Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Series I - Vol. 33 - Chapter XLV - Pages 295 - 302

Battle of Plymouth, NC

17 - 20 April, 1864

GENERAL ORDERS, } HDQRS. ARMY AND DIST. OF N. C. , Numbers 66. } New Berne, N. C. , April 21, 1864.

With feelings of the deepest sorrow the commanding general announces the fall of Plymouth, N. C., and the capture of the gallant commander, Brigadier General H. W. Wessells, and his command. This result, however, did not obtain until after the most gallant and determined resistance had been made. Five times the enemy stormed the lines of the general, and as many times were they handsomely repulsed with great slaughter, and but for the powerful assistance of the rebel iron-clad ram and the floating iron sharpshooter battery, the Cotton Plant, Plymouth would still have been in our hands.

For their noble defense the gallant General Wessells and his brave band deserve the warmest thanks of the whole country, while all will sympathize with them in their misfortune.

To the officers and men of the navy the commanding general tenders his flanks for their hearty co-operation with the army and the bravery, determination, and coolness that marked their part of the unequal contest.

With sorrow he records the death of the noble sailor and gallant patriot, Lieutenant Commander C. W. Flusser, U. S. Navy, who in the heat of battle fell dead on the deck of his ship, with the lanyard of his gun in his hand.

The commanding general believes that these misfortunes will tend not to discourage but to nerve the Army of North Carolina to equal deeds of bravery and gallantry hereafter.

Until further orders, the headquarters of the Sub-district of the Albemarle will be at Roanoke Island.

The command devolves upon Colonel D. W. Wardrop, of the Ninety-ninth New York Volunteer Infantry.

By command of Major General John J. Peck:

J. A. JUDSON,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

Numbers 3. Reports of Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, U. S. Army, commanding Sub-district of the Albemarle.

SUB-DISTRICT OF THE ALBEMARLE,

Plymouth, N. C. , April 17, 1864.

MAJOR: I have the honor to inform you that I am attacked by a heavy force of the enemy. Citizens from above state that there are five brigades. I am obliged to send before his plans are fully developed, in order to meet the boat at the canal to-morrow. My line of pickets were forced back at 4 p. m. to-day; an officer and 1 man killed, and 5 or 6 taken prisoners. Citizens also report that the iron-clad is as low down as Williamston, but as yet she has not shown herself. A battery of four or six guns has been planted above Fort Gray, and until dark kept up a vigorous fire. The flag-staff was shot away.

My men are in good spirits, but we have not enough, and I beg leave to refer you to my communication of a few days since, addressed to Major-General Peck.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. W. WESSELLS,

Brigadier-General of Volunteers, Commanding.

Major R. S. DAVIS,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

The enemy's line is within a mile of this position, and I anticipate artillery firing at daylight. The gun-boat Ceres has lost 2 men killed and some wounded by a shell. It is reported that a large force of the enemy is in the neighborhood of Edenton, said to be 1,200. It is not well stated to me, but believed in Edenton.

H. W. W.

COOPERSTOWN, N. Y. , August 18, 1864.

GENERAL: I have the honor to inform you that on the 20th of April last I was compelled to surrender the post of Plymouth, N. C. , to a superior rebel force, and now report to you the circumstances, as follows:

Form some months previous to the date above mentioned, I felt satisfied, from information derived from various sources, that a vigorous effort on the part of the enemy would be made to wrest the State of North Carolina from our possession. This opinion was expressed to you in frequent communications, with the hope that the military force would be strengthened, and that at least one iron-clad gun-boat would be added to the naval squadron for the protection of the sounds and rivers. My expectations were fully confirmed by the movement of General Pickett upon New Berne in February, and although this attempt resulted in failure, the enemy still remained in strong force along the line of the Neuse, evidently with further designs. During the month of April conflicting reports were brought as to the movements of the enemy; at one time he was said to be concentrating on the Roanoke, at another on the Tar River, threatening both Plymouth and Washington, when, on the 13th, my information was so positive as to the former that I at once requested from department headquarters direct a re-enforcement of 5,000 men, believing they could not be spared from the North Carolina stations.

