Irish ghosts of America: The slaughter at Bloody Lane, Sharpsburg, MD

The Irish dead supposedly still haunt the battlefield at Antietam.

Sometimes it can be hard to trace the sources of a ghost story. Reportedly haunted places will claim that “visitors saw such and such” and “somebody said they experienced something,” and there’s no real sense of who made the claim, or when, or to whom. There are a lot of these stories about Bloody Lane at Antietam, which is supposed to be haunted. Online sites report ghostly gunfire, or visitors seeing people in Confederate uniforms, or a single drum roll, as though a spectral drummer boy had spontaneously decided to rat-a-tat-tat.

There is one story about this battlefield that has a source, and that source is a 1999 book called “Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War: Authentic Accounts of the Strange and Unexplained” by Christopher K. Coleman, a writer who specializes in Southern ghost stories.

He tells the tale of a group of boys from Baltimore’s McDonagh School who visited the Antietam battlefield. Coleman names the teacher, Mr. O’Brien, who was something of a scholar of the Civil War — entirely credible, as I do discover a Mr. O’Brien who taught at the school in the late 70s, and the school’s newspaper does mention regular field trips to Anitetam.

It’s not surprising that Antietam has a reputation for being haunted, as it was a slaughterhouse. It was the single bloodiest day in the Civil War, with the battle killing and wounding almost 23,000 soldiers. The 69th New York Infantry sustained some of the most losses, which was always the case for the “Fighting 69th” — they lost 600 men in this battle, or about 60 percent of their ranks. The same happened at Gettysburg, where, of the Brigade’s remaining 530 soldiers, 320 of them died.

Regimental flag of the Irish Brigade.

The Fighting 69th had another nickname: The Irish Brigade. They were a legacy of an Irish revolutionary movement that sought to create American Irish militias to help fight the British when Ireland revolted. As soldiers in the Union, they were valued for their almost total fearlessness. Their regimental flag, which was a vivid emerald color and emblazoned with a harp, included the slogan “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann,” Irish for “who never retreated from the clash of spears.” They were famous for the battle cry, also in Irish: “faugh a ballagh,” or “clear the way.”

At Antietam there was a sunken road, now called Bloody Lane, and that was where the fighting got to be the most ferocious. The Irish Brigade charged into the road to the sounds of drums, with their chaplain riding alongside on horseback, calling out words of absolution to those about to die. The Irish brigade battled ferociously, firing all their ammunition and then scrounging ammunition from the bodies at their feet, but the sunken road was a death trap, and they were slaughtered.

It was at this site that Mr. O’Brien’s class wandered the battlefield. Afterward, O’Brien asked them to write down what they remembered most, according to author Coleman. A number of students wrote that they had heard voices repeatedly chanting the chorus to a Christmas carol: Fa-la-la, fa-la-la.

O’Brien recognized at one what they were hearing: It was the ghosts of the Irish dead, still haunting the battlefield, still crying out “Clear the way”:

Faugh a ballagh, faugh a ballagh.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.