Haunted History of Fort McHenry

Posted by carrieh in Baltimore Ghosts
Haunted History of Fort McHenry - Photo

The haunted history of Fort McHenry is indeed a candidate for the 10 top haunted places in Baltimore. In fact, the fort is so haunted that management requires paranormal investigators or ghostbusters to go through some red tape if they want to document any of the evidence they gather.

It appears a “special use permit” application needs to be filed. Management clearly does not want the fort to be known for its paranormal activity and solely regarded as a history lesson of sorts. Be that as it may, you can’t take away the fact that Fort McHenry is indeed a very haunted place.

History of Fort McHenry

Located in a Baltimore neighborhood called Locust Point, the fort was built in 1798. Fort McHenry’s most significant recognition is for its role in the War of 1812 when it successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from an attack by the British Navy.

The fort was built in a pentagonal bastion style, which came into play when gunpowder was invented and cannons were used on the battlefield. Each bastion provided a crossfire of mortars and small arms fire. It had a deep trench dry moat used as a shelter for infantry, protecting the fort from a land attack.

The War of 1812

When the British executed their attack, they had neither the weapons nor sea vessels to get past Fort McHenry. The accuracy of their rockets and mortars was inadequate, and very little damage was done to either side of the fort. With no ammunition left, the British were forced to cease their attack and retreat.

Only one British bomb vessel received a direct hit from the fort’s return fire, resulting in the loss of one of their crewmen. The Americans lost four people: three men and one woman.  The soldier who died was Frederick Hall (also known as William Williams), an African American runaway slave turned soldier.  The woman who died was killed by a bomb that cut her in half as she delivered supplies to the troops.

Birth of the National Anthem

Following the raid on Alexandria and the burning of Washington, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner boarded a cartel ship, the HMS Minden, on a mission to secure an exchange of prisoners with Britain. Most notable was the town physician William Beanes, a friend of Key’s who had been captured in his home.

The two men boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant to speak with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Dining with the two officers, they discussed war plans and the release of the two prisoners.

At first, the British officers refused to release Beanes but ultimately relented when Key and Skinner presented letters written by British prisoners. These letters praised Beanes and other Americans for their kind treatment. Key and Skinner overheard the plans for the Baltimore attack during their visit. They were kept captive on the HMS Minden until after the battle.

It was a rainy night, and from the ship, Key witnessed the bombardment, observing that the fort’s smaller storm flag continued to fly. However, it wasn’t until the shell and Congreve rocket had stopped that Key knew how the battle had panned out.

After the battle, the smaller storm flag was lowered and replaced by the larger storm flag that could not withstand the storm due to its size.

Inspired by the victorious sight of the large U.S. flag flying triumphantly above the fort, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he kept in his pocket. On the morning of September 16th, he and Skinner were released. Key finished his poetry at the hotel where he was staying and titled it “Defense of Fort M’Henry.”

Key passed the poem on to his brother-in-law. The latter noted that the words fit perfectly with the melody “The Anacreontic Song” of the Anacreontic Society. The Anacreontic Society was an 18th-century gentlemen’s club in London of amateur musicians.

The song worked its way through to the end of the 19th century, and it was re-named “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1930, the song became our National Anthem, and it remains so to this day.

Lives Lost Along the Way.

During the Civil War, the fort was used as a Union transfer prison camp for Confederate prisoners of war. It was also used for Southern sympathizers, including prominent men such as the Mayor of Baltimore, a former Governor of Maryland, and several other politicians. Ironically, Francis Scott Key’s grandson was one of the prisoners kept at the fort.

By 1862, some 6957 prisoners were kept at the prison in less-than-ideal conditions. However, the fort prison served as a better prison than most during that time of war.

Three men were reportedly executed in the gallows during the war, both by firing squad and hanging at the fort.

The fort went on to be used as a hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918. Initially, the hospital was for the treatment of wounded soldiers.


Some survived and went home, but some didn’t make it out.  When the epidemic hit, many succumbed to the illness rather than the wounds of war.

The Hauntings of Fort McHenry

With all of the paranormal activity reported on the property, there is some history behind it explaining who the entities may be. And it shouldn’t surprise you that the fort has a reputation for being one of the most haunted sites in one of the most haunted cities in the country.

The most common reports are, naturally, the spirits of the walking war dead. Along with sightings of spectral figures, there have been reports of voices, the sound of footsteps, and spots where it is unnaturally cold.

Among the investigators’ findings, some say the pentagon shape of the fort with its five points could have occult significance. This may play a role in the supernatural events that take place.

The Ghost of Lieutenant Levi Claggett

Thirty-four-year-old U.S. Army Lieutenant Levi Clagett was killed along with some of his men when a bomb burst in not the air but in their gun emplacement. A direct hit, the British mortar landed on the bastion where the Lieutenant was standing guard. The cannon wheel broke, causing the cannon to fall on top of Clagett, crushing him to death.

Immediately after this hit, a piece of mortar hit Sergeant John Shultz Clemm in the abdomen. He died in a matter of minutes. Morbidly, some of his friends dug up the shrapnel to save it as some sort of souvenir.

A ghostly figure clad in a uniform from that period walks along the top of the bastion. Many visitors at the time believed the soldier to be one of the re-enactment actors. However, there were no actors at the fort that day.

The Ghost of John Drew

Private John Drew was a soldier sent down to one of the prison cells in confinement for falling asleep on his watch over the battery. During his imprisonment, a guard sat his weapon down within Drew’s reach outside of his cell. Ashamed and distraught, Drew grabbed the gun and killed himself.

Many have reported seeing a soldier pacing endlessly in the area where Drew had been caught sleeping on the job. He is also seen in his prison cell, forever trapped in his guilt, trying to correct the fatal error that he made.

The Hostile Ghost

The most dramatic paranormal event is the ghost described as the white figure of a woman who takes her sorrow in death out on the living. Reportedly, she has pushed people down the stairs and has knocked others unconscious. It’s believed she may be the wife of a noncommissioned officer assigned to the fort whose children died during an epidemic in the 1920s.

With over 218 years of history behind it, Fort McHenry was full of trauma and emotional toll – not to mention death. It only stands to reason that the haunted history behind it makes it one of Baltimore’s most haunted places.

Management can monitor Ghostbusters for evidence and a good writing piece, which is all they want.  It doesn’t change the history behind the place.  In fact, it only heightens it!

Read more about the 10 top haunted places in Baltimore.  If you can’t make it in person to take a ghost tour, check out the virtual ghost tours offered in cities all across the country!