I’m one of the people who fall into the category of People/Ghosts Haunt the Place of Their Death or A Place Important in Their Lives. Therefore, I do not believe cemeteries are haunted. If people/ghosts haunt places of death, it stands to reason that a battlefield or other military installation would be high on the list of ‘most haunted’ places on Earth by sheer volume of potential individual entities lingering. So much pain and suffering, not only by those whose lives were abruptly ended in the name of something greater, but also those left behind.
Fort Mifflin is one of those sites that could potentially be on that list of ‘most haunted’ places due to the number of deaths associated with the longest operational fort in the United States.
Situated at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, on what was once known as Mudd Island, stands Fort Mifflin. Despite the fact that the island’s location was an excellent defense point for the city of Philadelphia, the city’s founder, William Penn, was a Quaker and believed strongly in a non-violent approach to everyday life and the city was left undefended. By the 1740s, however, French and Spanish privateers began entering the Delaware River, intent on harassing what was by then the most prosperous city in the New World.
During King George’s War, a militia was raised to defend the city and once the war was over, the militia was disbanded and the city was once again left vulnerable. It wasn’t until 1770s that a permanent fortification was built, right on Mudd Island. Engineering Captain John Montresor was assigned the task of designing the fort for the island.
As you can see, the layout of the fort itself is a bit awkward, holding only a handful of buildings, mostly due to budget constraints (a familiar refrain even in the 21st century). The completion of the fort floundered for many years, with Montresor walking away from the project and returning to New York, disgruntled. Finally, in 1776, with American independence officially declared and a war looming on the horizon, the Philadelphia Committee of Public Safety finally restarted construction and completed the fort.
This is the role which the fort played in the American Revolutionary War:
As the British marched triumphantly into Philadelphia during the last days of September in 1777, a strategic dilemma faced General William Howe, commander of the army. Surrounded by rebel forces from the north, east and west, his troops were in desperate need of supplies—gunpowder, clothing, food, and munitions. Without these items the capture of Philadelphia might become meaningless and the British would be unable to pursue and destroy Washington’s Army before winter.
South of Philadelphia in the Delaware Bay sat a fleet British ships carrying the army’s much needed supplies. General Howe gave orders to sail the fleet up the river to provide new provisions to his occupying troops.
The Americans had secured a British built fortification, sitting on Mud Island, just below the city and across the river from New Jersey’s Fort Mercer in 1775. By the fall of 1777 approximately 200 men were garrisoned at this fort, now known as Fort Mifflin, charged with the duty of holding the British off “to the last extremity” so that Washington and his exhausted army could successfully move into winter quarters.
It was here, on the frozen, marshy ground within the walls of a stone and wood fort, the American Revolution produced a shining moment. Cold, ill and starving, the young garrison of (now) 400 men at Fort Mifflin refused to give up. The valiant efforts of the men at Fort Mifflin held the mighty British Navy at bay providing Washington and his troops time to arrive safely at Valley Forge where they shaped a strong and confident army. This battle escalated into the greatest bombardment of the American Revolution and one that many say changed the course of American history.
For nearly six weeks in the fall of 1777, American troops in Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer frustrated British naval attempts to re-supply their occupying forces in Philadelphia. Early in the morning on November 10, 1777, the British took definitive action to reach Philadelphia via the Delaware. Daybreak brought a rain of cannon fire upon Fort Mifflin beginning the largest bombardment of the Revolutionary War.
Under the direction of French Major Francois de Fleury, an engineer and tireless worker, the Americans worked each night to repair the damage of the day.
On November 15th, finally clear after days of rain and high tides, the British sailed the Vigilant and the Fury, with nineteen cannon up the back channel to the west of Fort Mifflin. In the main channel of the Delaware three ships armed with 158 cannon anchored directly offshore of the fort, while to the east three additional ships armed with 51 cannon completed the naval assault.
Against this show of force, Fort Mifflin could respond with only ten cannon. It was reported that during one hour, 1000 cannon balls were fired at the fort. As the battle progressed, British Marines climbed to the crow’s nest of the Vigilant and threw hand grenades at the soldiers in the fort.
Exhausted, cold and out of ammunition, Major Simeon Thayer evacuated Fort Mifflin’s garrison to Fort Mercer with muffled oars after nightfall on November 15. Forty men remained at the fort and set fire to what was left before making their way across the Delaware to join their comrades. They crossed to New Jersey around midnight leaving Fort Mifflin ablaze, but the flag still flying.
After the War, the fort lay derelict until 1793 when Pierre L’Enfant (the man responsible for planning Washington DC) supervised the reconstruction of the fort under President John Adams. It was in 1795 that the fort received the name it goes by today, being named after Thomas Mifflin, first governor of Pennsylvania. During the reconstruction, a house for the Commandant was built as well as a number of casemates to be used for various purposes.
In the years preceding the Civil War, a guardhouse and prison were added to the fort (1815-16) and also a building that was used as a hospital on the upper floor and mess hall on the ground floor. By 1820, though, with the building of Fort Delaware, Fort Mifflin was pushed to a secondary status. Despite this, the fort was continuously garrisoned.
Once the Civil War began, the fort housed Union soldiers and held Confederate prisoners of war as well as civilian prisoners. At one point the Union army accused General William H Howe of desertion and accused of murder. He was sentenced to death, awaiting his fate at Fort Mifflin. In February 1864, Howe led two hundred prisoners in an attempted escape. He was captured and put into solitary confinement for the duration of his awaited fate. On 26 August 1864, Howe was executed by public hanging.
Though the fort was in continued use through the Second World War, I will stop here with the history as all alleged hauntings of the fort stem from the earliest history of the place.
Apparently most of the alleged hauntings involve Casement #5. Though I could find no general dimensions of any of the casements on the fort’s site, the Wikipedia article states that #5 was half the size of #1 and that #1 was used as barracks and #5 would be used as headquarters for the fort in the event of an attack. During the Civil War, however, Casement #5 was where prisoners were held, including General Howe. There is no designation between Confederate prisoners and civilian prisoners though, as previously mentioned, both were kept there.
I have found various stories of people’s experiences while attempting to spend an entire night in Casement #5. The main culprit for people failing to stay seems to be The Screaming Lady also alleged to be the ghost of one Elizabeth Pratt. Mrs Pratt was the wife of one of the officers stationed at the fort who hung herself from one of the balconies after her daughter died of typhoid fever with an argument left unreconciled between them. The screaming comes in because Mrs Pratt screamed as she slowly choked to death.
Another popular ghost seems to be a friendly sort which seems to linger around the power magazine and is said to interact with visitors. His presence reaches farther back into history as he appears to wear the military garb of the Revolutionary War. Though I can’t imagine how this spirit pulls it off, he is solid enough to fool visitors into believing he’s a current employee of the fort who wears period dress to work.
There are, of course, numerous other ghosts within the walls of Fort Mifflin, but as there is no official means to accurately document a claim to be the most haunted anything, I’ll leave out that designation. Today the fort serves the needs of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
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