April 18, 1864 (Monday)
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard had been languishing in Charleston for far too long. Though the Federals had made some vague moves to capture the city in 1863, over the winter and so much of the spring as had passed, it began to seem as if the North cared little for the birthplace of secession. General Beauregard was one of the Confederate Army’s highest ranked commanders, and yet he oversaw what amounted to a handful of garrison soldiers. Suffering from a chronic throat ailment, in April, Beauregard requested permission from Richmond to take a leave of absence.
General James Longstreet had drawn up a plan that gave Beauregard a starring role as field commander of a massive army that was to move against the Ohio River in the West. It was submitted, but ultimately rejected by Davis. Perhaps, however, it reminded Davis that even though his strongly disliked Beauregard, he was yet useful in some capacity. Rather than granting Beauregard leave, Richmond gave him a new assignment.
General Braxton Bragg, now Davis’ military advisor, sent a message on the 13th asking if Beauregard was well enough to aid General Lee in the defense of Richmond. “Am ready to obey any order for the good of the service,” came Beauregard’s reply.
By the 16th, Beauregard was ready to leave, but nobody had been sent to replace him. He wired Richmond asking if General D.H. Hill couldn’t be sent. Instead, they shuffled General Sam Jones to Charleston and hurried Beauregard to Weldon, North Carolina, the headquarters for the newly-created Department of North Carolina and Cape Fear (which Beauregard renamed the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia). On this date, while Beauregard was still waiting in Charleston, Richmond made it official.
Beauregard’s new department encompassed quite a bit of ground, though its borders were incredibly vague. Though he seemed to command from Cape Fear north to the James River, just south of Richmond, this new department greatly overlapped the Department of North Carolina, commanded by George Pickett in Petersburg. This reduced Pickett’s command to that of Petersburg’s 2,000 militia (he would soon apply to Lee to be let back into the Army of Northern Virginia).
One thing that Beauregard sort of inherited from Pickett was the commands in North Carolina of Generals W.H.C. Whiting and Robert Hoke. Whiting, however, was more or less an independent commander and Hoke was taking direct orders from Bragg in Richmond. Nobody seemed to think much of Pickett. This new department would place both Whiting and Hoke under Beauregard’s command.
While Whiting’s troops were more or less stationary, those under General Hoke (basically Pickett’s old division) were poised to attack Federal-held Plymouth, North Carolina. Plymouth was one of the Union Army’s supply depots, and was held by about a brigade’s worth of soldiers – consisting mostly of US Colored Troops, some Pennsylvanians and more than a handful of North Carolinian Unionists – 2,800 troops, all told. Plymouth, which was situated on the southern bank of the Roanoke River, near its mouth, was protected by a series of earthen forts, garrisoned by troops under the command of General W.H. Wessells.
Confederate General Hoke thought that the capture of Plymouth was possible, but only with the aid of the navy. This is where the newly-built (and actually still under construction) CSS Albemarle came into the story. The construction of the Albemarle took months, but by April, it seemed she was nearly ready. Constructed of oak and sheathed in two thick plates of iron, the Albemarle chuffed down the Roanoke toward Plymouth.
Hoke, by the 17th, was already near his quarry. Five miles before the town, his command swallowed the Federal pickets and threw back the scant cavalry. He moved closer, coming within artillery range of the Northern fortifications, which opened upon him at dark.
Four main forts protected the land approaches to Plymouth. Fort Williams, the strongest, stood bold in the center of the line which ran southwest to the much smaller Fort Wessells. Detached to the right was Fort Gray, and to the left was Fort Comfort, both with their backs to the river.
Still without the Albermarle, Hoke decided upon the morning of this date to send his artillery to the left to deal with Fort Gray. They opened upon the garrison a vicious bombardment, which managed to sink of the Federal naval transports. In the afternoon, Hoke split his forces for the assault.
The main attack, Hoke concluded, would be thrown against the small Fort Wessells, while Matt Ransom’s brigade made a demonstration against the line to the right. This would hold the Federal troops in the larger Fort Williams without having to actually assault the fort itself.
Ransom’s men made their move at 6pm, and received a heavy reply. About two hours later, Hoke assailed Fort Wessells. “This work,” recorded General Wessells, “after a desperate resistance, was surrendered, and, as I have understood, under a threat of no quarter. Its gallant commander, Captain Chapin, Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, fell nobly at his post, and Colonel Mercer, commanding the attacking column was killed.”
With this victory, the day ended, already dark. And though Hoke probably did not order that “no quarter” be given (and seemingly no Confederate soldiers acted in such a manner), a demand to surrender Plymouth was forwarded to General Wessells. According to the refugees fleeing the town, Wessells agreed that he would capitulate, but only if the black soldiers and North Carolina Unionists would be treated as prisoners of war. Hoke refused this request.
The following day would be one of little movement for the infantry, but would see the CSS Albemarle finally arrive. She had made it to three miles above Plymouth around the time that Hoke captured Fort Wessells, and the next morning (the 19th), she was engaged by the guns of Fort Gray, as well as two Federal gunboats. The Albemarle made quick work of one enemy vessel, ramming her to the bottom (a strike that nearly dragged the Albemarle down with her victim). The other vessel attacked, but soon the Union naval commander was dead – killed by a shot that he personally fired, which had rebounded off the iron of the Rebel ship and exploded on the deck where he stood.
By the morning of the 20th, General Hoke would be ready to strike again.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p287, 298, 1292; Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; General George E. Pickett in Life & Legend by Lesley J. Gordon; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]