In the midst of the Civil War, the Confederate army succeeded capturing the county seat of Washington County in April of 1864. Referred to as “the most effective Confederate combined-arms operation of the Civil War” by historian William S. Powell, the Battle of Plymouth was the result of both Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s infantry division and the naval support of the Confederate ironclads, the Albermarle and the Neuse.
The Union army had set up their eastern headquarters of North Carolina in Plymouth and the town of New Bern in 1862, and the North led several offenses from their bases in these towns. Plymouth was strategically located close to the Roanoke River, making naval warfare a necessity to capture the town. In hopes to regain a stronghold in Carolina’s waterways, the Confederacy conspired to build two ships, the Albermarle and Neuse, in 1862. Once the two naval vessels were completed, General Hoke developed a plan to attack Union forts off the coast of North Carolina. Plymouth was the first town Hoke decided to invade.
On April 17, 1864, General Hoke, along with 10,000 infantrymen, started the advance on Plymouth. Henry W. Wessell commanded only 3,000 men in Plymouth, but the Union forces repelled many of Hoke’s ground forces. Early the next day, Hoke increased artillery fire on the Union Fort Gray and Battery Worth, and the Union ship, the Bombshell, soon gave way to the heavy Confederate bombings.
Although Hoke continued his pressure on the Union defenses, the ground soldiers needed help in taking Fort Gray. The Albermarle, captained by James Cooke, answered the call of duty. Unusually high river levels on the Roanoke allowed the Albermarle to scamper past Fort Gray without alerting the Union forces during the early hours of April 19th. However, the USS Southfield and Miami, met Cooke’s vessel and a naval battle ensued. Although the Miami was considered the most powerful ship on the river, the Albermarle managed to sink the Southfield as the Miami retreated from the engagement.
General Hoke finally had naval artillery support, and Confederate troops attacked Plymouth from the east and west on April 20th. General Wessell refused to accept his predicament as General Hoke surrounded Fort Williams, the last defense in Plymouth. Union forces remained in Fort Williams even though both Hoke’s artillery and the Albermarle bombarded their defense throughout the entire morning. Finally, General Wessell surrendered, and Hoke’s victory renewed Confedarte war vigor in North Carolina.
The victory at Plymouth opened Washington County back to the Confederacy, and much-needed naval stores were made available to the army once again. In addition, the Roanoke River was freed from Union blockades, allowing for a trade and military transportation route for Confederate forces.
“Battle of Plymouth.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Battle of Plymouth.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed November 30, 2011).