Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Confederate Engineer Communes with the Beyond

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Engineer E.A. Jack of the ironclad CSS Virginia would experience memorable naval combat aboard multiple ships during the American Civil War, but an experience during a séance in North Carolina would also stay with him for the remainder of his life. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
With Halloween upon us, we take a moment to visit a subject somewhat out of the normal realm of naval history and drift slightly into the paranormal. Spiritualism was a quasi-religious movement that saw its height of popularity from about 1840 into the early 20th century. By the 1850s, the movement had upwards of two million followers, mostly in New England. The movement itself was based somewhat in the increasing need to meld new scientific ideas with existing religious doctrine. Spiritualism was based in a belief that spirits of the deceased had both the desire and ability to communicate with the living. In her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, historian Drew Gilpin Faust wrote, “By the time the war broke out, spiritualist notions were sufficiently common to influence and engage even those who were not formal adherents.” The rising popularity of those who practiced spiritualism and communicated with the dead saw an increasingly greater demand from a grieving public in the bloody wake of the American Civil War.

Prior to the Civil War, the act of dying had been a community or family affair and was mostly done near a person’s home, amongst loved ones. The recently deceased would be interred at a local burial ground and the family would be left with a tangible, physical monument to mourn their loss. The massive displacement of people and mobilization of enormous armies in 1861 changed that. The spiritualism movement was frequently embraced as a means for people to communicate with their recently deceased loved ones who were too often buried in unknown or unmarked battlefield locations, never to be recovered. 

Months after the battle of Gaines' Mill, Virginia (just east of Richmond), the unburied dead made a macabre subject for a stereographic card.  Those willing to buy such a card included the thousands of families who were wondering what might have happened to their loved ones.  (Library of Congress)

In his memoirs, former CSS Virginia engineer and Portsmouth, Virginia native Eugenius Alexander Jack recalled a séance performed by a “spiritualist” he witnessed in Wilmington, North Carolina, while he was awaiting assignment to the ironclad CSS North Carolina.
I will depart a little from this history of myself to tell of Mrs. Gilliam who was a most wonderful woman. Though not a spiritualist in faith she possessed the power of producing the manifestations of those mysterious knockings called ‘Spirits’. In fact while she was talking to people about other subjects entirely, these knockings could be heard on the back of her chair or on pieces of furniture in other parts of the room. These were the only manifestations of this kind that I had ever seen, and as I was not disposed to admit a superstitious reason for them, I sought a scientific one. I felt after these tests that somehow there was truth in the theory of Psychic Force. For how could the answer to my questions be correct when only I knew them. I could write of many more mysterious things that I heard and saw at these séances, but these are enough.[1]” 
The rise of the mid-19th century spiritualism movement provided both entertainment and a possible way to communicate with the dead. The cover of this popular sheet music from 1853 illustrates a séance. (Wikimedia Commons)

E. A. Jack, an educated man and an officer, would seem to have been made a believer after his experience. We are left to wonder what other amazing or frightful things Jack experienced while attending the séance at Mrs. Gilliam’s home. Besides the knockings, it would appear communication between the living and dead at the séance was “spelled out” out a planchette, the precursor to the better known Ouija Board. What the spirits revealed to Jack and Mrs. Gilliam’s other guests remains a mystery.
The planchette would be manipulated by the users in order to write out communications from the dead. A pencil would be inserted into the board and small castors would support the board while “writing.” (Wikimedia Commons) 
A planchette that was used in Great Britain during the 1860s. (Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Flanders, Alan E. Editor. Memoirs of E.A. Jack; Steam Engineer, CSS Virginia. White Stone, Virginia: Brandylane Publishers, 1998. 30

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