Dug Hill Road and the Ghost of Marshal Welch

It was dark, and Rusty had been hauling cargo from Missouri to Illinois all day. He decided to take a shortcut up Route 146 from Cape Girardeau to Interstate 57, passing through Jonesboro and Anna along the way. The terrain became rough and hilly as he turned east and began to pass through a narrow strip of the Shawnee National Forest near Hamburg Hill. As his blurry eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of the nearing town, he almost missed the black shape laying on the asphalt. He slammed on his brakes.

Someone must be playing a prank, Rusty thought as he got out of his truck. He noticed through the glare of his headlights that the shape in the road was the body of a man, who wore an outfit that looked like it had come out of a spaghetti western. It was no joke, however. As he got closer, he saw blood oozing from several wounds in the crumpled body. Just then, a motorcycle screeched to a stop in the oncoming lane.

“Is everything all right?” the biker shouted.

By the time Rusty looked up at the newcomer and back at the road, the body was gone.

For more than a century, a ghost has haunted this lonely stretch of Route 146, formerly known as “Dug Hill Road,” in rustic Union County. Although sightings have become less frequent in recent years, the ghost of Provost Marshal Welch has earned an iconic place in the folklore of Southern Illinois. Like many of its kind, this ghost story preserves the memory of a real event, an event that took place at a traumatic time in the history of our state and our country. But the details of this event have become murky and distorted.

While Provost Marshal Welch was actually killed in 1863, every recent retelling of the tale places his murder in 1865. Also, at some point during the reprinting of the story, authors changed Route 146 to “Highway 126,” which has created a very confusing state of affairs for anyone wanting to visit the location. There is no Highway 126 anywhere in Union County. Complicating matters further, a quaint country lane off Route 146 is now the only feature in the area named “Dug Hill.”

The truth is that Marshal Welch was killed in the early spring of 1863 along what we now know as Illinois Route 146, a few miles west of Jonesboro past the tiny village of Berryville. The legend, however, is a different matter entirely. Storytellers generally agree that Welch died in an ambush during the waning days of the Civil War, but the details vary depending on who is doing the telling.

In one version of the ambush, a handful of Union army deserters shot and killed Welch as he headed home along Dug Hill Road. Welch had arrested the deserters and handed them over to the army a few days earlier, but since the army received word that General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, it let them go. “Late that night, Welch was riding home and he passed through the cut alongside Dug Hill,” Troy Taylor wrote. “He had no idea that the deserters were waiting for him there. They shot and killed him as he rode by and left his body lying in the road… no one was ever arrested for the crime and the mystery remained unsolved.”

In another version, one of a dozen deserters befriended Welch and led him into the ambush as revenge for having arrested him and his compatriots during the war. According to Beth Scott and Michael Norman, “Another of the men loaded all but two rifles with blank cartridges. The bushwhackers selected the guns at random. As Welch neared the point of ambush… he was cut down as he passed through Dug Hill below some bushes in which the men had hidden.”

Neither version is technically correct, but their essential features remain the same.

When the Southern states seceded in the winter of 1860, many in “Little Egypt” were supportive of their Southern brethren, even threatening to secede from Illinois and join the Confederacy, but when the Civil War broke out in 1861, the most vocal opponents of the Union had a change of heart. Residents of southern Illinois joined the Union army in droves. That did not, however, prevent a minority of Southern sympathizers, known as “copperheads,” from acting out to obstruct the war effort.

While many Democrats, as members of the opposition party, opposed the war and the policies of the Lincoln administration generally, only a few took action against those policies. Those actions included attempts to obstruct the draft, the formation of local militias, statements of support for the Confederacy or against the “criminality” of the Lincoln administration, and the encouragement of desertion, as well as the destruction of the property of Unionists and abolitionists.

Reports of Democrats arming and drilling and making threats against “abolitionists” spooked local Republicans. Brigadier General Jacob Ammen, commander of Camp Douglas in Chicago for most of 1863, received dozens of letters from Republicans either reporting disloyal acts or begging for weapons and soldiers for protection. Typical of these letters were three that described instances of disloyalty in Christian, Sangamon, and Macon counties. On April 21, 1863, Capt. A.B. Weber wrote regarding an “exhibition of disloyalty” he witnessed while passing through the town of Pana. A “squad of like sympathizers hollered for ‘Jeff Davis’ as they saw me pass with uniform on,” he wrote. “They aught to be sent south.”

Read more about Dug Hill Road and other Illinois haunts in Paranormal Illinois

From Grandview, a town located just outside of the state capital, one man wrote: “[Knights of the Golden Circle] are very numerous here and say they won’t submit to a draft and are drilling here after night on some occasions.” A man from Niantic, located in Macon County, wrote to General Ammen to inform him that local Republicans had formed a “loyal league” to combat copperheads who were incensed over the arrest of Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio politician who was an outspoken critic of Lincoln and the war. “Lockhart [one of the copperheads] swore if they do not release their leader Vallandigham they would avenge themselves on the men that advocate the arrest of him,” he wrote. “He says that in less than a month they will murder all the g―d Republicans that dare to take sides with the administration.”

It was in this context, in the heated spring of 1863, the murder of Provost Marshal Welch occurred. The ambush and subsequent murder was said to have taken place outside of Anna, one of two cities in Union County. Union County was the only county in the state of Illinois to cast a statistically significant number of ballots (40.3 percent) for the Southern Democrat candidate John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 presidential race. That meant that out of all the counties in Illinois, Union was (perhaps ironically considering its name) the most pro-Southern and pro-slavery.

