It might not be unusual to see a soldier in a 1812 era uniform patrolling the ramparts of Fort McHenry. If there were re-enactments taking place, that is. But when you find out later that there are no re-enactments taking place, and realize the soldier appeared to be floating slightly above the ground, it could be that you’ve spotted one of Fort McHenry’s most well-known phantoms.
While most people might know Fort McHenry as the birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, it has also gained a reputation as of one of the most haunted places in Baltimore. Construction of Fort McHenry took place following the American Revolution between 1798 and 1800. Built on the site of the previous Fort Whetstone, Fort McHenry’s purpose was to improve the defenses of the Port of Baltimore from future attacks.
Like with many other haunted places, Fort McHenry has various layers of history that I think tends to lend itself to becoming a haunted location.
Battle of Baltimore
The Fort rose to fame after the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. It was during this battle when Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner. According to Lt. Col. Armistead, four men were killed at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on September 13th, 1814. An additional 24 men were wounded. The men killed were: 3rd Lieutenant Levi Claggett, Sergeant John Clemm, Private Charles Messenger, and Thomas V. Beaston.((https://maryland1812.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/private-thomas-v-beason-an-1814-defender-of-fort-mchenry-found/))
The Baltimore Bastille
During the Civil War Fort McHenry was used as a Union transfer prison camp for Southern sympathizers as well as Confederate prisoners of war. Some very prominent men from Baltimore were imprisoned here including the mayor of Baltimore, a former governor of Maryland, members of the House of Delegates from Baltimore City and County, the congressman from the 4th Congressional District, and a state senator.((https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/the-baltimore-bastille.htm)) Ironically enough, one of the men imprisoned here during the Civil War was a grandson of Francis Scott Key.
By July 1863 the fort held 6,957 prisoners. While conditions at the Fort McHenry prison were not fantastic, it had better conditions than many other prisons during that time. Three men were executed at Fort McHenry during the war, both by firing squad and hanging. (The gallows were located just north of the cemetery)
General Hospital #2
In August 1917, the U.S. Army converted Fort McHenry into General Hospital No. 2. The hospital specialized in facial reconstruction and rehabilitation.((http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2015/03/19/facing-the-great-war-world-war-i-and-the-beginnings-of-modern-rehabilitation/)) By 1919 Fort McHenry went from having approximately 30 buildings to over 100 and at its height was treating over 3,500 patients. At the time it was the largest military hospital in the country.
Undoubtedly, the men who were housed at General Hospital #2 suffered some horrendous trauma, both physically and mentally. While many of those wounded ultimately recovered and returned home to their families, many also succumbed to their injuries. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 also took a toll on those recovering at Fort McHenry.
The hospital closed in 1923 when Fort McHenry was transferred to the National Park Service. It remains the country’s only National Monument and Historic Shrine, being designated on August 11th, 1939.
The Phantom Soldiers of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry
Over the years, reports of shadowy figures, the smell of gunpowder, sound of distant drums and disembodied footsteps have been reported by numerous staff members. Park rangers used to be fairly willing to talk about their ghosts, but years ago decided they didn’t want the haunted history to take anything away from the historical importance of Fort McHenry.
The most well-known reports are of the apparition of a soldier still on patrol and a haunted prison cell. Names have been associated with these spirits, so let’s take a look at the history behind these haunts.
The Ghost of Lt. Claggett
The ghost of Lieutenant Claggett is thought to be the most “famous” specters that haunts Fort McHenry. Levi Claggett was killed during the Battle of Baltimore on 9/13/1814.
Lt. Claggett was part of the Baltimore Fencibles, a militia comprised of local merchants, business owners and prominent citizens of Baltimore. He was a flour merchant and was 34 years old when he was killed in action. While the British Navy was bombarding Ft. McHenry, Lt. Claggett was standing guard on Bastion #3. According to eyewitness accounts, a British mortar hit the bastion and dismounted a twenty-four pounder long gun. The wheel of the cannon was broken and the cannon fell onto Lt. Claggett, crushing him.((American Medical Intelligencer Vol. 11 #9, August 1, 1839))
Almost immediately after this, a bomb burst overhead and a piece of mortar the “size of a dollar and two inches thick” struck Sergeant John Shultz Clemm in the abdomen. He died within a matter of minutes. It was said that his friends dug up the piece of shrapnel and saved it as a sort of morbid memento.
It’s interesting that people have reported this phantom soldier as not walking on the ground, but above it. During the Battle of Baltimore, the water batteries were not in the location they are today. Is this spirit walking on the ground as it was in 1814?
Haunted Prison Cell
Another of the most often repeated stories related to the ghostly activity is that of Private John Drew. On the evening of Sunday, November 14th, 1880 Private Drew was assigned guard duty on the outer battery. Around midnight Pvt. Drew was found asleep at his post.
He was immediately placed under arrest and confined to the guard house to await trial by court marshal. The sergeant of the guard left his Springfield rifle next to the cell door and stepped away for a moment. Within seconds he heard the sound of a gunshot and rushed back to the cell. He found Pvt. Drew lying dead on the floor from a gunshot wound to the head((The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) · Tue, Nov 16, 1880 · Page 4))
People speculate that Private Drew could also be haunting the outer battery, condemned to forever patrol the fort. Or does he remain in the prison cell he died so tragically in?
Fort McHenry Post Cemetery
Until writing this post, I was unaware that there was a cemetery at Fort McHenry. There is no trace of a cemetery at the fort currently. From 1799 until 1895 there was a cemetery located near the southern part of the fort. In 1836 when the 1814 water battery was removed, the cemetery was moved to the west side of the fort.
In the picture below, I’ve marked the approximate locations of both cemeteries. This was based on maps from 1865 as well as written information about the location of the original cemetery.
According to a list put together by the National Park Service, inventories on the graves was completed in 1873 and 1878. There really is not much information about the original cemetery. In 1895 all the graves were disinterred and moved to various cemeteries in Baltimore. Out of the 170 known burials, 29 were relocated to Loudon Park National Cemetery. it is unknown where the others were reinterred.
Fort McHenry has over 218 years of history behind it. Much of that history has been full of high emotions and traumatic events. It’s not surprising it’s said to be haunted. As a historian who also loves ghost stories, I wish that more places were willing to share their spooky stories. I know I am biased, but I don’t think that the talk of ghosts takes anything away from the historical significance of a location. If anything, it draws people in who might not otherwise be interested in learning about some of these historically significant places.