Battle of Plymouth

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Battle of Plymouth
Plymouth and the Civil War

Battle of Plymouth
Other Names: None
Location: Washington County

Map of Plymouth, North Carolina
Plymouth North Carolina.gif
(Civil War History)

Campaign: Operations Against Plymouth (April-May 1864)

Date(s): April 17-20, 1864

Principal Commanders: Col. Henry W. Wessells [US]; Maj. Gen. R. F. Hoke [CS]

Forces Engaged: Plymouth Garrison (4 infantry and artillery units) [US]; Hoke’s Division [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 2,834 total

Result(s): Confederate victory

Battle of Plymouth
Battle of Plymouth.gif
Civil War Battle of Plymouth Map

Introduction: In a combined operation with the CSS ram Albemarle, Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. R. F. Hoke, attacked the Federal garrison at Plymouth on April 17. On April 19, the ram appeared in the river, sinking the Smithfield, damaging the Miami, and driving off the other Union ships supporting the Plymouth garrison. Confederate forces captured Fort Comfort, driving defenders into Fort Williams. On the 20th, the garrison surrendered. Securing North Carolina's coast had been a strategic objective in Gen. Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan. (See also Battle of Plymouth: A History.)

History: The Battle of Plymouth, perhaps the most effective Confederate combined-arms operation of the Civil War, was waged in April 1864. Two years earlier, in May 1862, Union forces had occupied Plymouth, near the mouth of the Roanoke River. From their bases in Plymouth, Washington, N.C., and New Bern, the Federals conducted frequent raids in eastern North Carolina. Meanwhile, by the spring of 1862, two Confederate ironclads under construction at Edward's Ferry on the Roanoke River and at Kinston on the Neuse River were nearing completion. The assistance of these vessels, the Albemarle and the Neuse, was essential to the success of any attempt to recapture the coastal towns. Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hoke, acting with Cdr. James Cooke of the Albemarle, concentrated first on Plymouth.

By late afternoon on Apr. 17, 1864, three brigades of infantry-about 10,000 troops-commanded by Hoke was within five miles of Plymouth. Defending the town was a Union garrison of 2,834 men. Although badly outnumbered, the Federals had strongly fortified the post and repulsed the first Confederate attacks. But the next day, April 18, saw heavy shelling, with Union vessels in the river sunk or damaged and forced to retreat to Plymouth. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy gunboats provided artillery support against the Confederates, but their success was short-lived.

"I have stormed and captured this place [Plymouth], capturing 1 brigadier, 1600 men, stores, and 25 pieces of artillery." Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, April 20, 1864*

During the night the Albemarle, taking advantage of an abnormally high river level, safely passed over the obstructions and slipped undamaged past Fort Gray, west of Plymouth. In the predawn hours of April 19, Cooke's ship encountered the USS Southfield and USS Miami, the most powerful Union vessels on the Roanoke. The Albemarle promptly sank the first and heavily damaged the second, forcing the Miami and two other gunboats to retreat. Late that afternoon, Hoke launched a double envelopment attack against both the east and west sides of the town. The Albemarle, having returned to Plymouth, furnished supporting fire on the east side of town.

Battle of Plymouth
Civil War Battle of Plymouth Map.jpg
Battle of Plymouth

Battle of Plymouth
Battle of Plymouth.jpg
General Robert Hoke

On April 20, Hoke renewed the attack on each flank, capturing forts from both directions. But the Union commander, Brig. Gen. Henry Wessels, refused to surrender and gathered the remainder of his forces inside Fort Williams, the Federals' last remaining stronghold, near the center of Plymouth. Hoke unleashed his artillery on the bastion, and the Albemarle added its two large rifled cannons to the bombardment. Heavily shelled from all sides, Wessels unconditionally surrendered his entire command. In addition to the Union garrison, Hoke captured 25 artillery pieces, at a cost of only 50 Confederates killed and wounded. His victory provided a badly needed morale boost for the Confederacy.

Following the fall of Plymouth, Federal forces abandoned Washington, N.C., as well. The Confederates held the town until the Albemarle was sunk by Union raiders in late October 1864. With the ironclad gone, the Southern troops abandoned Plymouth, which remained in Federal hands for the duration of the war.

*D. H. Hill, Jr., Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865, p. 174, places the number at "nearly 3,000 men and 25 pieces of artillery," which would be the entire Federal garrison. It appears that Hoke's preliminary report, dated April 20, 1864, is quoted by many authors and historians, but, since the entire garrison had surrendered, the number of "nearly [less] 3,000" would include the after battle report, less Confederate casualties. On page 193, furthermore, Hill, quoting Colonel Henry Burgwyn of the 26th North Carolina, states, "Capturing Plymouth...with some [at least] 2,500 prisoners." Both Confederate and Union official reports and records also place the Union total between 2,500 and 3,000.

Sources:; National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

Recommended Reading: Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina (April 17-20, 1864): The Last Confederate Victory, by Juanita Patience Moss. Description: Are you familiar with the Battle of Plymouth? Not Plymouth, Massachusetts, but how about Plymouth, North Carolina? If you have never heard of it, you are in the company of many others, even those who consider themselves avid Civil War buffs. The Battle of Plymouth took place April 17-20, 1864, during the “Operations against Plymouth,” and even though the engagement was one year before Lee surrendered to Grant, the sounds of America’s costliest and bloodiest conflict would yield havoc on North Carolina’s coastal communities. Continued below…

In this fascinating book, you will read about the second largest battle in North Carolina and it was fought at a small North Carolina coastal town named Plymouth, where the Confederates tasted their last victory. Intense action transpired during those four days, and the atmosphere was filled with surprise, fate, intrigue, bravery, ingenuity, hope, daring, dedication, gallantry, victory, disappointment, and defeat. The battle witnessed the likes of Cooke, Cushing, Flusser, Hoke, and Wessells, and the formidable CSS Albemarle, an ironclad warship that was not built in the traditional shipyard, but rather in a Southern cornfield. The battle epitomized the brothers’ war, with North Carolina Federal regiments fighting their North Carolina Confederate brethren; it also witnessed African American regiments (USCT) in the thick of the fight. The combined Union and Confederate casualties were just shy of 3,000, and the author offers an informative, enlightening, and interesting view of the “Last Confederate Victory." Although a bit repetitive, it is a worthy addition because it is currently the only full-length text dedicated to the battle. It is a welcome addition to North Carolina and school libraries, and to the buff that enjoys reading about the lesser-known Civil War battles and it troops (Union and Confederate) that fought valiantly. Three stars.

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Recommended Reading:  Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...

For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.


Recommended Reading: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (175 pages) (North Carolina Division of Archives and History). Description: From the drama of blockade-running to graphic descriptions of battles on the state's islands and sounds, this book portrays the explosive events that took place in North Carolina's coastal region during the Civil War. Topics discussed include the strategic importance of coastal North Carolina, Federal occupation of coastal areas, blockade-running, and the impact of war on civilians along the Tar Heel coast.


Recommended Reading: Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Studies in Maritime History Series). From Library Journal: From the profusion of books about Confederate blockade running, this one will stand out for a long time as the most complete and exhaustively researched. Though not unaware of the romantic aspects of his subject, Wise sets out to provide a detailed study, giving particular attention to the blockade runners' effects on the Confederate war effort. It was, he finds, tapping hitherto unused sources, absolutely essential, affording the South a virtual lifeline of military necessities until the war's last days. This book covers it all: from cargoes to ship outfitting, from individuals and companies to financing at both ends. An indispensable addition to Civil War literature.

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