Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Ghost of Vivia Thomas

This is a true story with many contrasts. It reflects love and love lost. It is the story of one woman’s courage but it is also reflects betrayal and murder.

The story of Vivia Thomas is one of the most unusual in US military history. It is still told in eastern Oklahoma--it has been over 140 years since it happened.

On a bitterly cold morning in January of 1870 the body of an enlisted man was discovered lying across the grave of an officer that had been shot and killed just weeks before. When Fort Gibson’s surgeon examined this body he found to his shock that this enlisted man was actually a woman. 

An inquiry was ordered by the frontier fort’s commanding officer in order to discover how a woman had managed to pass herself off as a man and enlist in the US Army.

This story starts in Boston not at Fort Gibson in Oklahoma. Vivia Thomas was born in 1840 to a prominent wealthy Boston family. As she grew up she attended the finest finishing schools. She was groomed to marry well. As a young lady she was presented to Boston’s elite at high society parties. 

It was at one of these elaborate parities just as the Civil War ended she met a strikingly handsome Union officer.

The attraction was mutual and Vivian and this lieutenant * courted for several months. Vivia’s family was happy to announce that their daughter was engaged to marry this man. Extravagant wedding plans were made and Vivia could hardly contain her excitement as Boston’s elite congratulated her. 

But to Vivia’s shock her officer disappeared shortly before their wedding day.

She found a hastily written note he had left for her. He stated he was not sure if he was ready for marriage. He mentioned that he had arranged to travel west with his unit. He callously speculated upon the many adventures that awaited him. He finished by stating that it would have been unfair for him to expect a wife to travel with him to a frontier army outpost. Therefore, he was breaking off their engagement.

Heartbroken and embarrassed by her family’s public humiliation Vivia decided to leave Boston and go in search in of her fianc√©. She discovered that his unit was stationed at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory--today eastern Oklahoma. Secretly, she left her home and headed west on her own. 

Her journey took several months and was very dangerous. She traveled by raft down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and then cut up the Arkansas River. She chopped her hair off and started to dress as a man. She rarely spoke, and never looked anyone in the eye. She blackened her face with dirt and coal.

She found her disguise to be so effective that once at Fort Gibson she decided to keep up her masquerade. She joined the US Army’s 6th Infantry as an enlisted man in order to be close to her former lover. 

No one suspected she was a woman-- it was common practice at the time for “substitute” soldiers to join the infantry with no questions asked. She bravely performed the tasks she was ordered to do including patrolling for Indians.

She spent every chance she got watching her former lover from afar but she never approached him. She hid her identity well for he did not recognize her even as she walked past him. 

Her emotions shifted from wanting revenge for being jilted to a fantasy of being welcomed into his waiting embrace. Vivia observed that he left the fort almost every night. She decided to follow him discretely.

To her shock she discovered that he was holding midnight rendezvous with an Indian maiden near the fort. She saw him greet this woman with hugs and kisses night after night. Her hopes dashed for a fond reunion, Vivia found her heart heavy with bitterness and anger. 

Even more humiliated that he preferred an Indian girl to her she decided one night that she must confront him. As he headed back to the fort she hid behind a rock outcropping.

As he past, Vivia blinded by resentment numbly raised her rifle and fired. Shot in the chest, her lieutenant fell from his horse. She approached his prone body and found him dead. In shock and weeping softly she headed back to the fort and her bunk. 

The next morning a passerby discovered his body and took it to the fort. At first it was assumed that Indians must have killed him but when no clues were found the case was closed.

Overcome by grief and regret Vivia spent the next two weeks at night by his grave in the fort’s cemetery. She wept hysterically and prayed for forgiveness. 

She finally broke down and confessed her story and what she had done in confidence to Fort Gibson’s chaplain. Two nights after this confession on January 6, 1870 she returned to her former lover’s grave. It was a bitterly cold night, the temperature dropped below zero. At reveille the next morning, a soldier walking through the cemetery found her body--she had frozen to death.

Vivia’s lieutenant was not liked at the fort--it is speculated this was because his rendezvous with the Indian girlfriend were not a secret. 

When Vivia’s story became known most of the men at the fort including the commanding officer admired her courage and fortitude. In their quiet way they showed this by where they buried her body. She is buried in a circular plot at Fort Gibson, which is called the “Circle of Honor”. It is here where soldiers were buried who distinguished themselves in some way.

Today, Vivia Thomas’ gravesite and tombstone can still be seen at Gibson Fort National Cemetery. It is at this gravesite that an apparition of a “delicate” soldier is seen. This figure is seen kneeling near Vivia Thomas’ grave weeping softly.

Her ghost is also seen and heard near the old fort’s barracks area as well. It appears Vivia’s ghost still regrets and morns her betrayer who she shot and killed.

* The lieutenants’ name is lost to time.

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