Headless Horseman haunts Stones River Battlefield

Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post, October 18, 2009

Col. Julius Peter Garesché (USA)

Does the ghost of a headless horseman still haunt Stones River Battlefield?

Yes, if you believe anonymous witnesses to the sight and postings on the Internet.

The rider in question is said to be the ghost of Lt. Col. Julius P. Garesche, who died near the railroad line just past the current site of Stones River National Cemetery. A sign marks the site where Garesche fell from his mount.

On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 1862, Gen. William S. Rosecrans was riding along Union Army lines near the Round Forest. Accompanying him was his popular, but humble chief of staff Garesche.

Capt. Henry Semple of Semple’s Alabama Battery spotted the officers and told a gunner to fire at them. A round of solid shot missed Rosecrans, but struck Garesche, decapitating him. Garesche’s blood and brains covered the commanding general.

Garesche’s horse galloped another 20 yards before his body fell off near the tracks of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.

After dusk, Garesche’s West Point classmate, Brig. Gen. William S. Hazen searched for his body. Hazen discovered it and recovered his West Point ring and his well-read Catholic devotional, “Imitation of Christ.”

“I chanced to pass the spot where he lay. He was alone, no soldier – dead nor living – near him. I saw but a headless trunk: an eddy of crimson foam had issued where his head should be,” Hazen wrote.

“I at once recognized his figure, it lay so naturally, his right hand across his breast. As I approached, dismounted, and bent over him, the contraction of a muscle extended the hand slowly and slightly towards me,” Hazen said.

His classmate found Garesche’s hand still warm and lifelike.

Hazen took the West Point class ring from Garesche’s finger and his devotional from his pocket.

“There was no time for tears,” the general wrote.

Hazen and a group of volunteers then buried Garesche in a temporary battlefield grave. The rare nighttime burial became fodder for newspaper stories in Union states.

A marker near the railroad tracks not far from Stones River National Cemetery memorializes his death site.

While it was not rare for soldiers to be decapitated by cannon fire, Garesche’s story won national attention due to a series of strange omens that preceded his fall moments into his first battle.

Some 21 years earlier, Garesche had just graduated from West Point and was visiting his father in St. Louis. His father, as the tale goes, had just come into possession of 2,000 acres of land lying at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Woodcutters and squatters beset the land so the elder Garesche dispatched his son and two other armed men to patrol the area. After a long search to find a camping site, Julius discovered a cabin on the banks of the Missouri.

Settling in for the night, Julius was awakened by the sudden collapse of the cabin into the mighty river. He and his compatriots barely escaped disaster. When told the story, Julius’ brother Frederick interpreted the near death experience as an omen of disaster.

The comments of Frederick, who was training for the priesthood, made a strong impression on his brother. A series of life-ending “near misses” compounded Julius’ fears and as the years past, he became more and more involved in mysticism.

Seeking relief from his worries, Garesche became involved in the Society of St. Vincent of Paul, an organization aimed at relieving the suffering among the poor. But as the outbreak of war approached, Julius found himself on the opposite side from many of his Southern relatives. During a heated discussion with an associate, Garesche called his Confederate relatives turncoats and damned them to a living hell.

This out-of-character performance caused Julius to seek out the advice of his brother once again. By this point, his brother Frederick was now a Catholic priest of some prominence.

This sin caused his brother, Father Frederick, to predict Julius’ death in his first battle. Frederick set an 18-month timetable for his brother’s demise.

At first, Julius refused to accept his brother’s prediction. He was, after all, a staff officer who would not be called into combat. But by April of 1862, he began to seek a field commission. His attempts were foiled until his West Point friend, Rosecrans, was appointed to lead the Army of the Cumberland.

On Nov. 5, 1862, Garesche was appointed chief of staff, Army of the Cumberland. He quickly became Rosecrans’ closest confidant.

His last day on earth came soon after with the Army of Cumberland marching from Nashville to Murfreesboro. On the morning of Dec. 31, 1862, Garesche joined in the celebration of High Mass with the Rev. Father Cooney of the 55th Indiana Regiment officiating.

All to soon, it became obvious that the Confederates had beaten Rosecrans to the punch on a surprise attack and the Union Army was quickly falling back. As Rosecrans paused to determine a course of action, Garesche took a moment for prayer in a small grove of trees. He quickly rejoined Rosecrans and quickly rode off to his fate 15 months after his brother’s pronouncement.

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