Dayton Lisafeld had listened attentively to the tour guide all afternoon, despite the unrelenting summer sun beating down on Fort Monroe and Chesapeake Bay. The stone walls of the fort were even hot to the touch, but they had withstood the test of time since Simon Bernard, a former aide to the great Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, designed them nearly two centuries ago to be the strongest in North America.
The tour guide was a woman in her early thirties with a pear-shaped body and curly brown hair. She possessed a sunny, even charming, disposition, despite her uncomfortably tight khaki shorts and the rivers of sweat that ran down her forehead. She told the assembled group about how Captain John Smith had built Fort Algernourne in 1609 at the present site of Fort Monroe, and how the current fort, upon completion in 1834, was known as the “Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay.” She stopped to explain that the name was an allusion to the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the “Pillars of Hercules” in Greek mythology, before moving on to Fort Monroe’s role in the Civil War.
Dayton shifted nervously and waited for the tour to finish. His parents and he were on vacation and had spent the night at the Chamberlin Hotel on Old Point Comfort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just southwest of the base. That night, as his parents were settling down to bed, he decided to go for a walk in the cool night air. Because Fort Monroe was still an active military instillation, he had to be careful as he walked the deserted streets. That’s when he saw it-the thing he desperately wanted to ask his tour guide about, but he was too embarrassed in front of his parents, the Asian couple with the sunglasses, the fourth grade history class and their teacher, and-most importantly-the three girls who were already giggling and pointing at him.
“This was the only fort in the South that never fell into Confederate hands,” the tour guide continued. She could see the fourth graders were getting restless in the heat, so she moved the group closer to the Casemate Museum and the shade. “From here, Major General Benjamin Butler ordered that all slaves who escaped to Union lines would be considered contraband and not returned to their former masters. Can anyone tell me what this order was called?” No one raised their hands. “It was known as the Fort Monroe Doctrine,” the tour guide explained without losing her smile.
Dayton’s mind drifted back to the previous night. He was walking not far from where the tour group was now, on the other side of a cluster of military apartments. It was dark, almost pitch black. The moon was just a sliver and hidden behind wispy, gray clouds. A street lamp buzzed and hummed, and its soft, bluish light barely illuminated the lamp itself. Dayton got a chill, and he stopped. Something in the back of his mind-nothing more than a feeling, really-warned him not to continue down that street. He looked at the apartment windows. They were all dark. Not a single person was awake. That was strange enough, given that it was only-he looked down at his cell phone. It was already past midnight. When he looked back up at the street, a cool breeze drifted past and he caught a whiff of the ocean. He no longer felt alone. The street was as empty as it had been before, but now that feeling in the back of his mind grew more insistent. That primitive primate’s brain that warned his distant ancestors of a predator’s approach told him to run.
So he did. He ran from the narrow avenue until he was safely back at the hotel.
“Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner here, in this building, for two years after the war,” the tour guide related. “Now, I’m going to take you into the museum, where you will see a recreation of his cell. The conditions of his imprisonment were terrible. Kids, try to imagine if your bedrooms looked like this!” A few of the adults laughed.
With the class of fourth graders leading the way, the tourists filed through the door into the Casement Museum. Inside, two wax figures in blue uniforms, frozen in time, were in the midst of loading a large black cannon that was pointed toward a small opening in the rampart. A triangular stack of cannonballs sat nearby on the brick floor. “Imagine, sleeping here without no heat or air conditioning, fed only biscuits and water,” the tour guide said.
“Why was that man treated so bad?” one of the children asked.
The tour guide’s eyes lit up. It was the first question anyone had asked during the entire tour. “Imagine what the nation had just suffered,” she replied. “A great many Yankees blamed this one man for it all. President Lincoln had been assassinated, but here was the president of the Confederacy-of the losing side in the war-alive and well. A lot of folks think his imprisonment here was revenge, plain and simple.”
Dayton grew more impatient. He folded his arms across his chest and sighed deeply. No one seemed to notice but his father, who gave him a light shove. “How long is this thing?” Dayton whispered.
“I think it’s almost over,” his father said.
Their tour guide turned and stared right at them. “Did someone over there have a question?”
Dayton shook his head ‘no.’
She returned to her narrative and then, after a few more minutes, finally released the group to look around the casement on their own.
Clearing his throat, Dayton approached the tour guide, who met his gaze with a characteristic grin.
“Excuse me, but has anyone ever seen anything strange around here?”
“Strange?” the tour guide echoed. “Why, sure. People say they’ve seen the ghosts of Jeff Davis, General Grant, John Smith, and even Abe Lincoln himself.”
