple versions of ourselves—and thus multiple versions of people who came before us. Did Weaver experience a bleed-through of another dimension from an earlier time?
In the universe that humans currently understand, the Battle of Bentonville occurred as history tells us it did. But what about a parallel dimension? Did Weaver’s epileptic condition somehow give him a window into an alternate version of the battle? If so, did the engagement unfold slightly differently from our current understanding? Did the Confederates win? The questions are mind boggling. In this scenario, Weaver would not have to be in an area of the battlefield where it can currently be documented that three flags were captured. In an alternate version of the battle, a flag could have been captured anywhere on the battlefield.
Would the roster of the 40th North Carolina reveal two brothers who defended the flag? Probably not. The color bearer at Bentonville was identified during the banner’s high profile return to North Carolina, and he was killed during the engagement. However, it is important to understand that there was rarely a single standard bearer. Regimental flags were bullet magnets in battle, and multiple people would potentially carry the flag in a single engagement.
Is Bentonville Battlefield haunted by the ghosts of soldiers killed in the fight? Quite possibly. Enough violence and atrocities occurred during the three-day engagement to spawn hundreds of ghosts, if such a thing is possible. Setting aside the notion of a living veteran in Weaver’s vision of a phantom battle, did his condition allow him to see numerous ghosts reenacting their tragedy?
It is worth noting that other people have had similar personal experiences on the battlefield over the years—perhaps not as dramatic as Weaver’s account—from visitors to living historians, and such experiences were not the result of epilepsy.
Finally, we must take into consideration that stories of any kind, especially those told repeatedly over many years, are often told in different versions. How often did Jim Weaver alter or embellish his own story? How did the details change over time? More importantly, how did the story change in the retelling by Herschell Rose? Having heard the story for years from Weaver himself, Rose then retold the tale repeatedly for nearly four decades after Weaver’s death. Thus is the nature of folklore.
Rose delighted in collecting the region’s folktales, but found Weaver’s account “one of the most unreasonable stories I ever heard, and of course I still think that the story was born in Weaver’s abortive mind from the epilepsy hangover he had when he was a young man. I never heard Joe Lewis verify it.”
The Phantom Battle in Popular Culture
In the spring of 1959, husband and wife journalists Nancy and Bruce Roberts visited Herschell Rose—clerk of superior court in Johnston County—in his Smithfield office. They had heard of Rose’s ghostly tales related to Bentonville and wanted to meet with him to discuss their current book project.
Nancy was a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, and Bruce a photographer for the paper. Rose regaled the couple for hours. At closing time he invited them home for supper, where they met Rose’s wife, Edith. Herschcell continued to tell ghost stories into the evening, and gave Nancy and Bruce plenty to consider for their book.
Rose died a month later on May 7, 1959, at the age of 72.
When An Illustrated Guide to Ghosts and Mysterious Occurrences in the Old North State was published by Heritage House in Charlotte in July 1959, one of Rose’s retellings of Blue Jim Weaver’s “whopper” appeared in a brief story titled “The Battle of the Dead.”
The book was hugely popular, and helped preserve some of Bentonville’s folklore. Nancy Roberts has published a number of other ghost story compilations over the years.
And thanks to the Internet, Blue Jim’s story has gained a global audience. The Roberts version of Weaver’s tale has been summarized in the North Carolina sections of countless websites sites devoted to ghostly lore.
1 Leander A. Weaver’s gravestone appears to list his death date as 1916, but that is incorrect. He died on March 22, 1917. In addition to “2nd Regt.” the stone also says “117th Inf.,” the latter apparently a mistaken reference to a later unit. The 2nd North Carolina Infantry, National Guard, was re-designated as the 119th Infantry on September 12, 1917, and assigned to the 30th Infantry Division (“Old Hickory”).
Part 3 is forthcoming . . .
© 2018 by Mark A. Moore. All rights reserved.