By Barry Jones
It was late Fall in the year of 1814. A strong storm was building to the west. Four horsemen, their black capes streaming behind them as they rode into the wind, were grateful to find a wayside inn to shelter for the night. The inn sat beside the hard pack, dirt road just to the west of the growing town of Nashville. It bordered on a small plantation that one day would be called Belle Meade.
The horsemen, young officers of the 4th Regiment of Tennessee Mounted Volunteers, were on their way to join Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson as he was preparing to fight the British in New Orleans. It was to be the final battle in the war of 1812. They were young men, brash men, full of themselves. This would be their first chance to fight for their country, to help it finally to win freedom from the British. After the men had settled in, they ate a hearty meal of roast venison washed down with ample quantities of the landlord’s ale. The more they drank, the bolder they became. They began to boast about what they would do to the British when they came to battle. Finally, the landlord, himself a military veteran, having served with Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary war, rebuked the men. He told them that they needed to prove their bravery before they boasted about it. They scoffed at the landlord, called him a feeble old man. Angrily the landlord challenged them. He challenged them to walk at night through the grounds of the nearby plantation. They laughed at him and told him that they had no fear of the night.
And so the landlord told them of the legend of the ghost of the plantation overseer; a man who had been scalped in a skirmish with the Cherokee after he had raped an Indian maiden. He told them of the cemetery atop a hill above a log cabin named Dunham’s Station (owned by a Mr. John Harding). He told them of the unmarked grave outside the cemetery gates believed to be the last resting place of the evil overseer; a bare plot of ground barely the size of a man, where nothing would grow. He told them that no one dared to walk the plantation at night … not when the ghost was about.
Again, the young soldiers laughed at him and told him they were not afraid. They would accept his challenge.
And so it was agreed. The men were to meet the landlord in the stables adjacent to the Dunham Station cabin at midnight. Then, one at a time, they would walk from the stables up the hill, past the unmarked grave, to the cemetery and back. The first man would carry his sword and plunge it into the ground in the midst of the cemetery to prove his presence and then return to the stables. The second man would retrieve the sword. The third would take the sword back to the cemetery, and the fourth would then retrieve the sword for the final time.
They drew straws. Lieut. Jonathan Yates, perhaps the most brash and arrogant of the men, drew the short straw and claimed the right to be first. He drew his sword, a burnished steel blade not yet baptized in British blood; a sword with an edge so sharp that it would slice through the skin and sinews of any enemy; a sword with a sturdy, bulbous hand shield, polished to perfection that could sparkle and dazzle any opponent.
Then, as the young lieutenant was preparing to set off, the landlord gave him one final warning. He told the soldier that the ghost of the evil overseer was called by the sound of the log cabin’s warning bell. “Heed the bell,” he told him. “Heed the bell.”
And so the young soldier set off on his task. The storm was still approaching. Nearer now, lightning flashing ever brighter, thunderclaps even louder, blustery winds even stronger as to ruffle the man’s hair and billow his cape around him. He walked up the hill, just past the bare patch of ground the size of man where nothing would grow. He passed through the iron gates and entered the cemetery. Just then, there was a massive lightning strike and the simultaneous, immense crash of thunder so loud that it seemed to shake even the gravestones; so loud that it burst the restraining rope holding down the warning bell. Unfettered, the bell began to toll slowly in the wind … slowly … mournfully. Horrified, the young lieutenant recalled the landlord’s warning that the bell called the ghost of the overseer. “Heed the warning bell,” the landlord had told him. “Heed the bell”. Hastily, the soldier raised his sword above his head, and plunged it deep into the earth. But as he turned to flee that fearful place, something grabbed him about his shoulders, holding him tight. The more he struggled to get free, the tighter he was held. The metal clasp holding his cape about his neck, pressed deeply into his throat nearly cutting off his air supply. With his last breath, he uttered a shrill shriek; a piercing scream that reverberated around the plantation grounds.
His friends waiting at the stables heard that desperate cry and raced up the hill; raced past the patch of ground where nothing would grow; raced through the iron gates and into the cemetery. Just then there was another flash of lightning – more distant now, but still sufficient to light the scene. They saw their fellow officer standing rigid, leaning as if into the wind. But they saw even more. Behind the man protruding from the ground was a skull glowing, glistening, reflecting the lightning. The scene was too much for them. In terror, they turned. These brave men, these future heroes of the Battle of New Orleans, ran back down the hill like frightened school children back to the shelter of the stables. They huddled for the rest of the night too fearful to move … too fearful to make another attempt to rescue their friend.
By the next morning, the storm had passed, the wind abated and stilled. The warning bell no longer tolled its slow, mournful song. The men left the shelter of the stables and made their way up to the cemetery. They found their friend where they had left him. They found him with a grotesque expression on his face, a frozen mask of death. The man had died of fright. But they found more. Behind the man was the skull they thought they had seen. But it was not a skull. It was the bulbous hand shield of the sword, a sword that had been buried deep, buried deep through the man’s cape pinning him to the ground, holding him fast.
They pulled out the man’s sword, freeing the man’s cape, releasing him from its deadly clutches. Unrestrained, he fell to the ground like a dead old oak tree. They picked him up, carried him back to the wayside inn, and paid the landlord to have him buried. Then they rode on towards New Orleans. But there would be one less man to stand beside General Jackson in the upcoming battle. One less man to fight the British. One less man … one less man.