Archived Story

Ghosts on the battlefield

Published 8:23pm Friday, March 28, 2014

Thursday night, as the sky darkened and tiny points of light became visible in the heavens, candles on the battlefield at Horseshoe Bend brightened against the dark landscape.

Two hundred years ago to the day, to the hour, the actual battle was coming to a close.  Most of the 900 lives lost in the fight had already been extinguished by nightfall.

It took Horseshoe Bend Park rangers, volunteers and members of the Creek Nation about three hours to light the candles on the field. As the darkness fell, their efforts were beginning to show.

Lanterns hung on every other white post that stands in a line across the battlefield, roughly where the Red Stick barricade was.

On Andrew Jackson’s side of the barricade, to the left if you were on the road, there were 70 candles burning signifying Jackson’s men and Indian allies who died on the battlefield. It was a lot of candles. But those 70 points of light were overwhelmed by the 800 candles burning on the Red Stick side of the barricade, a carpet of candles that in the distance on the opposite side of the field almost merged into a solid band of light.

I was standing beside the battlefield with a camera on a tripod, trying to capture an image dramatic enough to sum up the event.

I photographed a willing Creek Explorer, William Bear, who stood in front of me looking over the field of candles, a white feather hanging down from his hat. It made a striking image, but I continued to shoot photos as the sky grew darker and darker. Behind me, cars drove toward the battlefield bringing people who wanted to see the luminaries. To my right, more cars that had already made the loop were coming back toward us, their headlights sweeping over the battlefield as they turned.

I kept shooting images, stretching my exposures from 10 to 20 to 30 seconds as it got darker because I thought the headlights would spoil the image. Every now and then the seconds would tick by and no headlights were coming through the image, but the headlights showed up during most of my exposures.

It wasn’t until I saw the images on the computer screen later Thursday night that I realized the role those vehicle lights were playing in recording the battlefield.

The headlights of returning cars, shining low across the field, illuminated the rolling lines of the battlefield without diluting the candles impact.

But it was the lights of the cars approaching behind me that created an image that made the hairs rise up on my arms. There were definite human forms, hugely tall, some distinct and some more ephemeral, standing in the battlefield among the burning candles – shadows of me and the others on the road pushed a hundred yards forward.

It was an optical accident, unplanned and completely explainable.

But the shadowy human forms standing on the battlefield in the darkness, among the burning candles, 200 years after 900 people died on the same piece of ground, gave me goosebumps and burned a battlefield image into my mind that I will not forget.

Boone is publisher of The Outlook.