On April 18, 1863, Major Curtis sent a letter to General Ammen informing him of the death of a Mr. Welch, a provost marshal who had arrested a number of Union army deserters near Anna. Anna was a much larger town than Jonesboro at the time, and would have served as their frame of reference. General Burnside, who commanded the Union garrison in Little Egypt, dispatched an order to Major Curtis that read:

“It is stated in this morning papers that a man named Welch who arrested some deserters was assaulted and killed at Anna. I desire that you will at any cost have the perpetrators arrested and sent to headquarters (at Cincinnati) for trial, with proper witnesses. Send parties sufficiently strong to do the work, with orders to shoot down any persons who may resist their authority. Let this order be executed promptly.”

The general dispatched a second provost marshal who rounded up and arrested 11 “rebel sympathizers” for the crime. This number may be the source of the “dozen bushwhackers” mentioned in the folkloric version of events.

Sometime after the incident, rumors began to circulate that Welch’s ghost haunted the road. According to Beth Scott and Michael Norman, “the fact that the road is haunted has never been questioned.” In Jo-Anne Christensen’s book Ghost Stories of Illinois, as well as in several others, a tale was told about how, during the late 1800s, a man traveling by horse drawn wagon through Dug Hill at night happened upon a bloody body lying in the middle of the road. When he dismounted to administer aid to the stranger, he found that his hands passed through the body and clutched at the ground, as though the man wasn’t even there. He tried again, with the same result. Frightened and confused, he got back into his wagon and rushed forward, “running over” the translucent corpse in the process.

While some storytellers maintain he never looked back, Jo-Anne Christensen wrote, “Questioning his sanity, the traveler turned for one look back. There was nothing on the road.”

One additional story told about Dug Hill Road concerned a hair-raising encounter with a wagon pulled by a team of maddened horses. It is unclear whether this was associated with the Welch legend, or was of an entirely different sort. The fact is often left ambiguous by chroniclers of the area’s folklore. Never-the-less, there has only been one encounter with the phantom wagon and that was documented by Charles Neely as told to him by Mr. John H. Treece, a resident of Jonesboro, during the 1930s. The story went, in part:

“Bill was a-haulin’ off corn one day. It’s been a long time ago. He’d hauled off three loads of corn that day and was a-goin’ home after dark. He had to pass through Dug Hill for he lived in the bottoms. He’d jest about got half-way down the hill, goin’ west, when the neck-yoke of one of his horses come off, and Bill had to stop the wagon right there on the grade and git out to fix the yoke…

As Bill was down there a-fixin’ the yoke, he ‘eared the awfullest racket a man ever did ‘ear. It sounded like some drunk man a-drivin’ an empty wagon over the road as fast as the horses could go… It scared Bill to death nearly, for he knowed that there wasn’t enough room for the wagon to git by on account of the road bein’ so narrow, and Bill knowed he couldn’t get out of the way…

The noise was on the brink of the hill. Bill looked up, and he realized that the noise of the wagon was in the air above him and not on the road a-tall.

Bill looked up in the air, and he seed comin’ over the crest of the hill a heavy pair of black horses a-pullin’ a heavy wagon a-drivin.’ The horses were a-runnin’ up there in the air just like they was on the ground… The wagon and team passed right over Bill’s head and struck the crest of another hill, and Bill couldn’t see it any more, but he ‘eard the noise of the wagon after it had got two miles away!”

That incredible story has been repeated in every retelling of the legend of Dug Hill since its publication. In Ghost Stories of Illinois, Jo-Anne Christensen conflated the story of Welch’s ghost and the aerial wagon. When anyone was forced to stop along the road to fix a wagon wheel or to change a tire, she wrote, they would be greeted by the pounding of horse’s hooves and the rattle of a wooden wagon. “The driver of the runaway rig has never been identified—but there are those who think it might be Provost Marshal Welch, making one last attempt to escape the fate he met on that dark night…”

Today, the Dug Hill area is used as a local drinking spot. Empty beer bottles litter the woods along Route 146 in the hinterland of the Shawnee National Forest. According to former Daily Egyptian reporter Kristina Dailing, many who live in the area are skeptical of the stories, and many more have never even heard the tale of Provost Marshal Welch. Paul Morgan, a long time resident of Jonesboro, said he believed the stories had simply been invented. “I’ve heard that there was supposed to be a spook up there, but I haven’t ever seen anything,” he told Kristina.

Perhaps this is a chapter in the history of Little Egypt destined to fade from memory.

Sources

Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: The Travel Guide to the History & Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004).
Beth Scott and Michael Norman, Haunted Heartland: True Ghost Stories from the American Midwest (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985, 1992).
Howard W. Allen and Vincent A. Lacey, eds., Illinois Elections, 1818-1990: Candidates and County Returns for President, Governor, Senate, and House of Representatives(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992).
Wood Gray, The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (New York: The Viking Press, 1942), 138.
Carl L. Stanton, They Called it Treason: an Account of Renegades, Copperheads, Guerrillas, Bushwhackers and Outlaw Gangs that Terrorized Illinois During the Civil War (Bunker Hill: by the author, 2002).
Jo-Anne Christensen, Ghost Stories of Illinois (Edmonton: Lone Pine, 2000).
Charles Neely, ed., Tales and Songs of Southern Illinois (Menasha: George Banta Publishing, 1938; reprint, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998).
Daily Egyptian (Carbondale) 22 October 2002.

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