A True Family Ghost Story… Halloween Tales I

On November 15, 1777, the British lobbed 1000 cannonballs per hour into the tiny Fort Mifflin in an all out effort to resupply British troops in Philadelphia. Four of my ancestors fought in the battle and two died heroically. Did they become ghosts?

Do you believe in ghosts?

With Halloween two days away I decided it is time to get into the spirit of the season and post two family ghost stories that involved me: the first took place at Fort Mifflin near Philadelphia; the second in Scotland. They are both true. I will return to my journey down the Colorado River on Friday.

Fort Mifflin

It was the week before Halloween and I was on a ghost hunt. The eerie creatures are known to hang out at Fort Mifflin, which is located next to Philadelphia International Airport on the Delaware River. It’s one of the hottest ghost watching spots in America and has been featured on the popular TV series, “Ghost Hunters.”

A little background is necessary.

In the fall of 1777, 234 years ago, all that stood between the British and the likely defeat of the American Revolution was the small Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River. It is a chapter in American History that is little known and rarely told.

For over a month, the fort had kept the mighty British Navy from resupplying General Howe at Philadelphia. It was a valiant effort that kept Howe from pursuing George Washington and likely defeating him, thus ending the war.

On the morning of November 15th, five British Warships including the sixty-four-gun Flagship Somerset appeared out of the mist below the fort. Of equal, if not more concern, the British had taken advantage of a high flood tide and pulled the converted and armed East Indian merchant ship Vigilant and the gun-sloop Fury within pistol range of Mifflin’s northwest corner. A number of land batteries also had cannons pointed at the fort. (Fort Mifflin had a total of 10 cannons.)

This model provides an overview of where the British Men-of-War were located in relation to Fort Mifflin. Andrew and James Mekemson were part of the artillery company protecting the wall under the guns of the two ships on the upper left hand corner.

Looking out from the lawn in front of Fort Mifflin, the barge is in the approximate location of the British Flagship Somerset.

The Vigilant was so closed to the wall that British Marines positioned in the masts could fire pistols down at my ancestors who were manning the American cannons.

As the sun rose, the ships and land batteries opened fire in a bombardment that sent over 1000 cannonballs per hour crashing into the fort. It was the heaviest naval bombardment of the Revolutionary War.

Joseph Plumb Martin, a young private from Massachusetts, was there during the battle and captured the sheer terror of the experience some years later in his book Ordinary Courage. “They mowed us down like corn stalks,” he reported.

At the height of the bombardment a decision was made to hoist a signal and request help from the galleys and floating batteries above the fort. A volunteer was requested to climb up the flagpole with the signal flag as the cannonballs hurtled in from all directions.

Fort Mifflin’s modern flagpole.

Joseph Plumb Martin had a vivid memory of the event. “…a sergeant of the artillery offered himself; he accordingly ascended to the round top and pulled down the (fort’s) flag to affix the signal flag to the halyard. The enemy, thinking we had struck (surrendered), ceased firing in every direction and cheered.”

“Up with the Flag!” was the cry from our officers in every part of the fort. The flag was accordingly hoisted and the firing was immediately renewed. The sergeant then came down and had not gone a half-rod from the foot of the staff when he was cut in two by a cannon shot.”

The sergeant who climbed up the flagpole was my ancestor, Andrew Mekemson. His brother James was also killed during the engagement. Two other brothers, stationed on the Floating Battery Putnam, also fought in the battle. I figured if there were ghosts at the fort, they might very well be relatives.

Since Fort Mifflin offers ghost tours, Peggy and I signed up for a nighttime tour by lantern.

We decided to do a reconnaissance during daylight hours but a police vehicle blocked the road. A dozen or so media crews were pointing their cameras into the airport at a large UPS cargo plane. It had just flown in from Yemen and was being searched for ink cartridge bombs. We were caught in the midst of a “credible terrorist threat” as President Obama described it.

Ghosts can’t be nearly as scary… can they?

By 6:30 the police car had moved but the TV crews were still on watch. We wound our way through the circus. Dusk had arrived at the Fort.  The tour was scheduled to start as soon as it is fully dark. Make that pitch black; there was no moon.

Our guide gathered us. His lantern immediately blew out. “It’s only the wind,” he explained. “I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t hunt them and they don’t hunt me.”

His disclaimer comes with a ‘but.’ He works at the Fort, and occasionally ‘things’ happen. There are unexplained footsteps on stairs. Doors close and latch on their own. Voices are heard in the next room. A woman screams like she is being murdered. The police are called but can’t find anyone, or thing. A man walking on the rampart disappears into thin air.

Our guide relates story after story as we make our way through the candle lit buildings of the fort. Other staff, volunteers and visitors have also experienced strange phenomena. More than one visitor has left on the run and even the guide has packed up and gone home on occasion.

Our guide was spending the night in the room at the top of the stairs when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He opened the door and no one was there. Next he heard voices coming from the room next to him. He checked. No one was there. He packed up and went home.

We arrived at the Fort’s ammunition magazine, a bush covered hill that resembled an ancient burial mound. A bright hurricane torch outlined the dim opening. We entered and walked down a narrow, dimly lit corridor that opened out to a large, arched bunker. A single candle created dancing shadows on the far wall.

The grave-like ammunition magazine where visitors encountered the well-informed guide dressed as a Revolutionary soldier and where Peggy and I had our ghostly experience.

“I’ve never felt anything in here,” the tour leader related. “It’s dead space,” he quips and repeats himself in case we missed his humor. For others, the story has been different. A group tourists reported on encountering a wonderful guide in the bunker dressed as a Revolutionary soldier. He vividly described the horrendous battle that took place on November 15, 1777. The Fort had no such guide…

I stared hard into the corner where he supposedly stood, trying to create something out of nothing. But there were only the dancing shadows. Peggy tried to take a photo but the camera froze and refused to work. As she struggled with it, the last of our tour group disappeared down the narrow corridor, leaving us alone with the flickering candle.

We hurried after the group. There was no one outside the magazine, only the glowing torch and the dark night. “I saw them heading down a side corridor,” Peggy said. With more than a little reluctance, we dutifully trooped back inside. Peggy’s corridor is a bricked in wall. I was starting to feel spooked.

“Maybe we should go back to the bunker,” she suggested.

“No,” I replied and headed for the entrance. Just as we arrived, the hurricane torch made a poof sound and went out, leaving us with nothing but dark. The hairs on the back of my head stood at attention. Was Andrew trying to communicate with us? Peggy and I decided it was time to vacate the premises.

Fortunately we found our group several buildings away and stuck close to them the rest of the tour. We couldn’t have asked for a better Halloween experience.

Next Blog on Halloween: A Lonely Grave… Peggy and I are looking for the grave of an ancestor, shot down as a Scottish Martyr, when we see what almost has to be a ghost.

Once you’ve become thoroughly “spooked,” every dark corridor, such as this one at Fort Mifflin, becomes a potential hiding place for a ghost.

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