Forts Donelson and Henry’s Restless Dead

Federal forces under General Grant traversed the isthmus separating the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and took the Rebels of Fort Donelson by surprise.  A bloody battle ensued.
Federal forces under General Grant traversed the isthmus separating the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and took the Rebels of Fort Donelson by surprise. A bloody battle ensued.

In both Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I chronicled several different hauntings related to the Battle of Shiloh. But before Shioh were Donelson and Henry.

Forts Donelson and Henry were the twin Confederate bastions which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. The Rebels had fortified the two rivers where they came close to one another–called Land Between the Rivers back then; now, thanks to the TVA, it is Land Between the Lakes. Here in the winter of 1862, a Union amphibious force came to break the Confederate defenses. Led by General Ulysses S. Grant, the Yankees first bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee River into submission and then, in a bold move, Grant took a small force overland and besieged Fort Donelson from landward, catching the Johnnies off-guard. The Rebels had all their big guns pointing down-river, in the direction from which they thought the Yankee fleet would come.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, opening the way for the Union occupation of the entire mid-South.
Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, opening the way for the Union occupation of the entire mid-South.

It was a bitter cold winter and both sides suffered terribly. The wounded lay thick in the no man’s land between the two armies and suffered as much from the cold as they did from their wounds. Many died a slow and agonizing death. The Rebel troops, for their part, were ill-prepared for a winter campaign and suffered even more than the Yankees from the cold. Ultimately, Grant bluffed the incompetent Rebel commanders into surrendering, thereby assuring his fame and opening the way for the Union to conquering the heartland of the Confederacy.

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker.  His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.
General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker. His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

Although the dead of both sides were quickly interred, their undead shades lingered–and they linger still at Land Between the Lakes. After my first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, which chronicled a few of Shiloh’s ghosts and haunts, and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, where I covered more Shiloh ghosts and also a tale relating to General Grant, I had occasion to talk with several re-enactors who had camped at Fort Donelson at various times, trying to re-create conditions as close to January, 1862, as they could.

The re-enactors I spoke with told me it was not uncommon for one or another of their ranks to have uncanny encounters at Fort Donelson. One lady, a sutler, describes awakening in her tent in the dead of night to fight all her wares and her tent violently shaking and rattling. There was no wind or storm or any natural event that night to explain it. But apparently there was something supernatural that could.

Another re-enactor told of performing picket duty at night while his unit was there. Many re-enactors try to get into the spirit of the period, not just for visitors during the day, but at night as well. An onlooker might well mistake them for the real thing. This re-enactor was on duty late at night when he saw a light coming up the hill in the distance.

The dim glow grew larger and larger as it approached him and at first he could not make out what it was. Then it came close and passed him; in the eerie glow he could see the torso and head of a man–seemingly an officer, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking an old-fashioned stogie; it was the phantom cigar that illumined the figure. It almost seemed as if the phantom officer were making the rounds, checking on the bivouac to see all the guards were on duty. But the cigar-smoking figure was no re-enactor; he had no lower body, just a materialized torso and be-hatted head. Was it the ghost of General Grant? Or was it the shade of some other tobacco-loving commander, North or South? Who knows?

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill about another war, Fort Donelson was not the beginning of the end of the Rebellion; but it was the end of the beginning. And they’re those who say that many who met their end there abide on the grounds of the battle-field still.

For more Civil War ghost stories see my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; Rutledge Hill did the original editon which is still in print, although Barnes & Noble, Lone Pine and Sterling have come out with economy hardcovers in addition to the paperback editions. My first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, also chronicles the battlefield hauntings of Shiloh, Chickamauga and Franklin.

Re-enactors conduct an artillery barrage at night at Fort Donelson
Re-enactors conduct an artillery barrage at night at Fort Donelson
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Bloody Antietam: the Phantom Carolers and other Battlefield Haunts

"Raise the Colors and Follow Me!" Mort Kunstler Painting of the Irish Brigade at Antietam.
“Raise the Colors and Follow Me!” Mort Kunstler Painting of the Irish Brigade at Antietam.

The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest single day in American History. The casualties on that day exceeded the casualties of all of America’s previous wars combined. That such awful butchery would leave its mark on the field of battle is therefore not too surprising.

Visitors to Antietam have had many spectral encounters over the years at Antietam, but one of the more curious incidents is the one I documented in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. In Ghosts and Haunts I relate how a whole class of students from a private boys school report hearing unseen voices singing Christmas carols on the battlefield. On reading their class reports about their field trip, their history teacher, an expert on the Civil War, was perplexed. The young scholars had penned their reports on the bus ride back from the battlefield and did not have time to engage in any collusion or organize a practical joke.

The Bloody Lane, where you could walk on the dead its length without touching the ground.
After butchering the Irish Brigade in the open fields, it was the Rebel turn to be slaughtered in the Bloody Lane. This painting, by Captain James Hope, based on a field sketch, captures the awful carnage.

On quizzing the students, the majority told him they heard the caroling near the sunken road now called Bloody Lane, a place made famous by the Union Irish Brigade, who suffered terrible losses in their charge there. When asked exactly what Christmas song they heard, they were united in saying “Deck the Halls” with its chorus of “fall-a-lalla-la.” It was then a light suddenly went on in the teacher’s brain: “Faugh a Ballagh!” was the war cry of the Irish Brigade—yet none of the students could have known that!

The Federal attack over Burnside Bridge was a bloody and senseless incident, but one which has left spectral reminders
The Federal attack over Burnside Bridge was a bloody and senseless incident, but one which has left spectral reminders

The Bloody Lane is not the sole spot at Antietam with a haunted reputation. Burnside Bridge, where Yankee troops tried to force a crossing over Antietam Creek and paid dearly for it, has had numerous visitors give reports of spectral encounters. Many report seeing ghostly figures, strange blue balls of light and the sounds of a phantom drummer drumming.

This small country church, called The Dunker Church, was used as a field hospital and is a hotspot of paranormal activity
This small country church, called The Dunker Church, was used as a field hospital and is a hotspot of paranormal activity

Dunker Church, another local landmark that figured in the battle, has had reports of people seeing spectral soldiers haunting its environs. It is a small country church which during and after the battle was used as a field hospital. Soldier’s limbs were hacked off by the score without anesthesia and many the man it was who died in agony there. Besides the phantoms said to roam its bloodied floorboards, eerie lights have been spied there at night.

The Pry House, used as McClellan’s headquarters, is now The Pry House Field Hospital Museum, and is open daily June-October. It served as a Union field hospital and visitors to it have also had uncanny encounters in and around it.

This photo, taken by a tourist of the Pry House, also used as a field hospital, may have captured a spectral presence.  The house itself has had many reports of ghosts haunting it.
This photo, taken by a tourist of the Pry House, also used as a field hospital, may have captured a spectral presence. The house itself has had many reports of ghosts haunting it.

There are enough re-enactors and tourists who have experienced things at Antietam that cannot be explained, that you do not need some hokey TV ghost hunter running around with a flashlight to his face for one to know that Antietam is a most seriously haunted piece of Civil War real estate.

For more about Antietam’s spectral encounters, see Chapter 13, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. If you want to learn of Lincoln’s paranormal relationship with the battle, see Chapter 10, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Happy haunting!

"Faugh a Ballagh" the Irish Brigade's War Cry means "clear the way," the title of this painting by Don Troiani.  The dead still chant it on the battlefield to this day.
“Faugh a Ballagh” the Irish Brigade’s War Cry means “clear the way,” the title of this painting by Don Troiani. The dead still chant it on the battlefield to this day.