In April of 1862, the Confederate Army huddled inside Fort Macon as Union cannons blasted from all sides, raining down shells in a bombardment that lasted 11 hours.
Their commander, Col. Moses J. White, refused to surrender the seaside stronghold – originally built to keep Beaufort safe from pirates. But nearly half the rebels were too sick to fight that day, making long odds even longer. Some had already floated toy boats across the channel, packing them with hopeful letters home.
One luckless soldier stood sentinel that day: Ben Combs, only 25. He’d volunteered in the potent months after secession, leaving his wife, Eliza, on their Wayne County farm, marching to the Atlantic Ocean for what was likely the first time. And as he stood with a rifle on his shoulder, a mortar shell dropped out of the sky and landed on a hill nearby, rolling down to him with its long fuse still whizzing.
When it exploded, it blew open his back and knocked five ribs into his lungs. It took him five days to die, and not long after, Eliza began collecting the small payment offered by the state, wearing a widow’s black.
History leaves nothing else about young Combs, and even these best-we-know details might be off somewhat – muddied in the aftermath of the siege. But in the early 1980s, a woman who boasted she had power to speak with ghosts told a longtime park ranger that a slain soldier spoke to her from the fort’s Civil War past. His name, she said, was Ben.
“The only one was Ben Combs,” said Paul Branch, the ranger who penned the fort’s history and grudgingly speaks of spirits there. “We’ve never seen apparitions. I don’t get anybody jumping out at me, swinging swords or musket butts. Honestly, I don’t like to get involved.”
Civil War forts make for splendid haunting grounds. Water dripping from brick ceilings. Chips in the stone that cannonballs left behind. The most idle imagination can picture men gaunt from salt pork rations washed down with brackish water, stiff from sleeping two to a wooden bunk with no pillow, stinking from a weekly bath in the ocean. Only seven Confederates died at Fort Macon, but they died terribly – rich territory for a modern spook story.
“The tragedy of this stuff is it’s real,” said Branch. “Being hit by a cannonball, having your ribs rip through your lungs. A human being suffered that. It happened here. The ghost stuff is not as interesting as the stuff that actually happened.”
The “ghost stuff” persists nonetheless. With some fondness, Branch refers to the tin-foil hat crowd that asks to camp out overnight and shoots video of spirit orbs.
In her 2001 book “Ghosts from the Coast,” Nancy Roberts dedicates a whole chapter to poor Ben Combs and various unexplained spirit mayhem. She even includes a conversation with Ben’s farmer father that is entirely fictionalized, in which the old man warns his doomed son, “You don’t know nothin’ about soldierin’, boy. You’re a farmer. You got patience with animals, and you got an eye for plowin’ a straight row. But lately you stand around doin’ nothin’ but chewin’ tobacco and lookin’ off in the distance.”
She then asks, “If we listen attentively, is it possible to hear Ben Combs’ ardent young voice?”
Not in a Hollywood way. No chains rattling or blood dripping from the walls. A fort struck more than 500 times by federal cannons that scattered young bodies hardly needs such theatrics to feel eerie.
And if the thought of Ben Combs blown to bits isn’t chilling enough, consider what happened to the young woman who claimed to speak with his ghost. Her name was Linda Coats, and Branch knew her in his days as a young ranger in roughly 1982. A few years later, Coats was living in Fayetteville and studying at Campbell University, and she opened the door one day for a Fort Bragg soldier who asked to use the phone.
That soldier’s name is Ronald Gray, and he is now serving time in federal prison, condemned to death for killing a string of Fayetteville women in the mid-1980s – Coats among them.
Josh Shaffer writes columns about North Carolina haunts every October. He tries to avoid the obvious and well-trodden spots, especially those that involve ghostly lights. But he welcomes your spooky suggestions.