On the 16th the gun-boat Tacony, Lieutenant-Commander Truxtun, arrived from New Berne, and having in the mean time learned that no considerable force of the enemy was on the Roanoke, but rather threatening Washington from some point on the Tar River, I permitted her to return on the following morning, April 17, and this decision is to be regretted. At 4 o'clock of that day the extreme mounted patrol on the Washington road was captured by an advanced guard of the enemy's cavalry, and the cavalry outpost dispersed and driven in; a re-enforcement, under Lieutenant Russell, Twelfth New York Cavalry, was also compelled to retire, bringing away that officer severely wounded. The infantry outposts were at once strengthened, and the enemy soon began to appear on the Washington road in great force, having made a forced march of near 30 miles in hopes of making a complete surprise. This design failed, as our line of skirmishers remained steady. Fort Gray, 2 miles above and on the river bank, was assailed at the same time, sustaining until dark a heavy cannonade. The garrison, composed of detachments of Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers and Second Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, Captains Brown and Fiske, though much annoyed by sharpshooters, returned the fire of the enemy with great vigor, and, with the exception of a few casualties, no impression was made on the work. The line of defense extended from Fort Gray to the crossing of Coneby Creek, below the town, a distance of 2 1/2 miles, the former being a detached work, separated from the main line by Welch's Creek and its marsh. the garrison was distributed along this line, and composed as follows: Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, Colonel Francis Beach, 400 effective men; Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, Colonel E. Fardella, 450; One hundred and first Pennsylvania Volunteers, Lieutenant Colonel A. W. Taylor, 300; One hundred and third Pennsylvania Volunteers, Colonel T. F. Lehmann, 400; Twenty-fourth new York Independent Battery, six guns, Captain Cady; detachment from Companies A and F, Twelfth New York Cavalry, Captain Roche, and two companies Second Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, under Captain Sampson, the latter being distributed in small detachments in the several earth-works. There were also present portions of two companies Second North Carolina Volunteers, native troops, under Captains Johnson and Haggard. The naval force at that time consisted of the gun-boats Miami, Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser, U. S. Navy, one of Kentucky's most noble and chivalrous sons; Southfield, Lieutenant French, volunteer service, with the smaller boats, Whitehead and Ceres; the whole under the direction of Captain Flusser.

For several months previous it had been well understood that iron-plated boats for operations in the sounds were in course of construction near Halifax on the Roanoke, and Kinston on the Neuse, to move down those rivers at the proper time in conjunction with a land force. Work on the former had been so often delayed for want of plates and other causes that its completion at times seemed doubtful, but was too well watched for me to obtain positive and reliable information. On the 10th of April, however, it was generally believed that the Albemarle, though not entirely covered with plating, had been floated down as far as the enemy's works at Rainbow Banks.

It was the design of Captain Flusser to fight this formidable antagonist in the river with his own boat lashed to the Southfield, running in at close quarters, whilst the Whitehead was to use every effort to disable here propeller, and great confidence was felt as to the result of this plan.

The line of defense surrounding the town was divided into three nearly equal portions, the right commanded by Colonel Fardella, the center by Colonel Lehmann, the left subdivision being under the direction of Colonel Beach. Eighty-fifth Redoubt, so named from the regiment by which it was constructed, was a small detached work in front of the right, garrisoned by detachments of Second Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, commanded by Captain Chapin, of the latter regiment. The attacking force, as was subsequently ascertained, consisted of Hoke's, Ransom's, and Kemper's brigades (the latter commanded by Colonel Mercer), all veteran regiments, mostly from Virginia and North Carolina. This division was accompanied by several formidable field batteries and a suitable force of cavalry. Until dark of the 17th sharp skirmishing was kept up on the Washington road, extending across the fields nearly to the Acre road, but without any important result, and the night was passed in comparative quiet. The enemy was too strong to attempt a sortie with any hope of success.

