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

Charles Flusser (1832-1864) (US Naval Heritage Center)

Charles Flusser (1832-1864) (US Naval Heritage Center)

We are pleased today to welcome back guest author Sam Smith
part three in a series

As the Albemarle approached Union Navy Captain Charles Flusser was rapidly making dispositions to meet the it. He chained the USS Southfield to the USS Miami, fastening the gunboats into a V-shape that would force the Albemarle to either turn back or risk ramming her way through.

At 2 a.m., the Albemarle came into view. She cut a low, cruel silhouette on the moonlit river, throwing black smoke high against the purple sky. Union gunners opened on her with everything they had. When she was less than 100 yards away, a well-aimed shell, weighing more than 100 pounds, impacted directly on her side armor. It bounced off without effect.

“Down she came,” remembered Captain Charles Fiske, “without making a single hostile demonstration, relentless as fate, utterly disregardless of anything we could do, while we in a frantic rage fired our muskets and even pistols at her…. She was the embodiment of fate, the very essence of nightmare.”[i]

The Albemarle made straight for the Southfield and the Miami. She crashed through the wooden sidings of the Southfield, driving her prow 20 feet deep into the converted ferry boat. Men dove overboard as the Southfield began to sink rapidly.

The Albemarle easily overwhelmed the Union ships defending Plymouth.  (William McGrath, Framing Fox Art)

The Albemarle easily overwhelmed the Union ships defending Plymouth. (William McGrath, Framing Fox Art)

Captain Flusser, aboard the Miami, rushed to his gun deck. The Confederate ram was right next to the Miami, still lodged inside the Southfield. Flusser took personal command of one of the pieces and aimed the muzzle towards the Albemarle’s smokestack. He yanked the lanyard and the gun leapt backwards as the shell flew towards its target.

The shell bounced off of the Albemarle’s armor and rebounded through the air. It arced backwards towards Flusser’s position on the gun deck. It exploded almost right on top of the young captain, tearing him to pieces.[ii]

The crew of the Miami panicked and threw off the chains attaching them to the Southfield. The gunboat steamed away from the battle, followed closely by the USS Ceres.   The Albemarle did not give chase, but began to throw shot and shell into the forts held by the rattled Union infantry. It was “a night of terror,” recalled Pennsylvania Corporal Samuel Gibson.[iii]

On April 19, the inhabitants of Plymouth knew they were doomed. Shot and shell continued to rake the town and the fortifications as the Confederate infantry maneuvered for the climactic assault. Corporal Gibson wrote that “the Rebs are before us, behind us, and on each side of us. We will die game.”[iv]

For their part, the Confederate soldiers grimly acknowledged that they would soon be sent into the teeth of the remaining Union forts. As they lay down that night, Corporal James Council told his friend, Lieutenant E.A. Wright, that “this will be our last sleep together, for before to-morrow night I shall be sleeping my eternal sleep.” “Jimmy, don’t talk that way,” Wright responded. “Let us go to sleep.”[v]

By daybreak on April 20, General Hoke was ready to deliver the coup de grace. The Albemarle let off a couple of signal shots and then the infantry came forward at a run.

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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] Urwin, Gregory J. W. Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

[ii] “Under Both Flags: Civil War in the Albemarle.” Under Both Flags. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 2011. Web. 29 July 2014.

[iii] Urwin, Gregory J. W. Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Wright, E. A. “After the Battle of Plymouth, NC.” Confederate Veteran Volume 24, 1917. Web. 29 July 2014.

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