As we approach Halloween, we’ve invited readers to share a few ghost stories. This is the first. “Purgatory Mountain” is a ghost story, told here by local professional storyteller and humorist J.A. Bolton of Rockingham. “This is my version of the Civil War ghost story of Purgatory Mountain,” said Bolton. “Webster defines the word ‘purgatory’ as a place of temporary punishment or remorse.” — Editor
It was the spring of 1864. The Civil War was raging just about all over our great country. This was a terrible war that pitted brother against brother, family against family, and neighbor against neighbor. Our great state of North Carolina had been one of the last states to secede from the Union in 1861. You see, North Carolina was split between pro-Union, pro-Confederate and some minorities, such as the Society of Friends (or Quakers, as they were called).
The Quakers were plain, hard working folks that believed in equality for all men and women and they opposed slavery. They were also pacifists, which meant they opposed violence of any kind. Yet these characteristics set them at odds with their Confederate neighbors. One by one the men of the Quaker settlement, which was located in the lower Piedmont area of our state, were ordered to join the Confederate Army. Many chose prison instead.
During the fierce battles of the previous year the Confederacy lost almost 50,000 soldiers. Now General Lee was gathering what remained of his Army and was preparing to face General Grant in the wilderness of Virginia. The Confederacy needed every man they could find.
On their way home from a Sabbath meeting the Quakers learned that a new Army recruiter, a man known as “the Hunter” had been assigned to the area. He had a reputation as a cruel and dangerous man.
“Thou must not worry,” said one of the Quaker mothers to her 13-year-old son. “The Lord will guide and protect thee.”
He was just a boy, but the other boys, some even younger than 13, had been carried off to war.
Two days later the Hunter arrived in the early hours of the morning, just as the Quakers were beginning their daily chores. At each farm he and his men grabbed the oldest male child. The boys offered no resistance as the men hog-tied their hands and feet behind their backs and shoved them into the wagon.
“Watch thy head,” the Hunter mocked.
By midday he had selected 22 boys ranging from age 11 to 14 years old. “Process them,” the Hunter ordered two of his men as he rode off in search of more “volunteers.”
The boys traveled for days, down long dirt roads, across fields and forded rivers. Sometimes they rode in the wagon but most of the time they walked. The soldiers were marching them to the coast, to the Port of Wilmington, where they would receive what little training and equipment could be spared. Then they would be assigned to a regiment and sent into battle. Each night they camped along the board, in barns or under trees. One soldier would keep guard while his partner slept or drank or both.
“Here, eat the food,” the taller soldier teased as he untied the boys and pushed them toward an old barn that would be their shelter for the night. They ate what little food they had for supper. Then the soldier walked out of the barn and carelessly left an unguarded knife. One of the boys spotted the knife and slipped it into his boot.
Later, with the boys again tied up for the night, the soldiers enjoyed a few games of cards and drank a bottle of whiskey. It wasn’t long before both men fell off to sleep. Slowly and carefully the boy worked the knife out of his boot. Holding the knife between his teeth, he cut the rope nearest to him. At long last all 22 boys were freed and while guards slept the boys escaped into the woods. Pacifists though they were, they took the soldiers’ rifles with them.
It was a long and difficult journey back home. Food was scarce and they were constantly watching for soldiers. Finally after a month of hardship, they reached the 900-foot mountain that marked the beginning of the Quaker settlement. It was a rugged little mountain, covered by tall trees and a lot of underbrush. Huge gray rocks dotted the landscape. The boys decided it was a perfect place to hide out until they could find out if they were safe from the Hunter.
At night the boys would slip down and visit their homes and collect food and supplies. It was on one of these visits that they learned that the Hunter was indeed looking for them and he was camped on the other side of the mountain near Rich Field Creek.
Back at their hideout, the boys held a meeting. Lots were drawn and the three who drew the shortest stitch were chosen. Then all 22 boys took a solemn pledge of secrecy not to reveal the identity of the three. That pledge was never broken.
Before dawn the three boys left their camp, heading for Rich Field Creek and carrying the Confederate rifles. Just as the sun was rising over the mountain, three shots rang out, and the Hunter fell dead. It was a terrible act for these young Quaker boys, raised to despise violence and taught to turn the other cheek. The boys paid for it the rest of their lives with guilty consciences.
All 22 boys avoided the mountain for the rest of their lives.
People began calling the area Purgatory Mountain. They believed that the ghost of the Hunter remained, forced to walk the land forever as a punishment for his evil life. They say early in the morning just as the sun is rising on the mountain, you can still see the spirit of the Hunter roaming the mountains, still recruiting soldiers for his ghostly army.
Today, however, there’s no hunting on Purgatory Mountain. In 1971 it became home of the North Carolina Zoological Park. You see, peace came slowly to Purgatory Mountain but it arrived at last.
— This story was edited by Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry. She can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.