by Sergeant Warren Lee Goss of Co. H, 2nd Mass Heavy Artillery
Lee & Shepard Publishers, Boston, 1866.
"April, 1864, found at Plymouth, N.C., two companies, H and G, of the Second Massachusetts heavy artillery, garrisoning the forts and redoubts on the hostile borders of a rebellious State. Plymouth is situated on the Roanoke River, at the head of the Albemarle Sound. This post was commanded by Brigadier General Wessels, whose brigade consisted, besides the two companies mentioned, of the following regiments: sixteenth Connecticut, one hundred and first [& 103d] Pennsylvania, eighty-fifth New York, a New York independent battery [24th], twenty men of the twelfth New York cavalry, a few negro recruits, and two companies of loyal North Carolinians. Upon our arrival (which was in February, 1864), we found the place in what a wag of our company termed a dilapidated condition. It was more the mere remnant of what had once been a quite thriving village. The rebel forces and our own had each a turn at attempting to burn it, and this the best built portion of the town had been consumed. At the time mentioned, the town consisted of a few tumble-down houses that had escaped the flames, two or three brick stores and houses, and the rest a medley of negro shanties, made of staves split from pitch-pine logs, in which the surrounding country abounded, and a number of rude frame buildings, made for government use, from material sawed at the steam mill which government possessed by confiscation. The place was a general rendezvous for fugitive negroes, who came into our lines by families, while escaping from conscription or persecution, and for rebel deserters, who had become mean, hungry, ragged, and dissatisfied with fighting against the Union. Schools had been established for the young and middle-aged colored population, under the able tuition of Mrs. and Miss Freeman, of Milford, Mass. The whole place had a Rip Van Winkle look, as though it had composed itself into a long sleep to awake after the era of revolution and rebellion had passed. The forts protecting this place were five in number. Extending along a line of two miles were Fort Williams, covering the centre of town, Battery Worth, commanding the river above, Compher and Coneby redoubts, commanding the approaches of the left; while on the right, standing out half a mile, unconnected with those described, was Fort Wessels. Still farther to the right was Fort Gray, standing alone, one mile and a half up the river, on what is known as "War Neck", having no communication with the works described except by a foot-bridge consisting of single logs laid across a swamp, or by a boat on the river. A little tug boat, called the Dolly, was continually plying between Fort Gray and the town. A line of rifle pits connected Fort Williams, Coneby, and Compher redoubts, with Battery Worth".
"On the morning of April 17, 1864, the consolidated morning report to the adjutant -general gave eighteen hundred men armed and equipped for duty. These men were to guard and defend a line of nearly three miles, where the difficulty of communication, and consequent concentration of men at the point of attack, was very great. The theory that a long line is a weak line was here exemplified. One strong bastioned work, with a good water battery connected by parallels, with strong abatis work, would with the same number of men, have made the place much stronger, if not impregnable. On the afternoon of the 17th, while on my way to Fort Wessels, I met two drummer boys belonging to Fort Gray on their way to the commanding general, with the information that the rebels were approaching in strong force within two miles of Fort Gray. This alarm sent me back to Fort Williams, where I arrived just as the enemy opened fire from the edge of the surrounding woods. That evening a battery opened on Fort Gray, followed by two charges of the rebel infantry, in which the rebels were repulsed with heavy losses. Thereafter, at that point of our line, they contented themselves by skirmishing, and an occasional shot from their artillery.
On the afternoon of the 18th, our pickets, after disputing every step of the way, were driven in, and the rebel artillery, from their whole line in front, opened fire upon Fort Williams and the town. We returned the fire. The gunboats Miami and Smithfield [Southfield] did terrible execution. The battle was raging fiercely, when, in obedience to orders, I passed down through the town to the river. The shot and shell shrieked through the town, crushing through walls and the roofs of the houses and shanties. On the side of the houses towards the river were amusing groups of negro men, women, and children, who 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.
I passed safely through the town, and getting up steam on board the "Dolly", was fortunate enough to get her, with rations, to Fort Gray, much in want of supplies. A rebel battery, commanding the river, had made it difficult and dangerous to make the attempt. I was fortunate in escaping the attention of the rebel battery, and arrived with the dead from Fort Gray. That night, [Q.M.] Sgt. [Samuel J.] Evans and myself buried the dead we had brought down. The rebels had been repulsed all along the line, with the exception of Fort Wessels, which, with a garrison of eighty men, had twice repulsed the rebels, and had taken thirty prisoners, but at last had surrendered to overwhelming numbers, not, however, until a rebel battery had been planted less than a hundred yards from them."
