Note: many early sources refer to this sacred piece of land as the Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery, something I must admit that I too have done and occasionally still do. While Confederate soldiers make up the majority of those buried on this piece of land, there are also Union soldiers and other local residents who rest here. For this article I am opting to remove the name Confederate out of the title to honor all those buried on this sacred piece of land.
Arriving at the Camp Chase Cemetery, which is located along Sullivant Avenue in the Hilltop region of Columbus, Ohio, the first thing I noticed was there was no parking for visitors. Only after driving around the area for a couple of minutes did I finally locate a parking spot a couple blocks away. The only bad thing about the spot I found was it was located on the opposite side of Sullivant Avenue from the cemetery and there was no marked location to cross the four lanes of traffic. Thankfully, that morning there was very little traffic and taking my life in my own hands, I quickly crossed the street to the Camp Chase Cemetery.
Near the entrance to the cemetery was a brown Ohio Historical Marker and I walked over to read the history of Camp Chase. Organized in the spring of 1861 as a place for recruitment and training for the Union Army, the camp was named after Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln and former governor of Ohio.
Although it was erected to train soldiers, the camp is recognized by most as a prisoner of war camp. The camp consisted of 160 buildings which housed both Southern soldiers and civilians loyal to the Confederacy. At one time during the war the camp contained more than eight thousand prisoners.
The living conditions at Camp Chase were harsh for those who were detained there. The Union was focused more upon feeding and training the new recruits than the welfare of the prisoners. With the prisoners starving and the prison being overcrowded, outbreaks of disease were fairly common. The worst outbreak was during the winter of 1863-1864 when smallpox wrecked havoc among the prisoners killing close to five hundred men in one month.
Over two thousand Confederate prisoners died at Camp Chase. The dead were initially buried in one of Columbus’ city cemeteries, but when the prison established its own cemetery in 1863, those bodies were removed from local cemeteries and reinterred at Camp Chase. After the war ended, thirty-one Confederate soldiers who were buried at Camp Dennison – located near Cincinnati – would join their fellow comrades at the Camp Chase Cemetery. While the government purchased the land in 1879, it appears that little was done to upkeep the cemetery until Union veteran William H. Knauss became involved. Due to his efforts, both Union and Confederate veterans donated money towards the cemetery’s upkeep. In 1904, Congress allocated money for maintenance of the Camp Chase Cemetery and in 1973 the Camp Chase site, including the cemetery, was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
After I had finished reading the Ohio Historical Marker, I made my way up the steps pausing at the open gate. The noise of the passing traffic seemed to disappear as I took in the rows and rows of white headstones of those buried on this sacred piece of land. The vast majority of them belonged to the Confederate soldiers who died in the Prisoner of War Camp. But they were not the only ones resting here – a number of graves belonged to Union soldiers and also to locals. A quick scan of the cemetery did reveal a number of flags from both the Union and the Confederacy flapping lazily in the breeze and a handful of graves were adorned with flowers – their service remembered by the current generation.
As I stood there, I took in a number of monuments located within the walls of the cemetery. Immediately to my right was a cannonball on top of a small granite stone – the memorial states it was a Confederate cannonball fired during the Battle of Vicksburg. A little farther to the right was an educational sign with information about the cemetery and the improvements that have been made over the years.
In the middle of the cemetery a Confederate soldier stands on top a granite arch watching over the dead buried here. Engraved into the arch is the word “Americans.” Originally a wooden arch, the current one was erected in 1902. Within the arch is a three-foot tall boulder that was placed in the cemetery in 1897. The inscription on the boulder states: “2260 Confederate Soldiers of the war 1861-1865 buried in this enclosure.”
Note: When looking into the history of Camp Chase, I found the official government website for the cemetery. They note that the number of Confederate buried here is slightly less than noted on the boulder. The official number put forth by the government is 2,168 people are buried within the walls of the cemetery, not the number listed on the boulder.
As I wandered among the stones, I took in the names and the various units they fought for. I finally paused at grave number 233, the grave of Benjamin F. Allen, who is probably the most noted burial in the cemetery. Allen served with the Company D of the Fiftieth Tennessee Infantry, which was formed in Stewart County.
Benjamin isn’t why most visit his grave. Most arrive in an attempt to see the supernatural visitor who is known to leave freshly picked flowers on his grave. Known as The Lady in Grey, and also as The Grey Lady, many believe her to be the ghost of Louisiana Ransburgh Briggs.
According to word of mouth, Louisiana was engaged to Allen before he was captured and sent to Camp Chase. While this is the story that is often repeated, there is no evidence that Louisiana and Benjamin knew each other in life.
Louisiana would have only been in her early teens at the time of the Civil War. She was from New Madrid, Missouri and had been sent to live with relatives in Columbus at the start of the war. After the end of the war she would marry a local man, Mr. Joseph Briggs. Her love of the South was still strong and Mrs. Briggs would visit the cemetery and place flowers on all the graves, not just Benjamin’s. She would dress in a grey gown with a matching veil as a means of hiding her identity. After all, the idea of decorating the graves of those deemed to be traitors was a very unpopular one. Though death claimed her in 1950, she is said to still haunt the cemetery.
The Lady in Grey is most often at the grave of Benjamin Allen, although some have seen her standing at the grave of the Unknown Soldier. Other times, though she isn’t spotted, the sound of a lady’s crying can be heard in the area around Benjamin’s grave. Exactly why she seems to have an attachment to Benjamin’s grave is not known.
Note: I’ve found in a couple places a suggestion that two different Ladies in Grey wander the cemetery. One is the spirit of Mrs. Briggs, who decorated the graves while she was alive and is referred to as the “Veiled Lady.” A second lady, also dressed in grey, is the one who searches for her lost love who died at Camp Chase. This unidentified lady is the Lady in Grey spotted near the grave of Benjamin Allen.
On the day of my visit, the Lady in Grey failed to show up: I did not see her, nor did I hear her crying. There were no flowers on Benjamin’s grave, though a couple of the graves did have artificial flowers decorating them. I continued to wander among the stones, taking in the names and units, but keeping an eye out for other visitors, which did arrive, although none were supernatural. A family arrived to wander the cemetery. A gentlemen from Richmond, who was doing a tour of Ohio Civil War sites, stopped to talk – I soon discovered he was originally from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where his son and daughter still live. Another couple arrived and were reading the historical markers near the entrance.
With more visitors arriving, I finished paying my respects to those buried there, and slipped silently out the gates leaving them to their eternal slumber among the busy streets of the city.