The Fall Of Plymouth
By Nathan Lanpheur [Lamphere]
Commissary Sergeant 85th NYS Vols
Being a soldier for the Union belonging to the 18th Corps under the command of Gen. John G. Foster, Brigade of Gen. Wessells in the Department of North Carolina. On or about the first of May 1863. Said Brigade being stationed at Newbern, N.C. were ordered to move to Plymouth, N.C. cituated on the Roanoke River about 7 miles from its mouth where it empties into Albemarle Sound to relieve other troops at the Port. Accordingly about the 5th of May in same year we were landed from steamers at said Port. Wessells Brigade consisted at this time of the following named troops, viz, 85th N.Y. Volunteers, 101st Penn Volunteers, 103rd Penn Volunteers, 96th N.Y. Volunteers of Infantry; 24th N.Y. Independent Battery and 2 companys of 12th N.Y. Cavalry. Plymouth had been held by our troops for nearly a year and was partially destroyed by fire at the time it was first taken by our troops. It was considered to be a strategic point and was to be held at all hazzards. It had formerly been a port of entry of the U.S. and was quite a business town of perhaps 2000 inhabitants. What the strategy of holding this post consisted of I have never yet learned. Nevertheless we prepared to defend the place. Accordingly we at once commenced breastworks, forts, redoubts, bombproofs which occupied our time for the greater part of the summer. The defences commenced about ½ mile from the town up the river and were built in a semicircle around the town to near the River below. A space perhaps of 100 rods from the river to the first works below town was left for the gunboats to protect. This line of works was perhaps 2 miles long and at the centre about 1 mile from the River.
There was a fort or redoubt of Earth built about ¾ of a mile outside the Breastworks, a fort was also built 1 ½ miles up the river to protect us in that direction. In these Forts were about 4 guns each from 24 to 100 pounders. There were in the line of works 2 other Forts of about the same armament. There was generally from 3 to five wooden gunboats in the River in front of Town. There had been a report of a year or more that the Rebels were building a very formidable ram up the river in the vicinity of Rainbow Bluff. Our forces had never in their reconnaissances got sight of it so it got to be an old story and not generally believed by the rank and file at least. Still everything was done that could be done to make us secure as we thought. So we were busy through the summer and fall in building these fortifications excepting occasionally going out on reconnaissances and expeditions which did not generally amount to a great deal towards putting down the Rebellion. A few skirmishes with rebel cavalry was generally about all they amounted to. The nearest part of our forces was at Roanoke Island about 70 miles by water and Little Washington nearly the same distance by land on the Tar River so that we were nearly isolated in case of an attack. During the winter another fort was built on the river and the river was blockaded above the upper Fort by driving piles across and sinking old schooners and other boats loaded with stones only leaving a narrow channel to let our boats pass through. After doing all this we felt comparative safe from any attack that might be made upon us by the Enemy. The winter passed without much change and we began to feel that we had got a pretty soft thing.
Deserters, refugees and contrabands were continuously coming in and all kind of reports were brought by them about the ram that was coming down to destroy us. But I think the general opinion was of the officers was that the ram was a mith. The first of April 1864 found our force to consist of about the same commands except the 96th N.Y. had been relieved by the 16th Connecticut and 2 companies of 2d Mass heavy Artillery had been added. Also a few colored troops that had been enlisted for Gen. Wilds Brigade also 2 companies of Loyal N. Carolinians called by the ranks Buffaloes. In all perhaps 2500 men exclusive of marines on board gunboats and citizen refugees.
On Sunday April 17th 1864 about 3 o’clock PM our cavalry pickets were driven in with on Lieutenant fatally wounded besides some other calamities. About the same time Fort Gray (the fort 1 ½ miles above town) was attacked with both artillery and infantry and a few shells more thrown into town from the front, the attack was kept up until 10 o’clock PM when quiet prevailed but all were on the lookout. As it seemed sure now that we were surrounded on the land side. Great commotion existed through the night. The steamer Massasoit was loaded with women and children families of the officers of the army and sent to Roanoke Island.
