This past July 5th Knobite Corner experienced a weather phenomenon not common to this area. Called a derecho, it slammed into us from an odd direction–north by northeast; most of our bad weather moves in from the southwest–and consisted of a hard straight wind at speeds of seventy to ninety miles an hour. It did not turn circular on itself the way a tornado would, but it was quite as destructive, leaving millions of dollars in damage to trees and buildings and at least two dead in its wake in East Tennessee; other places were likewise affected.
There’s a story from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley of a similar sort of windstorm, but in the Shenandoah, the high wind is associated with appearances of a ghost called the Whirlaway.
They called the Shenandoah Valley “Mosby’s Confederacy” during the Civil War. It was home base to a Virginia cavalry battalion, led by a commissioned Confederate officer called John Singleton Mosby. Mosby’s Rangers, as they were commonly called, fought guerrilla style; although they did engage Union cavalry, they preferred to target Federal supply lines and railroads and, after raids, would vanish into the general population of the Valley until Mosby called them up again. So successful, and so elusive, were the Rangers that their commander acquired a nickname: the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy.
Mosby survived the war, and has never been reported to haunt the Shenandoah.
The gray ghost of the Shenandoah–the one they call the Whirlaway, whose appearances coincide with appalling windstorms–was, and remains to this day, nameless.
It’s said that the first sign of the Whirlaway’s approach was a brilliant shimmering silvery-green burst of light, out of which emerged the figure of a young man in gray, wearing a kepi-style hat that shadowed his face. He could move, they say, faster than the eye could follow: face him one place and before you could trace the movement, he was in another place, still surrounded by that odd shimmering light.
Sometimes the light was accompanied by the sound of a man’s heavy boots. Always, though, the light was followed by a hard straight wind that could almost blow down a grown man.
Legend has it that the Whirlaway had its origins in a Civil War murder. A young local man, dressed in gray and searching for Mosby, was captured by Federal troops. Although the tradition says that he was a civilian merely seeking to join Mosby’s Rangers, the Federals–angry over a hostile exchange that had left POWs, both Union and from the Rangers, dead–mistook him for an actual Ranger and beat him before dumping his body in front of a stampeding herd of cattle, which finished the job for them. This incident is said to have happened in late 1864, but was forgotten as Union general Philip Sheridan swept into the Shenandoah and proceeded to burn and starve out the natives, and by extension the Rangers.
The first appearance of the Whirlaway, the rushing wind preceded by the sighting of a young faceless man in gray, dates to the autumn of 1870. That time it was encountered by a local squire, who gave the description of the young man and also named the phenomenon “the Whirlaway”, apparently for the movement of the light, but not of the hard straight wind. After that first encounter, the ghost and the wind returned at five or six year intervals for more than half a century.
Over the years a number of farmers and a judge from nearby Front Royal are said to have witnessed the phenomenon, but the most memorable encounter dates to 1925, when a Mrs. Cook and her four daughters were surprised when, as they worked in their front lawn, a hard straight wind nearly knocked them off their feet. As they ran for shelter in the house they heard a man’s heavy tread following them; when they looked back, they saw the silvery-green shimmering light and watched in horror as a man clad in gray appeared in it. They managed to get into the house and bar all the doors and windows, but for the rest of the afternoon they were besieged indoors. They reported, once the wind died and the man vanished, that one of them would spot the man in gray at the front window, and almost simultaneously a scream would come from the back of the house, as another member of the family would spot him there. They were most thankful that the entity never managed to get into the house, although the wind pounded against it for hours.
They were not the only ones to report the Whirlaway’s appearance that day. A family whose farm lay directly across the Shenandoah River from the Cooks’ place also reported seeing the man in the shimmering light, followed by a high wind.
There seem to have been no further reports of the Whirlaway since that 1925 incident. One can only hope that the young man finally is at rest, and when the wind blows hard, it’s only wind and not a haunting reminder of an old and brutal death.
Christopher K. Coleman tells the story of the Whirlaway in his 1999 book Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.