Dayton hadn’t expected that answer, and he was momentarily at a loss for words. “I mean, uh, on the streets here. On one particular street. I don’t remember what it was called, but it was just over there, on the other side of those apartments.”
The tour guide smiled a knowing smile. “Ah, you mean Ghost Alley.”
“It’s an old legend about Matthews Street. Why do you ask?”
“I saw something there last night.” Dayton shook his head. “I thought I saw something, anyway. It felt like someone was there.”
The tour guide briefly took her eyes off of him and looked around to see where the other members of the tour group had gone. Seeing they were scattered all over the museum, she turned her attention back to Dayton. “Let me tell you the legend,” she offered, “but this is just between you and me.”
Dayton nodded, and the tour guide began her story.
“During the Civil War, there was a captain in the Union Army named Wilhelm Kurtz, who commanded a company in General Butler’s army at Fort Monroe. Wilhelm had a young wife named Camille, but the couple had no children. Camille was at least ten years younger than her husband and what you might call a free spirit, although her dalliances were strictly limited by the fact that all the officers on base knew each other and all kept tabs on each other’s wives. Wilhelm was a very jealous man. He made sure he knew where Camille was at all times, and anything she did outside of his gaze aroused suspicion. Some at the fort even whispered that Wilhelm might have lashed out at his wife on more than one occasion.
“Despite all of this, Camille had never been guilty of doing anything more than simply being a flirtatious young socialite. That all changed on one warm summer evening, just like the one last night.”
A fourth grade teacher, with two students in tow, interrupted with a question about where the washrooms were located. Dayton tapped his foot impatiently.
“Where was I?” the tour guide asked. “Right, I was just getting to the important part. See, it just so happened that a young officer of French descent named Pierre arrived at the fort along with a group of reinforcements, and Camille immediately caught his eye. Oddly enough, Wilhelm treated Pierre like a son, and although he was suspicious of everyone else, he never suspected Pierre and Camille would ever act improperly toward one another.
“And they didn’t, at least not until Major General Butler sent Captain Kurtz on a special mission to the Confederate capital of Richmond. While he was away, Camille and Pierre met in secret, on the darkest street in Fort Monroe: Matthews Street. There were no lamps on that street, and back in those days it was really more of an alley that hardly anyone ever traveled down. Pierre soon convinced poor Camille to do more than just hold hands, and they were in bed together when Wilhelm came back from Richmond. According to legend, Wilhelm was so enraged that he fired his pistol at Pierre and missed, hitting his wife by mistake. She died the next morning, and Wilhelm was convicted of her murder and sentenced to several years in prison.”
“Is that why they call Matthews Street ‘Ghost Alley’?” Dayton asked.
The tour guide wrinkled her nose. “I’m getting there,” she said. “That named was earned much later. By the time Wilhelm finished his sentence, the Civil War had been over for several years. He was a much older man, and I suppose he needed to return to Fort Monroe one final time to find peace. A young officer, only knowing that Wilhelm was a veteran, allowed Wilhelm to bunk with him for the duration of his stay. The two became friends, and after Wilhelm died, he willed all his possessions to this officer. Among his possessions was a letter kept in a safe deposit box. The letter told a strange tale.
“When Wilhelm returned to Fort Monroe, he decided to walk the lonely avenues and eventually ended up on Matthews Street. It was dark-just like last night, but after a short while he perceived a soft glow that slowly grew into an apparition of his long-dead wife, Camille. He described her as being brilliant and radiantly white. Wilhelm, trembling, collapsed onto his knees and cried out for forgiveness. He wrote that the phantom gave a long sigh before it vanished into the night. He never spoke a word about the incident to anyone, as far as I know, but he wrote it all down in the letter.
“That is why Matthews Street is called ‘Ghost Alley’.”
Dayton began to wonder if he had sensed the presence of Camille, but his parents interrupted his thoughts.
“Are you ready to go, champ?” his father asked. “Your mother and me are starving.”
Slowly, their tour guide gathered the Asian couple with the sunglasses, the fourth grade history class and their teacher, the three girls, and Dayton’s parents together again and led them back out of the Casement Museum into the open air. As the years passed and Dayton married and had his own family, he never forgot the strange feeling that night in Ghost Alley. The tale of Wilhelm and Camille became one of his children’s favorite bedtime stories.
Michael Kleen is owner and proprietor of Black Oak Media. He holds a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education, and is the author of the book Haunting Illinois: A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State, among other works.