On the following morning at daylight a severe cannonade was opened against Fort Gray, resulting in some fatal casualties, but the garrison remained firm, replying vigorously to the enemy's fire. The 200-pounder in Battery Worth was also brought to bear in that direction, but without any decided effect. The armed transport Bombshell, in communicating with Fort Gray, received several shots below here water-line, being barely able to return to town, when she sank at the wharf. The transport Massasoit made two trips to Roanoke Island, carrying away a large number of women and children, contrabands, and other non-combatants. The gun-boat Ceres, being above Fort Gray at the time of this investment, passed down the river under a destructive fire and rejoined the squadron, with a loss of 9 men killed and wounded. During the whole of this day incessant skirmishing was maintained along and between the main approaches in front of the town, at a distance of 1,200 yards from the line of defense, but soon after sunset the enemy advanced his batteries, supported by an overwhelming force, and appearances indicated a general attack. Our line of skirmishers fell back firing and in good order, and the enemy under cover of darkness opened a furious cannonade upon the town in every direction. This fire was replied to by Captain Sampson from Fort Williams with great coolness and precision, inflicting heavy damage and loss upon the enemy. Finding our front to well prepared for an assault, the attack was discontinued at about 8 o'clock, and the attention of the enemy directed toward Eighty-fifth Redoubt. This work, 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. No report has been received in regard to this transaction, and I am therefore unable to detail the circumstances attending either the attack or surrender. A demand was then made for the surrender of the town, which was declined.

On the following morning, April 19, at 3 a. m. , the enemy again opened upon Fort Gray, and soon after, under cover of night and shadow of the trees on the opposite bank, the iron-plated ram Albemarle passed down unnoticed and without injury from the 200-pounder in Battery Worth. She was immediately engaged by the Miami and Southfield. I have no particulars in regard to this conflict, but the Southfield was sunk by the collision, and Lieutenant-Commander Flusser fell on his own quarter-deck with a lanyard in his hand. In the detach of this accomplished sailor the Navy has lost one of its brightest ornaments, and he will be long remembered by those who knew and loved him for his intellectual worth, his social qualities, and manly bearing.

The wooden gun-boats, being unable to contend with an antagonist so securely mailed, moved down the river, leaving it in full possession of the enemy. He was now on every side of the town, and this unlooked-for disaster created among the troops a moral effect of the most discouraging character. Hitherto every hardship and exposure had been met with cheerfulness and confidence. A series of covered excavations had been constructed along the line, affording shelter under the heavy fire, causing my loss to be comparatively slight. During this day the enemy planted a battery near the Eighty-fifth Redoubt, and, partly covered by that work, opened fire upon the town. The Albemarle also opened from below; both were returned from Fort Williams and Battery Worth, but without effect. The enemy was very active, moving in different directions, withdrawing most of his force from the vicinity of Fort Gray, and apparently making a serious demonstration on my right. Skirmishing was severe in that quarter, and many casualties occurred on both sides. This state of things continued until dark, 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 is unexplained, and placed me in a most critical position. Some changes were made during that night in the disposition of the troops, and arrangements made to repel attack both on the right and left.

At daylight of the following day, April 20, while my right and front were seriously threatened, the enemy advanced rapidly against my left, assaulting and carrying the line in that quarter, penetrating the town along the river, and capturing Battery Worth. A line of infantry was formed from the breast-works perpendicularly toward the river, in hopes of staying the advance. This effort succeeded for a time, but the troops seemed discouraged, and finally fell back to the intrenchments. At the request of General Hoke, commanding the rebel forces, a personal interview was granted, at which a surrender was demanded in consideration of my untenable position, of the impossibility of relief, and that the defense had been highly honorable to all concerned. In failure of this, indiscriminate slaughter was intimated. The bearing of General Hoke during this interview was courteous and soldierlike. His demand was refused, and preparations were made to renew the contest. 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 10 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.

The foregoing statement is made, after an interval of four months, entirely from memory, not having received a single report from my subordinate officers. Most of them are still in captivity, and the others scattered over the country beyond my control; in fact, they have had no opportunity until now to perform this duty. Myself and officers were plundered of all our effects except such as were on our persons; in other respects I was treated by General Hoke and his officers with kindness and courtesy.

For the reason stated above I am unable to report the losses on either side, but I have reason to believe that my own casualties did not exceed 150, while from information derived by medical officers, who remained in Plymouth, the lowest loss of the enemy in killed and wounded is given at 850, many believing it to be far greater.

