Ghosts of Cahaba
by Gary Wright
“. . . you deadly little ghostlings . . . Mama says go back to bed!”
—Jeaniene Frost, ‘Night Huntress’
Ruins of Fort Morgan Prison
The State of Alabama came into being in 1819, after the Creek War of 1813–1814 ended and the Treaty of Fort Jackson was signed. Its capital was chosen as nearly in the center of the state as possible. A site was selected where the Cahaba River joins the Alabama River, and was smack dab in the middle of a swampy wilderness. The site was surveyed, and building started immediately. In 1820, Cahaba (Cahawba) had started to function as a state government. However, the site had been poorly chosen, as the swampy area was prone to flooding and the wetlands favored mosquitoes instead of humans. Yellow fever and malaria became common, and the place gained fame for being dangerous and a menace to health. In 1826 the legislature finally moved the capital to a place more inclined to health, finally winding up in Montgomery, where the new capital was built in the middle of a pasture atop aptly named ‘Goat Hill.’
Cahaba was abandoned but still clung precariously to an existence of sorts. Cotton soon became king in the South, and Cahaba, superbly located at the confluence of two great rivers, soon found itself the port city of the cotton growers. By 1859 the place was a boom town once again, as steamboats fought their way to the bluffs and laded a plethora of cotton bales to feed European mills of the burgeoning industrial revolution. Then, came the Civil War. The cotton economy of the South was shattered, and Cahaba, like so many of its Southern sisters, felt the economic, not to mention the cultural, impact. Cahaba’s death blow came when the Confederates seized the railroad’s rolling stock and moved it elsewhere for the war effort.
A huge cotton warehouse in the heart of the town was converted in June of 1863 into the Cahaba Military Prison. When General Ulysses S. Grant put an end to prisoner exchanges, Cahaba’s prisoner population exploded to over 3,000. Though conditions were terrible in all military prisons, north and south, Cahaba made a reputation for its humane treatment of prisoners. To be sure, the old warehouse and stockade were cramped, and food, medicine, and supplies were nearly non-existent. However, the prison’s death rate of two percent was among the lowest of any military prisons in either North or South. Of the nearly 10,000 prisoners held there during its existence, it is believed that as few as 150 perished.
The fortunes of these humanely treated and recently released prisoners of the Cahaba Prison, however, soon took a sad and tragic turn. The steamboat Sultana was carrying 2,300 newly freed prisoners to their homes from confinement at Cahaba and the infamous prison at Andersonville, Georgia, when her steam engines exploded and burned on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. As many as 2,000 men died in the explosion and fire or in hospital beds following the tragedy. These brave Union soldiers from the best and the worst of Confederate prisons suffered the same sad fortunes of blind fate on their way home to the arms of their loved ones. It is said, though, that even in death these soldiers were not able to find rest and redemption.
It wasn’t long after the Sultana’s explosion that reports began to circulate of ghosts of Cahaba military prison. The first report was by a couple walking near the home of Colonel Josiah Pegues, when they saw a ball of white light floating in the air ahead of them. Others, through the years, have said they saw ghostly figures clothed in tattered Union uniforms huddling together for warmth and comfort as they floated in the cool night air near the old prison remains.
All but the very foundations of the old cotton warehouse turned prison are gone. Ivy, come-along vines, and kudzu cover practically everything now creating a surreal scene of abandoned buildings, trees, and ground that are blended into one great piece-work quilt. The town, itself, is but indistinguishable from the surrounding swamp and encroaching forests. However, it seems that the pitiful figures of ghosts cling to the small bit of comfort and warmth which they found in the last refuge of humanity these prisoners were afforded this side of the great beyond. It is said that, to this day, these ghostly wraiths look for something in the next world that they found little of here in middle earth – justice and mercy.
The Cahawba site is now an Archaeological Interpretative Park. Visitors are welcome. Roam the abandoned streets of the old capital city, view the moss-covered ruins, read the interpretive signs, and contemplate Cahawba’s mysterious disappearance. Water still flows through the old ornamental well heads. Columns and chimneys mark old house sites. Inscriptions on gravestones tell the stories of forgotten people. Old-fashioned roses and bulbs still bloom each spring.
Images of chimney and Cahawba sign are licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.civilwaralbum.com
Photo of ruins is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.pinterest.com