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

General Henry Wessels, pictured in 1863.  (National Archives)
General Henry Wessels, pictured in 1863. (National Archives)

We are pleased to welcome back guest author Sam Smith
part four of a series

By daybreak on April 20, with a couple of signal shots from the Albermarle, Confederate infantry rushed forward toward the forts defending Plymouth. The Union defenders opened fire as soon as the Confederates were in range. Lieutenant Wright led his men in what he called “one of the grandest charges of the war.” The Confederates were torn by grape, canister, and musketry as they ran through the open fields in front of the Union forts. Corporal Council was killed by shell fragments, true to his presentiment.[i]

The fighting swept into the streets of Plymouth, and a “most terrific street fight” erupted as the Union soldiers tried to check the Confederate onslaught. Outnumbered by more than four to one, they could not kill quickly enough to stop the Rebels. Soon enough, the defenders of Plymouth were rushing out of their hiding places and into Fort Williams, the keystone fortification at the center of the Union line. In the words of Confederate Major Graham Daves, it looked like the flight of “a colony of prairie puppies.”[ii]

Many of the fugitive slaves left in town, perhaps as many as 600, bypassed Fort Williams entirely and made a break for the Great Dismal Swamp, hoping to escape into the tangled terrain. They sprinted across no-man’s-land in a great mass, with a handful of rookie black soldiers in the lead, as shells flew overhead and dug furrows into the muddy ground around them. Nearby Confederates poured volleys into the crowd, killing and wounding dozens. A squadron of Confederate cavalry charged into the fugitives, swinging sabers and firing pistols from point-blank range.[iii]

Those who survived the flight crept through the Great Dismal Swamp for days, even weeks, searching for safety. Small bands of Confederate soldiers tracked them through the swamp, killing around 40 more fugitives before the end of April. Most of the remaining 600 were captured or surrendered.[iv]

By noon, the Confederates had overrun every fort except for Fort Williams. The defenders there feverishly worked their cannons, doing great execution among Confederates who ventured too close. After the 8th North Carolina was repulsed with heavy casualties, General Hoke demanded the fort’s surrender. Union commander Henry Wessels came out to negotiate. Hoke complimented Wessels on his gallant defense. He explained that Wessels’s position was untenable and then asked for an unconditional surrender. Wessels responded that he could not honorably surrender “without damage.”[v]

“If to be damaged was what he desired,” replied Hoke, “he could readily be gratified.” The Albemarle and a Confederate battery took positions to fire on Fort Williams point-blank as Wessels went back inside.

General Wessels later remembered that “no man could live at the guns. The breast-height was struck by solid shot on every side, fragments of shells sought almost every interior angle of the work, the whole extent of the parapet was swept by musketry and men were killed and wounded even on the parquetted slope.” After enduring this whirlwind for several minutes, Wessels judged that honor was satisfied and he ordered that the white flag be raised. The Confederates saw this and gave “one loud, wild, prolonged shout.”[vi]

The grimy defenders were marched out of the front door of the fort. The Confederates took hats and other accoutrements from the prisoners as they walked. Many of the remaining citizens of Plymouth, remembered Sergeant Goss, “suddenly developed into exhultant Secesh and shouted their defiance as we passed through the place after our capture – the same who, a few days before, were glad to draw government rations and accept of like favors.”[vii]

By 1865, only 11 pre-war buildings were left standing in Plymouth.  5 of these, including the Grace Episcopal Church, still stand today.  (North Carolina State University)
By 1865, only 11 pre-war buildings were left standing in Plymouth. Five of these, including the Grace Episcopal Church, still stand today. (North Carolina State University)

The town of Plymouth would remain in Confederate hands for the whole summer of 1864. Some historians point to the capture as the last major Confederate victory of the war. The Union men who had so gallantly defended the wasteland oasis were sent to Andersonville.

The Albemarle was badly damaged while fighting in the Albemarle Sound in May. She spent several months docked at Plymouth for repairs. In October, Lieutenant William B. Cushing, an old friend of the late Captain Flusser, embarked on a daring raid to destroy the ship.


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.



[i] Ibid.

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

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] 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.

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