Every year, the city park in Martinsburg, WV, fills to overflowing for its annual display of 4th of July fireworks. Today, the park is a wonderful green space with pavilions, picnic tables, miniature golf, and a swimming pool. During the Civil War, it was a large open space with a major freshwater source. Close to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the space was used as a camp by soldiers in gray and blue throughout the war. During those frequent times when the armies fought for control of the town, men died violently in the park.
A few years ago, one extended family arrived at the park several hours before the fireworks were to begin. They wanted just the right spot to spread their blankets and enjoy the goodies in their picnic basket. Altogether, there were twelve of them; five adults and seven children. After dinner, the children left the picnic site to roam through the gathering crowd while the adults lazed on the blankets and ignited a couple of firecrackers of their own.
The grandfather was the first to notice the smell. He turned his head in the direction of the offending odor and saw a teenage boy leaning on a nearby tree. The teenager didn’t seem to notice the family but, the family certainly noticed him and the pungent odor that seemed to be wafting off of him. They described the odor in various ways; old sweat, horse flop, rotting garbage, or the smell of rancid meat.
All agreed it was such an awful smell, they weren’t going to put up with it a minute longer. The father yelled at the boy saying, “Get out of here, Boy, you’re stinking up the place!” The teenage boy continued to lean against the tree, ignoring what he must have heard.
Outraged, the mother said, “That’s it! I’m going to get a cop!” And, off she charged with a full head of steam.
In a few minutes, she returned with a uniformed policeman. “He’s right over there,” she said as she pointed dramatically to the tree where she had last seen the smelly teenage boy. He was gone and her normally loud and rowdy family was utterly silent.
“We were all watching that kid,” said the grandfather to no one in particular. “He just disappeared in front of our eyes!” The older man turned to the police officer and said, “I know you won’t believe us but I’m pretty sure we just saw a ghost!”
That night, the police at the park received two other complaints about a foul-smelling teenage boy. He was never found.
The next day, I met with one of the officers who had been at the park and responded to one of the complaints. “Everyone who smelled and saw that boy described him the about the same way; 5 foot tall, torn brown pants, filthy red checked shirt, suspenders, no shoes, filthy feet, and a weird flat top cap with a small brim in the front. Do you think he could have been a Confederate soldier?”
Yes, indeed, officer!
Confederate soldiers were often ragged. Soap was unavailable. Caps with “weird flat tops and small brims” were worn by Confederate soldiers. They were called kepis.