This past week I viewed an episode of the television show “Haunted History” that retold some of the ghost stories of Baltimore, Maryland. One story was of the ghost of a soldier that has been seen walking along the outer battery at Fort McHenry located at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor. This has been the site of a military fort since 1776 and today is a National Monument and Historic Shrine managed by the National Park Service.
Fort McHenry is also where I started my career as a National Park Ranger. I was stationed there from June of 1975 until September 1977. During that time there were at least two reported sightings of the ghostly specter as described in the “Haunted History” show. One was by a fellow park ranger and the other was by several members of another employee’s family who lived in the park. In both instances the ghost was described as if marching on guard duty along an area of the Fort known as the outer battery that provides emplacements for the very large Rodman Guns that were installed during the Civil War. The figure was dressed in older period military uniform and shouldering a rifle.
Once these reports were shared amongst the staff theories began to develop as to whose ghost this could be. The first impulse was that it must be the spirit of Lt. Levi Claggett who was killed by a bomb bust during the famous Battle of Fort McHenry and inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner.
A second theory as presented on television was that the ghost was that of William Williams an escaped slave who was able to enlist in the US Army by a recruiter that did not ask too many questions. Williams was also killed during the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814 while in a trench with his unit just outside the Fort walls.
I was not so sure about either theory since both men had died in battle a somewhat glorious death for a soldier. From what little knowledge I had, most ghosts were thought to be the result of more unjustified violence. Not being an expert on haunting, I felt my counter theory was as good as any.
Sometime after this debate I was conducting research in the park library known as the HARP. Much of the library consisted of microfilm copies of any documents that were found in the Library of Congress during a research project conducted in the 1950’s. Much of this documentation had simply been copied without being read or analyzed. Even in the 1970’s much of it had not been reviewed. Several rolls of film I found contained the Monthly Medical Reports that were obviously required of the military post Doctor. These monthly narrative reports were for the most part pretty dry and spoke of facts and figures. The reports covered a period for almost the entire history of the military garrison. The reports described how many men were sick and what injuries were treated the previous month. The biggest medical problem on all the reports appeared to be sexually transmitted diseases from the brothels of Baltimore.
One monthly report stood out from the rest in its detailed account of an incident that occurred sometime in the 1850’s (unfortunately after all this time I no longer have a copy of the report or the subsequent paper I wrote about it). A soldier had been found asleep on guard duty on the newly constructed outer battery of the Fort. He was immediately placed under arrest and thrown into one of the cells of the guard house adjacent to the main gate to await trial for dereliction of duty. Shortly thereafter while replacing the straw in his cell the prisoner was able to steel and the then hide a loaded rifle. The prisoner then used the rifle to commit suicide.
The medical officer’s report is quite detailed in the description of the body and splatter of blood and brain matter on the wall of the cell. Obviously this incident had quite an impact on this hardened Army Doctor.
Since the outer battery did not exist during the battle in 1814, this soldier was found asleep on duty in that same area, and that he met such a gruesome demise at his own hand I always felt that this was who was still performing guard duty.
But then, this is a just another theory
Although I never witnessed this ghostly apparition myself, I did have my own experience with the afterlife while working at Hampton House National Historic Site. You can find a vivid description of that experience in my book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.