Some mother’s pride
Who’s going to tell her
where her boy died. . .
Tennessee Wesleyan College, a small United Methodist school in Athens, turns up frequently in books about Tennessee hauntings and college ghosts thanks to a historically improbable tale about a daughter of the great Cherokee chief Attakullakulla, her British soldier husband, and two trees. There are statues of Nocatula and Conestoga, the doomed lovers, on campus, donated by alumni; such is the power of that story.
When I was a student there in the 1980s, though, another campus ghost story was passed around among us. That story dates to the Civil War, when what was then Athens Female Academy’s lone building–now called Old College–was used, during the Chattanooga campaign, as a hospital, successively by both Union and Confederate forces.
He was a southern soldier boy, they say, and young–barely seventeen. People grow up fast in wartime, and he was no exception: you could see in the old man’s eyes that looked out of his child’s face that he had seen and done more than any boy should have to see and do.
But he was a good soldier, who had the misfortune to be wounded and taken to the big building on the campus of the girls’ school. An amputation with gangrene following took his young life, there in an upper room near a window. Toward the end he was delirious, and like any child sick unto death and in a strange place, he bedeviled those around him calling weakly, Mama? Mama. . .
Then he was gone.
Eventually, the UMC made a college of the ladies’ academy. The old building was supplanted by newer ones, and stood empty for many years until finally it was refurbished and, for a time, housed a museum.
Still, there were stories: on some nights, especially in the fall of the year, students reported seeing an odd light in one particular window of Old College, and sometimes, a flash of a grayish color passing across it.
Parking has always been a problem on campus (some things don’t change), and one young female day student, in the fall of 1980, had the misfortune, one morning, to have to park at the Methodist church on the corner next to campus. Although spaces cleared out later in the day, she was so busy she completely forgot to move her car to a closer lot.
She had a night class, and by the time class was dismissed, it was full dark, and cold, and windy, and she had to walk alone clear across campus to her car in the church lot.
As she made her way through the dim light cast by streetlamps, she heard something that was affirmatively not one of her fellow students, most of whom were already in their cars and gone. She stopped and listened.
It sounded like a boy’s voice–a young boy’s voice, barely past the breaking onset of manhood.
Mama? . . .Mama. . .
She looked up toward Old College. In an upper room, there was a light where no light should be, and a figure in Confederate gray silhouetted against it.
She had never heard anything so pitiful in her life.
Then light and figure were gone, and the chilly wind carried off one last call: Mammmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. . .
She nearly broke her neck getting to her car, and didn’t sleep a wink that night, haunted by what she had seen and heard.
She didn’t confide in anyone for several days, but she finally went to an English professor, a lovely lady who had been at the college longer than any other instructor and knew its history and secrets like no other, and told her strange story.
Yes, the professor told her; there had long been tales of the ghost of a young Confederate soldier who looked out a window on an upper floor of Old College. But this was the first time, she added, that anyone had heard him calling for his mother.
I envy you, she added. I’ve been here many a dark night in the fall of the year, but I’ve never seen him.
The story goes that the coed transferred to another school after fall quarter that year. She would rather not have heard the dying boy’s calls, and didn’t want to risk hearing them again.
some mother’s son
who’s going to tell her
that her boy is gone?
Don’t go searching for me in 1980s online yearbooks or whatnot; I hadn’t yet adopted my pen name, and in any case, my career at TWC was not an especially distinguished one. And no, I wasn’t the girl who heard the young boy calling for his mother; the only night classes I ever had were in spring quarter, in daylight savings time, so I likely would never have encountered him. I have friends who did, though, and they told me this story.
Musicologists will recognize the song from which this post takes its name: “Somebody’s Darling”, a lachrymose piece written apparently c. 1864 with lyrics by Marie Ravenal de la Coste and music by John Hill Hewitt (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). In Ken Burns’ companion volume to his series The Civil War, it’s said that some soldiers would, with nervous bravado, point to corpses by the wayside and say that’s Somebody’s Darlin’ back there. . . And, if I remember right, in Gone with the Wind a distraught India Wilkes, mourning for one of the Tarleton twins, begs Scarlett O’Hara not to sing it.
For the story of Nocatula and Conestoga and the two trees, the best sources are Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey (1977) and Daniel W. Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities (2004).
As for the story of Somebody’s Darlin’, other than a post written some years ago by a friend of mine on the defunct Blogstream, I don’t think I’ve run across it anywhere else.