Folklore: The Phantom Cavalry of Little River Canyon


Illustration courtesy The Ardent Writer Press/Steve Gierhart

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Little river canyon is an awesomely beautiful natural phenomenon situated in DeKalb and Cherokee counties in northeast Alabama. At 500 to 600 feet, it is one of the deepest gorges east of the Rocky Mountains, and stretches for a distance of 12 miles. Originally known as May’s Gulf or May’s Gulch, the canyon was dedicated as a tourist attraction in 1954. Two creeks, Yellow and Bear, flow into Little River, which carved the canyon atop Lookout Mountain. Little River is one of very few rivers in the world known to form and flow almost their entire courses atop a mountain. The flow of water is not the only thing strange about this canyon.

Ben and Eileen Dover have a home on the rim of the canyon. The view from their back deck is breathtakingly spectacular, and Eileen especially enjoys autumn, when the changing color of the leaves is at its peak. With no neighbors, their home is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy peace and quiet. Occasionally, though, the serenity is shattered by the sound of galloping horses.

Ben’s great-grandfather was a member of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry corps. In 1863, when Wheeler was camped at Alpine, Ga., he and 11 other men were handpicked by the general to go on a special assignment. Officially, they were to scout the area and report any sightings of Union troops rumored to be on top of Lookout Mountain. However, Wheeler issued a verbal command to the captain that was to remain a secret. To this day, no one knows what was spoken by the two officers.

The only real concentration of Confederate troops was at the foot of the mountain at Manitou Cave. They used it to gather saltpeter for gunpowder, and there was nothing unusual about that operation. Several skirmishes had taken place in DeKalb County, but no big battles. Union forces had commandeered Judge William Overton Winston’s home in Valley Head and used it as their headquarters for awhile.

However, since he had voted against secession at the convention in Montgomery in 1861, his house was spared from destruction. The group that included Ben’s great-grandfather followed their captain around the rim of the canyon, even though he had not revealed the precise objective of their mission. As veterans of several battles, they unquestioningly trusted their leader.

Sometime after noon, a couple of days into their assignment, several of the horses began acting fidgety. By evening, all of the mounts were visibly spooked. The cavalrymen were having a hard time keeping them in formation.

Suddenly, all 12 horses bolted. Even though they were expert riders, the men could not control them. They ran into a cleared field, circled around and galloped right toward the cliff and a sheer drop off! Ben’s great-grandfather was wise (or lucky) enough to dive out of his saddle and land on solid ground. The others went right over the edge.

Horrified and staring in disbelief, Pvt. Dover felt cold chills run down his spine. Looking around, he screamed in terror as he watched a red-eyed monster of a cat race by. It, too, went right over the edge and into nothing.

Realizing he had not heard a commotion from the tangled mass of men and horses hitting the boulders at the bottom, he walked as close to the edge as he dared and peered over. Fog had drifted in and obscured his vision. He could not see the final resting places of his comrades. He did, however, hear the distinct cry of a panther, or painter, as they are sometimes called. Was that the same creature that had chased the horses? Had it somehow survived the fall?

Puzzled, Pvt. Dover decided to wait until morning to try to locate and bury his buddies. He settled back against a sandstone outcropping and spent a miserable, sleepless night shivering in the damp air.

When the fog had sufficiently lifted the following morning, he was able to work his way down to the canyon floor. His companions had gone over the edge where Bear Creek gorge intersects with the canyon formed by Little River. After searching for six hours, he found NOTHING! No sign whatsoever of the men, horses or big cat. “Surely they didn’t survive that fall,” he mumbled to himself.

Flabbergasted, he redoubled his efforts. For the next two days, he worked his way up and down the banks of the creek and river. It was all to no avail. The little detachment had simply vanished.

Exhausted, he eventually climbed back out of the gorge and stumbled upon a lonely little farmhouse. The old couple did not have much, but gladly shared what food they had with the famished soldier. He slept soundly for the first time in three nights.

Bidding his congenial hosts farewell, Pvt. Dover eventually rejoined his unit. Reporting back to his commanding officer, he relayed the events as they had unfolded. The men were officially listed as missing, and Pvt. Dover was warned that he should never speak of that incident to anyone.

The next campaign for the Army of Tennessee soon commenced, and the matter was dismissed; forgotten by everyone, that is, except Pvt. Dover. Obeying orders, he kept his mouth shut, and the disappearance of the 11 cavalrymen never found its way into any official military report.

Despite the horror of that evening in 1863, Pvt. Dover was other wise impressed with the beauty of the region. At the conclusion of the war, he settled in the area now known as Eberhart Point. He fell in love with a girl who was one-quarter Cherokee, married her and fathered several children.

Nevertheless, he was haunted on several occasions by the sound of horses’ hooves racing by his house at a full gallop. When conditions were just right – a clear night with a full moon following a day of rain, coupled with thick fog in the canyon – he could plainly see 11 mounted men and one rider-less horse propelling off the cliff and into the abyss.

An oversized painter would be chasing them and dive off after them. Then, they would all simply vanish into the mist. His wife said the huge black cat was a shape shifter. Perhaps it was a Cherokee chief still angry at the way his people had been grossly mistreated during the forced removal known as the Trail of Tears. The old chief would not distinguish between blue and gray coats. The Confederates were American, Caucasian soldiers and just happened to be the focus of his wrath.

Before his death, Mr. Dover carved a monument that looked eerily similar to the shape ofa coffin. He placed it at the exact spot where he had tumbled out of his saddle and escaped an eternal, forced ride. A few feet away is where his comrades, and his horse, went over the cliff.

I have to admit I was skeptical about such an event really occurring. Skeptical, that is, until I saw the coffin-shaped rock. It really is located just a few feet away from a sheer drop-off that plunges hundreds of feet to the canyon floor and Bear Creek.

Research proves that Wheeler’s command did indeed stop in Alpine, Ga., only a few miles from the Alabama state line. In instances like this, cavalry would have been dispatched to scout for any signs of enemy presence. Verbal orders were often exchanged, and since this operation was not part of a major battle, or even part of what could be considered a military action, no written reports would have been necessary. Battle-hardened soldiers became cold to death. A dozen men (minus one) would not have been considered a great loss.

Apparently, the riders are doomed to be chased throughout eternity. They can still be heard and seen today.

Ben and Eileen warn that a sudden drop in temperature immediately followed by a panther’s scream and a low rumble is the cue to get away from the edge of the canyon. If the warning is not heeded, you may end up filling that empty saddle, forever a part of the phantom cavalry’s never-ending flight.

The End

Editor’s Note

“The Phantom Cavalry of Little River Canyon” is one of 17 stories in the book “Hollers from the Hollows: Ghost Stories and Spooky Tales From DeKalb County, Alabama” by Greg Starnes. The book is available at The Book Shelf, etc. and
DeSoto State Park Country Store in Fort Payne, Ala. Starnes, a Fort Payne resident, is a professional journalist, storyteller and historian.