“The Very Essence of Nightmare”—The Battle of Plymouth, NC, and the Destruction of the CSS Albemarle, pt. II

The Albemarle ready for action. (US Naval Heritage Center)

The Albemarle ready for action. (US Naval Heritage Center)

We’re pleased today to welcome back guest author Sam Smith
part two in a series

The battle of Plymouth was particularly savage. The Confederate brigades were composed of tough veterans, the men having seen combat in places like the West Woods at Antietam, Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, and the fields of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. In the twilight hours of April 17, the Confederates made several charges on Fort Gray, but they were beaten back by heavy musketry as well as shellfire from the USS Bombshell, one of five wooden gunboats anchored outside of Plymouth. As sunset brought the fighting to a close, a Confederate cannon put a shot through Bombshell’s steam-chest and sank her.[i]

“A great commotion” swept through Plymouth that night. Confederate cannons threw shot and shell indiscriminately into the beleaguered village. Women and children were rushed to New Bern and Roanoke Island aboard the USS Massasoit. “It seemed sure now that we were surrounded,” remembered Sergeant Lamphere.[ii]

Plymouth and its defenses.  (History of the Several Regiments and Brigades of North Carolina)

Plymouth and its defenses. (History of the Several Regiments and Brigades of North Carolina)

On the morning of April 18, General Hoke swept the Union lines with fire from 42 cannons. The Union men responded in kind, as did the gunboats. New York Lieutenant Alonzo Cooper later remembered scattered scenes:

immense shells shrieking and bursting over our heads as they were hurled into the lines of the enemy, the forts on our right and left keeping up an incessant roar, a stream of fire belching from the hot throats of Hoke’s forty-two pieces in our front, the comet-like trail of fire from his shells as they hurried on their mission of death towards us, the rattle of grape and cannister as they were hurled against the wooden buildings in our rear, or the woodwork of the forts and earthworks along the line, the loud bray of an immense number of mules, with which Hoke’s artillery was supplied, the groans and shrieks of the wounded, combined to give me such a picture of ‘grim visaged war’ as I had never before beheld.[iii]

Through this iron storm dashed Sergeant Goss, ordered to resupply a Union battery farther upstream. “The shot and shell shrieked through the town, crushing through walls and the roofs of the houses and shanties,” he recalled. “Groups of negro men, women, and children, [had] gathered in the rear of their frail shanties, as if vainly hoping they might prove a protection against the iron messengers of death. They made a preposterous noise, in which were mingled religious exclamations, prayer and supplication, with shrieks and lamentations.” Goss made it through and dove into a small flatboat on the riverbank.[iv]

The Confederate infantrymen also withstood terrible fire as they awaited orders to move forward. The gunboats were firing shells that weighed well over 100 pounds. A North Carolinian remembered that “one shell from a gunboat came over the town, struck the ground about 150 yards in front of the Eighth [North Carolina Volunteers], ricocheted, and the next time struck the ground in the line of the regiment, killing and wounding 15 men.”[v]

In the afternoon, Sergeant Lamphere, huddled in a bomb-proof near Fort Williams, caught a rumor that “the men in Fort Gray could see a black smoke on the river above.” With this grim information, “it was generally understood that the long talked of ram was coming down the river.”[vi]

The Albemarle was indeed approaching, but it was moving slowly. General Hoke elected to launch his infantry attack before nightfall. As the heavy guns continued to fire, his men surged towards Forts Gray and Wessels.

“We threw hand-grenades among them,” remembered one defender of Fort Wessels, “and made it so hot that they could not stand it and broke and ran. They rallied and charged three times before they gave it up for a bad job. They then planted four pieces of artillery about [100 yards] from the fort, and commenced throwing percussion shell into the fort.” The USS Whitehead was hit and sunk, dropping the number of serviceable gunboats to a mere three.[vii]

The men inside Fort Wessels, lying prone under a withering barrage, surrendered shortly after their commanding officer was felled by a shell fragment. As they were marched out of the fort, one Rebel asked, “What did you-uns fight so like devils for?” The Union men responded: “that was what we were there for.”[viii]

Meanwhile, in the middle of the river, Union Navy Captain Charles Flusser was rapidly making dispositions to meet the approaching Albemarle.

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Sam Smith is the Education Manager for the Civil War Trust. A native of Nashville, Tennessee and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Sam’s educational background embraces American history, pedagogy, and experimental theater. After working in Chapel Hill public schools, he is now focused on exploring new methods of learning history through active participation, decision making, role playing, and simulation. He oversees the manifold K-12 educational programs provided by the Civil War Trust. An award-winning board game designer, Sam has also written or co-written more than thirty articles on Civil War subjects and is a frequent lecturer at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

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[i] Slaybaugh, George. “Battle of Plymouth.” 101st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

[ii] Lamphere, Nathan. “The Fall of Plymouth” Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendant Society, 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

[iii] Cooper, A. In and out of Rebel Prisons. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 1983. Print.

[iv] Goss, Warren L. “The Soldier’s Story of his Captivity at Andersonville, Bell Isle and other Rebel Prisons.” Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendant Society, 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

[v] Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861-’65. Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell, Printer, 1901. Print.

[vi] Lamphere, Nathan. “The Fall of Plymouth” Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendant Society, 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

[vii] Flint, Abner. “Plymouth, N.C. – Its Gallant Defense by a Small Force.” Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendant Society, 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

[viii] Ibid.

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