An 1865 Johnston County Ghost Story

Many of North Carolina’s ghost stories have roots that are deeply embedded in the state’s rich history. Since many of the battles of the Civil War were fought right here, it’s no wonder that some of the souls that were lost on the battlefields have never left. Such is the case of the Marauders of Hannah Creek Swamp.

As the Union soldiers continued their march through North Carolina heading south they were allowed to plunder both homes and individuals, but were given strict orders to leave enough food and supplies for families to survive, and not to cause harm to unarmed civilians.

Most of the Union soldiers followed their orders, but a group of rogue soldiers took it upon themselves to make up their own rules of war. Ignoring the strict instructions, this group pillaged and plundered homes and families, leaving a trail of death, destruction and burning buildings in their wake.

These men were led by none other than Colonel David Fanning of the Union Army. Among the families that Col. Fanning and his men terrorized was that of Confederate Colonel John Saunders and his wife at their home near Smithfield. He killed the man and his wife, not realizing that his actions would come back to haunt him.

Col. John Saunders’s son, Confederate Lieutenant John Saunders Jr., vowed revenge on those responsible for the death of his parents. Lieutenant Saunders and his men searched for weeks for the marauders with nothing to show for it. Eventually Col. Saunders Jr. got wind of a group of Union soldiers who were encamped at Hannah Creek Swamp in Johnston County.

A plan was devised and residents of the town loaned the soldiers civilian clothing, and dressed in their disguises, they rowed to the small island in the middle of the swamp where the men were holed up.

By the time the rogue soldiers realized that they had been victims of treachery it was too late; they were completely surrounded by Saunder’s Confederate soldiers. Col. Saunders ordered the Yankees searched and even searched Col. Fanning himself. When he found the small gold crucifix that had belonged to his mother, rage engulfed him and punishment was swift.

A gun was held to the back of Col. Fanning’s head, making him watch as his men were hung to their death from the trees on the island.

Col. Saunders then marched Col. Fanning back to his parent’s home in Smithfield where he mercilessly hung Fanning in the family graveyard right above his mother and father’s grave.

Almost a century and a half has passed since the end of The War Between the States, but the ghosts of Colonel Fanning’s men seem to linger on.

Visitors to Hannah Creek Swamp have claimed to experience cold spots and unexplained feelings of dread. Some have reported hearing men’s voices begging for their lives to be spared. Still others have reported hearing the creaking of the ropes as the bodies still swing from trees.

What really happened at the Island of Hannah Creek? No one knows for sure. What is known though, is that the Marauders never left alive.

Originally contributed by Carter Rabil in 2014. Republished in 2017 and 2020.