All God’s children get weary when they roam
Don’t it make you want to go home. . . (Joe South)
Love–despite the myth that St. Valentine’s Day perpetuates–isn’t always a passion for another person. Sometimes, our strongest loves are for places, especially places where we were happy.
Memory, they say, is most strongly evoked, surprisingly, through our sense of smell. It doesn’t always have to be an actual physical odor that takes us back to a happier time and place; sometimes, the scent is a phantom one, perhaps called forth from memory by our longing. So it may have been for a beautiful Alabama girl, who followed a scent of roses to her death.
Out in West Texas, at a military installation called Fort Davis, trouble was brewing in the late winter and early spring of 1861. Back across the Mississippi River, in the older settled areas of the United States, war was coming: war over states’ rights and slavery and economics.
Among the officers stationed at the fort, some said bluntly that, when war broke out, they would return to fight for the Union their forefathers had created a bare eighty years before; others determined that they would fight for the new conglomeration of states that had seceded. Some of the wives at the fort were as strong in their convictions as their husbands.
One, a very young, very new bride, was simply homesick.
Alice Walpole was the Alabama-born wife of a lieutenant not long out of West Point. She was proud of her handsome husband, but she was frightened by all the talk of war; and, as the wife of the youngest officer on base, she was often lonely; she was as yet childless and had little in common with the older wives.
And she hated West Texas. Oh, it was a beautiful place in its way, with its vistas of cliffs and mountains, but it seemed very dry and barren to a girl used to the lush subtropical climate of Alabama: little grass, and the flowers weren’t what she was used to. More than anything that turbulent spring, she missed the early roses that bloomed in her mother’s garden.
It may have been her longing, one morning in early April, that carried a scent of roses to her on a slightly chilly wind.
Oh, if she could only locate the roses! She would dig them up, bring them back to the austere little house she and her husband shared, and transplant them. Come the next spring, they would bloom for her, and make this desolate place seem a little more like home.
Alice put on her heavy, bright-blue woolen cloak and slipped out of the house, guided by that scent toward the mountains. Her husband was out on patrol; there had been recent reports of Apaches nearby, but she figured her brave husband and his troopers had them occupied elsewhere.
Her husband returned to the fort later that evening.
Alice didn’t. Searches found only one trace of her, ever: her blue cloak, somewhere along the way to or from the mountains. They never knew exactly which.
Not long afterwards, though, a guard reported that he had, while on duty, been surprised by the sight of a woman in a blue cloak, hurrying by. He reported that she was carrying an incongruous armful of white roses.
He recognized her after a moment: Lieutenant Walpole’s missing wife!
But when he hailed her, she vanished in her tracks.
Alice Walpole, it appeared, had found her white roses.
When word came that war was declared, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the officers of Fort Davis began packing to return east and join battle. Seven of them resigned their commissions on the spot, intending to offer their services to the Confederacy once they were home. Among the seven was Lieutenant Walpole.
The post commander found, amid the turmoil, that someone had–unseen by anyone–slipped into his office that afternoon and left a vase containing seven white roses on his desk.
Seven roses; seven resignations.
They figured that Alice had left them.
Fort Davis was closed, following the declaration of war, until 1867, and after being restaffed remained open until 1891. It is now one of the best preserved historic military installations in the southwestern US.
Stories say, though, that Alice Walpole has never left the fort. Sometimes she’s seen, hurrying by in her blue cloak. More often, she visits unseen, manifesting as a scent of roses where there are none.
Oops–Forgot something, didn’t I? My sources for this story are Elaine Coleman’s Texas Haunted Forts (2001) and Nancy Roberts’ Civil War Ghost Stories and Legends (1992).