April 20, 1864 (Wednesday)
While the CSS Albemarle sunk one Federal vessel and dispersed another before the Union-held defenses of Plymouth, North Carolina the day previous, General Robert Hoke’s troops did little more than exchange fire with their Northern counterparts. Late in the day (the 19th), Hoke sent Matt Ransom’s brigade a few miles east, ordering him to attack Fort Williams, the strongest of the several nearby Federal forts, the next morning. The idea was double envelopment – or at least as close as they could come given the lay of the land.
As the Rebel troops moved, Union General Henry Wessells, behind the Plymouth defenses, noted that “the enemy was very active, moving in different directions, withdrawing most of his force from the vicinity of Fort Gray [on the Union extreme right], and apparently making a serious demonstration on my right [meaning his not-so-extreme right].” As the 19th wore on, the skirmishing grew heavy and the casualties mounted, until he spotted Ransom’s Brigade on the move. “This state of things continued until dark,” continued Wessells, “when the enemy in strong force succeeded in effecting the crossing of Coneby Creek below the town, and massed his column on my left. This disaster ws unexplained, and place me in a most critical position.”
Through the night, as the Rebels shivered in their bedrolls waiting for dawn, Wessells shifted troops here and there “to repel attack both on the right and left.” He had no idea, of course, whether the attack would be on his right or his left, and prepared for both.
General Hoke’s plan called for his own brigade on the Federal right to make a demonstration, while Ransom’s made the main attack against Wessells’ left. So it happened, and Ransom’s men rushed forward.
After pushing the Union troops outside of their defenses back upon their lines, General Hoke requested a personal interview with General Wessells, during which he demanded that Plymouth be surrendered. “In failure of this,” wrote Wessells, “indiscriminate slaughter was intimated.” And though General Hoke was “courteous and soldierlike,” Wessells refused the demand.
I was now completely enveloped on every side, Fort Williams, an inclosed work in the center of the line, being my only hope. This was well understood by the enemy, and in less than an hour a cannonade of shot and shell was opened upon it from four different directions. This terrible fire had to be endured without reply, as 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 banquette slope.
A covered excavation had been previously constructed, to which the wounded were conveyed, where they received efficient medical attention. This condition of affairs could not be long endured without a reckless sacrifice of life; no relief could be expected, and in compliance with the earnest desire of every officer I consented to hoist a white flag, and at 10 a. m. of April 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.
It is to be remarked that during the siege and in the night a considerable number of North Carolina soldiers (many of them deserters from the enemy, and all of them fearing bad treatment in the event of capture) left their companies without authority, escaping in canoes, being picked up, as I have understood, by our boats in the sound.
In light of the mass executions of Unionist North Carolinians undertaken by both Generals George Pickett and Robert Hoke in February, it’s understandable why they would run.
A couple of companies of black troops also did the same, and for the same reasons. Samuel Johnson, a black orderly sergeant from Company D, 2nd US Colored Cavalry, related a few months later the panic that set in when Plymouth was about to fall:
“When I found out that the city was being surrendered, I pulled off my uniform and found a suit of citizen’s clothes, which I put on, and when captured I was supposed and believed by the rebels to be a citizen. After being captured I was kept at Plymouth for some two weeks and was employed in endeavoring to raise the sunken vessels of the Union fleet.
Upon the capture of Plymouth by the rebel forces all the negroes found in blue uniform, or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him, was killed. I saw some taken into the woods and hung. Others I saw stripped of all their clothing and stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverward and there they were shot. Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the rebels. All were not killed the day of the capture. Those that were not were placed in a room with their officers, they (the officers) having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning, when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.”
Sgt. Johnson believed that the 6th and 8th North Carolina were “most conspicuous in these murderous transactions.”
Though his statement was recorded in July, it took only a week for the Northern press to report that a massacre of blacks and Unionist North Carolinians (called Buffaloes) had taken place. These reports accused the Rebels of murdering troops after the surrender.
Other Federal officers denied such claims, though it must be noted that they did so while being held in Confederate prisons. Confederate officers naturally denied the allegations, as did the Southern press. In this denial, the Daily Richmond Examiner lamented: “General Hoke, judging from the large number of his prisoners, does not seem to have made such thorough work as that by which [Nathan Bedford] Forrest has so shocked the tender souls, and frozen the warm blood of the Yankees.”
The following day, General Braxton Bragg wrote to North Carolina’s Governor Zebulon Vance, informing him that President Davis “directs that the negroes captured by our forces be turned over to you for the present, and he requests of you that if upon investigation you ascertain that any of them belong to citizens of North Carolina you will cause them to be restored to their respective owners. If any are owned in other States you will please communicate to me their number and the names and places of residence of their owners, and have them retained in strict custody until the President’s views in reference to such may be conveyed to you.”
He made absolutely no mention of nor allowance for even the idea of free blacks. Apparently, in this scenario, they simply did not exist. In fact, Davis requested Vance cover the whole thing up. “To avoid as far as possible all complications with the military authorities of the United States in regard to the disposition which will be made of this class of prisoners [black soldiers],” wrote Bragg, “the President respectfully requests Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to have the matter of such disposition kept out of the newspapers of the State, and in every available way to shun its obtaining any publicity as far as consistent with the proposed restoration.”
The day after the battle, General Hoke’s aide-de-camp wrote to Richmond telling of the spoils of the surrender, and perhaps this might shed some light upon the subject of a massacre. “The prisoners will number about 2,500, 300 or 400 negroes, 30 pieces of ordnance, complete garrison outfit, 100,000 pounds of meat, 1,000 barrels of flour, and other provisions. […] Where will the prisoners go? Our loss about 300 in all.”
The number “300 or 400 negroes” far outweighs the number of black troops stationed at Plymouth, making it clear that there was probably no massacre, and that Confederate troops apparently swept the town, capturing every black person they could find. All of these, as per President Davis’ order, were now slaves.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p299; Vol. 51, Part 2, p870; Series 2, Vol. 7, p78-79, 459-460; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett; Black Flag Over Dixie by Gregory J. W. Urwin. [↩]