Monday the 18th a continuous fire was kept up from the Fort and gunboats shelling the woods in our front and flanks which was replaced too rapidly by the Rebel Artillery in our front. A number of casualties occurred during the day both in our forts and on the gunboats which caused the loss of a number of lines. Our infantry were massed in the Bombproofs except those watching behind the breastworks and were comparatively safe from chances as the Rebel infantry kept back out of range of muskets. By this time it was generally understood that the long talked of ram was comeing down the River, as the men in Fort Gray could see a black smoke on the river above. Our gunboat fleet consisted of the Miami, Southfield, Ceres and Whitehead, and Bombshell all wooden crafts made over from old ferry Boats, mounting from 8 to 10 guns each. This fleet was under the command of Capt. Flusser of the Navy and a braver officer never had command of a fleet. Towards night Gen. Wessells sent orders to Fort Gray to the commander to train his guns on the river and to fire on the first craft that came down as the ram was expected to try and run by the Forts and he wished them to give warning to the Forts below. All was now commotion an preparation in the town and on the river was being made to resist an attack as it seemed sure to be made during the night. Capt. Flusser was idle, he prepared his boats to receive the ram if she should be lucky enough to pass the forts above. He took the Miami and Southfield, the two most formidable boats of the fleet and lashed their sterns together [with] huge chains with bows up the stream, the current spreading the bows apart towards each shore thus forming a letter V in shape making it almost impossible for the ram to pass without striking them as the boats were stationed below to assist where most needed as the occasions required. Everything seemed to be done that could to resist the attack with what forces we had and there was no time for reinforcements to reach us as we were isolated and alone in rebel country. (I was in the commissary department and was delivering rations to the men in different parts of the works and forts and had a chance to observe the preparations better perhaps than those who were confined to one position.) The redoubt out in front spoken of before was called Fort Wessells and was commanded by Capt. Chapin of Co. F of the 85th Regt. and was occupied by the Co. and had no communication with the inside works after the siege commenced. About sundown the attack commenced all along our front by artillery and Infantry advancing in solid columns at the same time attacks were made in Forts Gray and Wessells. As the advance was made the Forts and gunboats offered a terrific fire on their line which was kept up until near midnight when the Rebs gave it up that they could not take our line of works in front as their loss was already very great, but in the mean time the rebs had got between Fort Wessells and our main line of works (which will be remembered was ¾ of a mile out on our right flank) with both artillery and infantry so that they were completely surrounded the rebs left out of reach of our infantry behind the breastworks. But the gunboats threw shells over the town into their midst with terrible effect. Also Fort Gray after it had repelled the charge made on it threw shells across the swamp into the rebel lines 1 & ½ miles away in the midst of this affray the Gallant Capt. Chapin was killed and a charge was made on the Fort. Over the works they went but the gallant men of Co. F repelled every attack with the point of a bayonet and hand grenades. About this time, the gunboats not exactly knowing the range, were throwing their 100 lb. shells into the Fort among our own men and every minute were liable to blow up the magazine, so they were obliged to surrender the Fort and more prisoners than they had men of their own. Thus, one strong point was gained for the rebels and things seemed quiet for an hour or two. About three o’clock AM of the 19th, word came into town that the long looked for ram had passed the blockade and also Fort Gray. Not a gun had been fired from the Forts above consequently she was not looked for so soon. So she passed Fort Gray and the 200 pounder Battery without any resistance. But not so with the gunboats in position before mentioned. The ram run between them and struck the Southfield below water line with her horn and ran into her 20 feet or more. Capt. Flusser being on the Miami swung the bow of his boat around against the stern of the ram holding her fast to the Southfield which was fast sinking, carrying the ram down with her. In the meantime, hard fighting was going on the decks of the vessels and among the rest. The gallant Flusser was killed. This caused a fluster in the command when a minute was worth a lifetime to many a man in combat in Plymouth. By some means, by order or without, the chains were cut that held the stearns together and allowed the Miami to swing off and let the ram back out when the muzzle of her guns were to the water lines. A minute more and Plymouth would have been saved, but that the Miami and other boats ran out of the river into the sound and were saved and the ram was the master of the situation. The crews of the boats sunk [-] the marines that were not killed, jumped into the river and swam ashore or were drowned. The fact of the ram passing the Forts without being fired upon has never been explained to my satisfaction. She must have run broadside into the 200 pound Parrot gun not 50 rods away which with proper management could have blown her out of the water, notwithstanding her heavy armor of railroad iron. Up to this time the ram had not fired her big guns, once she was on the still she succeeded will. She now dropped down the river about a mile and threw a few shots into the town by way of salute. By this time, which was long after daylight, the force in the large gun battery had worked up and commenced throwing solid shot at the ram more than a mile away. They showed what they might have done if they had been awake when the ram passed them by raising the plating on the ram quite lively at long range. The ram did not reply but dropped down the river in a line out of sight of the fort and awaited her time. Shelling was continued all day by the forts and skirmish with pickets until after dark when there seemed to be a lull in the battle.
During the evening I went out on the line of works and delivered the men their rations. The men seemed to be in good spirits and said the rebs could never take their works in front, but we all knew it was only a question of time for we were completely surrounded on the land and the ram had command of the river and could hold it against any force that could be brought against it by our forces. During the night of the 19th and 20th the Rebs massed their forces near the river below the town and our works and at daylight on the morning of the 20th made a desperate charge on our works nearest the river and for the open space spoken of before that was expected the gunboat would protect. They were successful in getting through the open space and soon the town was full of reb soldiers. A charge was made directly through the town near the river on the 200 lb. Battery which was soon taken and the ram was at liberty to come up the river which she soon did, throwing shells into the town and our forts very rapidly. Our forts had already turned their artillery faced about and it was a hand to hand fight through the town … a livelier fight I never saw for the number of men engaged. They fought by squads, by company, and by regiment, without any general commander, but the difference in strength of forces was too great as the rebels had to commence with, from their own reports 12,000 infantry, 28 pieces of artillery, some cavalry and the ram all commanded by Gen. Hoke, so that by noon of the 20th, the last works were surrendered about the town. Fort Gray still held out but by order of Gen. Wessells, it was surrendered in the PM as it was impossible to relieve it. Thus fell Plymouth, North Carolina. Our losses in killed and wounded was less than 80 from Reb reports … theirs was about 1500 so it was no great victory after all, but dear to the 2,000 prisoners that were taken with it. One year from the date of their capture probably not 1/3 were alive … such is war.
N. Lanpheur, Late Commissary Sgt, 85th NYV