With my personal staff I was at once separated from the troops, and on Saturday, the 23d, I was conveyed to Richmond via Weldon and Petersburg, and then confined in Libby prison April 26. The enlisted men, with the regimental officers, were marched to Tarborough, and thence by rail to Macon and Andersonville, Ga. On the 7th of May, in company with 850 captive officers, I was conveyed to Danville. Leaving that place on the 12th I was taken to Macon, and there confined until the 10th of June. On that day 50 senior officers, including myself, were ordered to proceed east, and passing through Savannah arrived in Charleston on the 12th. At this place the party was confined in the city under the fire of the batteries at Morris Island. No inconvenience, however, was experienced from this unusual proceeding. On the 3rd of the present month an exchange was effected under the direction of Major-General Foster, commanding Department of the South, and with the whole party I arrived in New York on the 9th.

It may be proper to state that a few days prior to the completion of this exchange a detachment of officers, prisoners of war, numbering 600, arrived in Charleston from Macon and were confined in the city jail and its yard. I visited them in the evening of the 2nd, and found them very uncomfortable, being much crowded and poorly sheltered. I was assured, however, by the rebel authorities that this condition was only temporary, and that they should be soon removed to more suitable quarters.

As soon as sub-reports are received and examined they will be forwarded as accompaniments to this statement.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. W. WESSELLS,

Brigadier-General, U. S. Volunteers.

Major General J. J. PECK,

Late Commanding District of North Carolina.

NOTE. - In the foregoing report I have neglected to state that on the morning of the 19th, subsequent to the marine disaster, Captain H. I. Hodges, assistant quartermaster of volunteers, in endeavoring to communicate with the gun-boats, was accidentally drowned by the upsetting of a canoe; no further information in regard to his fate has ever reached me. I should also add that on the following day, during the bombardment of Fort Williams, Captain Coats, Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, acting assistant inspector-general of the sub-district, was severely wounded in the face by a fragment of shell. It is difficult for me at this time without the aid of subordinate reports to detail with accuracy all the incidents of the siege, and other important omissions may have been made.

H. W. W.

Numbers 4. Report of Lieutenant Lucien A. Butts, Eighty-fifth New York Infantry.

ANNAPOLIS, MD. , April 5, 1865.

Brigadier General H. W. WESSELLS,

Washington, D. C. :

GENERAL: I inclose to you a report, made from such memoranda as i could make after I reached Macon, of the defense of the redoubt in which I was captured. I have not yet received the report from Lieutenant Clark I expected to send with this. I arrived here from Richmond the 27th ultimo, having escaped from Charlotte, N. C. , and been recaptured at Fayetteville. I am awaiting an order for muster-out on account of expiration of my time of service, the order being very disagreeably delayed some days after the reception by Others of their applied for at the same time.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

L. A. BUTTS,

First Lieutenant Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers.

ANNAPOLIS, MD. , April 1, 1865.

GENERAL: I have the honor, at this earliest practicable time after my release from prison, to report the operations at the Eighty-fifth Redoubt, Plymouth, N. C. , preceding the surrender of that work, April 18, 1864, the command, by the mortal wounding of Captain Nelson Chapin, having fallen upon me as senior officer present.

The garrison of the redoubt consisted of 42 enlisted men of Company K, Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, with its officers, Captain N. Chapin, Lieutenant L. A. Butts, and Second Lieutenant S. S. Peake, and 23 enlisted men of Company H. Second Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, commanded by Second Lieutenant H. L. Clark. Its armament was a light 32-pounder on a ship carriage, and an old-pattern iron 6-pounder field piece. Occasional shots were made from our guns as parties of the enemy made their appearance in the vicinity of the Washington road after our pickets were driven in on the evening of the 17th and the morning of the 18th. About 10 a. m. of the 18th three rifled guns opened fire from near the Fagan house upon our pickets near the redoubt, replying also to our guns. During two hours of more good practice was apparently made by our 32-pounder against these huns, No damage was done to the redoubt, though several shells struck it. Firing was discontinued during the greater part of the afternoon until near night, when a few shells were thrown upon the line of battle advancing upon our skirmishers between the Washington and Long Acre roads. While our attention was drawn in this direction, a battery was brought into position in the field on the southern front of the redoubt, which opened a rapid fire before our large gun could be shifted to bear upon it. The 6-pounder only could be used. It was well served under a close fire, two of the infantry helping to man it at the last in place of the artillery, who failed to come to the work. One of its earliest discharges exploded a caisson. Under cover of the fire of this battery, and nearly hidden in the obscurity of the night by the ground descending toward the swamp, and by the proximity of the woods, a heavy column of infantry was advanced to assault the redoubt. This column was opened upon by our musketry when about 100 yards distant, but it advanced steadily and soon enveloped the redoubt on every side, pouring in a heavy fire. The abatis was soon penetrated, when hand-grenades were used by us, apparently with great effect, as the attacking force soon retired, to rally again, however, in a short time. This was three or four times repeated, but with little order or success in getting through the abatis. The enemy finally passed in line toward the town, leaving some stragglers on our vicinity. Twenty-six of these, some of them wounded, but mostly unhurt, surrendered in small squads, and were assisted to scale the walls into the redoubt. Our loss in repelling this assault was 1 killed and 8 wounded (3 mortally). The wounded included the only competent gunners fit for duty.