"After the fight, I visited my old quarters, but found them knocked to pieces by shell and shot. I extricated from the ruins two blankets, in which I rolled myself, to sleep. This was about two o'clock in the morning. In about an hour, I was aroused by hearing heavy firing in the direction of Fort Gray. Rumors came that a rebel ram was coming down the river. Without firing a shot, - throwing from her smoke-stack huge volumes of pitch-pine smoke, - she passed within a few rods of Battery Worth, commanded by Lt. Hoppin, who was ordered, some five minutes before she hove in sight, to fire on the first thing coming down river, as it would be a rebel ram. At this battery was mounted a rifled gun, carrying a chilled end shot, weighing two hundred pounds, - enough, one would think, to blow the ram into the swamp on the opposite side of the river. Yet not one shot was fired from this gun until after she had passed below her, and sunk the Smithfield [Southfield], whose crew were killed, captured, or drowned, while the Miami ran away. Captain Flusher [Flusser], commanding the gunboats, had lashed the Miami and the Smithfield [Southfield] together with heavy chains, hoping in this way to detain the ram and sink her. While endeavoring to throw a shell down the smoke-stack of the ram he was killed.
From the time the rebel ram passed our batteries, the loss of Plymouth was a foregone conclusion. During the night the rebels had thrown a pontoon bridge across the river on our left, and early the same morning they carried, by assault, our redoubts on this flank, which gave them the town on our rear, and soon had sharpshooters in every house, picking off our gunners. There was no fighting at Fort Gray; Fort Williams alone returned a feeble fire upon the artillery planted upon all sides of them. The outworks soon surrendered, and Fort Williams sustained the conflict alone. Though summoned to surrender, and threatened with "no quarters" if we did not comply, we fought them single-handed until afternoon, when again being summoned, and our situation such as it was useless to contend longer against overwhelming numbers, the commanding General reluctantly surrendered, and I was again a prisoner of war."
"It is a pleasure to know that most of the men and officers of the second behaved with gallantry; as also did the other regiments in the field. The conduct of one woman deserves to be mentioned, - Margaret Leonard - the wife of a private of Company H, second Massachusetts heavy artillery. During the battle, she was engaged in making coffee for the men in a building exposed to heavy fire. At one time a solid shot passed through the building, taking with it one of her dresses, which hung on a nail by the wall. Another carried away the front legs of her cooking stove. Yet when the fight was over, on the evening of the 19th, she had coffee for the men and supper for the officers. She was in Fort Williams during the remainder of the fight and subsequently went through with a long and severe imprisonment at Andersonville, Macon, and Castle Thunder, Richmond.
.....We were marched out between two lines of rebel infantry. As we passed along, the Secesh did us the honor to swap hats with us, by taking them from our heads and substituting their own in their place. I lost my tall dress hat which had caught the eye of a reb on account of the ostrich plume which embellished it. I would have preferred keeping it, as it had two very ornamental bullet holes in the top, made by some complimentary rebel sharpshooters during the action. Here let me record the fact that many of the pretended Union men and women of the town were 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.
We were marched into the open fields in front of Plymouth where we were strongly guarded for the night. Here, also, had been driven from the town, like so many cattle, the whole population of Plymouth except those known as Secesh. There were about twenty negro soldiers at Plymouth, who fled to the swamps when the capture of the place became certain; these soldiers were hunted down and killed, while those who surrendered in good faith were drawn up in line and shot down also like dogs.
The Buffaloes, as the North Carolina companies were called, escaped in some cases by swimming the river before the final surrender. On those who were not thus fortunate, fell all the concentrated rage and hatred of the rebels.
.....We arrived at Andersonville about four o'clock P.M. May 1, 1864. It was raining severely when the train reached the place. Even then we did not imagine to what kind of quarters we were to be consigned.
....Suddenly the whole scene changed! A ferocious, round-shouldered little man, mounted upon a bay mare, surrounded by the guard who were to take the place of those who had accompanied us on the cars, came raving , swearing, and tearing around in a most extravagant manner. So ridiculous appeared to us his gestures, person, and looks, that we burst into a roar of laughter; whereupon he turned upon us, bristling with rage, exclaiming, "By Got! you tam Yankees; you vont laugh ven you gets into the pull pen". It was a gratuitous prophecy, afterwards understood in all its horrors; and the threats of Captain Wirz had too much significance in them to be laughed at. The recollection, even now, of the light manner we received so gross a monster, causes a shudder when I think what action our laughter might have prompted him to do."