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Lament of the French Ghost

I met a ghost walking along Underhill Avenue last week who told me he fought in the battle of Yorktown, Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

He said he waited almost 100 years to tell someone his story, the last time was in 1891 when he had the ear of a drunken merchant marine who was walking home to visit his mother after getting off the train in Yorktown Heights from New York City.

But the drunk, the ghost related, wrote off the chance meeting to too much rum and decided against telling anyone of the conversation lest he be accursed on insanity.

It was dusk when I spotted him off Underhill, in a little clearing just to the north of the road as the land begins a steep rise to form a hill. He was sitting under a large elm on an old rock wall with his face in his hands. As I approached him to ask why he was dressed for Halloween in June, he looked up and seemed surprised I was approaching.

I saw why, for as I turned around a large stump, the failing sunlight filtered right through his red jacket of tails and single bandolier, passing through his almost transparent body. It just made him more curious and he was thankful there was still, an inquiring type around his neck of the woods.

Telling the story made the ghost a happy wanderer for a while, but it was difficult for a ghost to speak to people because most of them ran away afraid, he noted. 

I have met ghosts before and was not drunk during its telling, so here is his story for all to read.

The soldier said his family name was Rothschild and he was a fusilier in a detachment of marksmen under the charge of Jean-Francois-Louis Count of Clermont-Crevecoer, a first lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Infantry who traveled to the British colonies to join American forces in their fight for independence.

"We left Brest in 1780," he told me. "It was very cold, but I can't remember the exact date."

The French forces, under the direction of General Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau, joined with General George Washington after marching south from Boston an laid siege to British-controlled Yorktown, Virginia in a short-lived battle credited with the crushing blow to the ruling forces.

"We were all very proud to have helped Monsieur Washington finish the English." He related. "It did not take long and we saw the peace treaty signed an swords and muskets laid at our feet."

As the sun disappeared, his form became clearer and it seemed to brighten and emanate energy with each question I asked.

He told of the victory, a short celebration cut short when Count Clermont-Crevecoer came from the corps headquarters tent with news of an impending forced march back north to a placed above the harbor of New York where some remaining British needed to be told of their surrender.

The march was long and involved a few minor skirmishes, as he described them. At the ripe old age of 20, Rothschild was a seasoned French foot soldier, proud of his heritage and entertaining in his offhand approach.

"The march was long, but scenic. Many of the men-you know how artistic we French can be-made sketches of our encampments in the (Hudson) river region."

"We marched into town of September 24, 1782, I think," Rothschild said. "We found a high spot for a vantage point not far from the river (Crompond) road on Underhill's farm. I hear you now call it French Hill. Anyway, all 6,000 of us camped on the farmer's property beginning in a spot near the French Hill School."

"We stayed for about one month, resting until new orders from Monsieur General de Rochambeau. And we tried to make the best of it, even though the lake we drank from, it was not so good,"

"But wait a minute," I countered. "If the French left Yorktown, er-...Hanover, why is a French ghost stuck wandering the slopes of French Hill?

At this, his image grew so bright for a moment, his edges became blurred. The energy seemed to sharpen his image when the surge was over and I could see the sadness in his eyes.

"My general, he did not understand. I was protecting the girl, but he could not understand because I embarrassed him before our quests," Rothschild continued. "Her name was Mary and she later married one of the Underhill boys, Robert, I think. She was beautiful and I fell in love with her and she told me I could have some potatoes from her employer's fields. She did some of the housework for Underhill."

Here, I could see he was becoming said and his image began to fade.

"We were running out of food and the people were tired of us using their firewood and started holding back more food, hoping we would leave. So Mary told me of a spot near the woods where I could safely dig some potatoes for my division. We would feast for once in a private party. I was foolish, I guess.

"I chose nightfall to fetch the meal, but did not know Monsieur Underhill would walk his fences that night to check for us. The cards, as you say, were not in my favor. Well, he caught me on my knees with my coat wrapped around a peck of potatoes and with his gun in my back brought me before Monsieur General de Rochambeau." Here, he paused briefly and wavered until I questioned Underhill's intentions.

"He wanted me to pay, or Monsieur General to pay, but Monsieur General wanted to show he did not tolerate thieves at any time and told everyone within ear-shot I would hang in the morning!

"But Monsieur Underhill was shocked and asked many times for mon [sic] general to reconsider, but he would not. I understood Monsieur Underhill was quite depressed for many days after Monsieur General  refused to reconsider and said he would not have a thief in his army or anywhere else."

"Why didn't you explain the girl said it was O.K?" I asked.

He grew indignant and brightened immensely. I almost had to shield me eyes.

"You do not blame your own carelessness on a girl, especially the one you love!"

I felt like a heel.

"I do not know what Underhill would have done with her. I did not want her shamed by her family and lose her position...perhaps get tarred and feathered! I remained quiet...In the morning it was raining and they-my friends-brought me to this tree. Under it was a quickly prepared grave. They put the rope around my neck and pulled me off the ground with my hands tied behind."

He started to describe what it felt like, but stopped when I asked if he could skip the details that led up to his finally expiring by asphyxiation. We were both quiet for a while and then he finished, fading to almost nothing as he wound down his story.

"I am not angry now. I was for a very long time and that is why I had to walk the earth until a sympathetic soul would mark my grave for me. Please do not tell anyone where the grave is or I will have to walk the earth again as my punishment for being such a fool."

Suddenly, he was gone and when I realized I was disappointed. I had so many more questions about the time he lived. But he must have been awfully tired after wandering along Underhill Avenue and over French Hill for 204 years before someone would stay for his story.

I marked his grave with stones in the figure of a cross and said goodbye. I was quite dark as I continued into the town and I imagined 6,000 ghosts camping nearby in steadily chilling weather waiting to leave for home thousands of miles away.

Source: by Jonathan Gourlay, North County News, June 22 - 28, 1988, Bicentennial Edition

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