After an interval of about half an hour, several guns opened upon the redoubt from a knoll about 250 yards from the south wall, and two or three guns at a distance of 100 yards, opposite the southwest corner, the fire from the two positions crossing at a right angle. The last-named guns were placed under the bank of the swamp, so that neither of ours could bear upon them. The darkness prevented the enemy from being seen while placing his guns, and an attempt to use our field piece where a movement could be heard was abandoned after one or two discharges as useless. The enemy's sharpshooters were active while their batteries played upon the redoubt. The small building in the corner of the work, upon which the fire was concentrated, proved a source of great danger. The percussion shells from the enemy's guns struck its roof and chimney, exploding and sending deadly missiles to nearly every part of the redoubt. Captain Chapin was struck by a fragment of one of these shells during the second cannonade, about 9. 30 o'clock. The fire was also very effective upon the walls of the redoubt, penetrating deep and throwing off much earth by the explosions. The sand-bags were broken and thrown off the parapet, so as to destroy the loop-holes on the sides of attack. After the second cannonade had been some time continued, fire was opened in that direction by our gun-boats, but their shells passed over and exploded far beyond the enemy's batteries. Some shells from the town seemed to be better elevated and better times, but were without apparent effect. The last two shells from the gun-boats struck and exploded, one on the parapet, the other upon the traverse covering the door of the magazine, both in perfect range for the magazine. Shortly after the firing ceased, and demand was made for a surrender. The officers present, including Captain Chapin, were consulted before replying. A large force was known to be between the redoubt and the town, cutting off communication. The cartridges were nearly expended, only half a dozen grenades were left, our gunners were disabled, the prisoners were a great embarrassment; there were no means of spiking the guns or of making signals. There appeared in the darkness no hope of efficient help from the gun-boats or from the town batteries, and the ire received from the gun-boats, if repeated, left no safe place in the work. It was unanimously decided to be a useless waste of life to continue the contest longer, and that it wa best to surrender. Possession of the work was given about 11 p. m.

The total casualties in Company K, Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, were Captain N. Chapin mortally wounded, 1 sergeant killed, and 3 other enlisted men wounded (1 mortally); and of Company H, Second Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, 6 wounded (2 supposed mortally).

I cannot speak too highly of the spirit and conduct of the men of my own company, to whom, in the subordinate position I held during the greater part of the engagement, my attention was principally confined. No fear of their readiness to fight as long as required was among the consideration leading to the surrender. Wagoner Dana E. Allen and Private Nason F. Chace were especially worthy of praise for their bravery in helping to man the guns when partially deserted, the first, after he was himself wounded.

For the details of the operations of the artillery of the redoubt, and a report of the conduct of the men of that service, I refer you to the report of Lieutenant Clark.

I am able to learn no more of Captain Chapin after he was left in care of the enemy than that he died at some temporary hospital, or on his way to one, before morning.

The force making the assault was Kemper's brigade and the Twenty-first Georgia Regiment, all led by Colonel Mercer, of the Twenty-first Georgia, who was killed before the redoubt. We were told that the enemy lost before the redoubt 60 in killed alone, and a large number of wounded. Appearances in the vicinity, so well as we could judge in the darkness, indicated that they had lost severely. Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

L. A. BUTTS,

First Lieutenant Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers.

Brigadier General H. W. WESSELLS,

Late Commanding District of the Albemarle, N. C.