Who were the Plymouth Pilgrims during the Civil War?

The Civil War "Plymouth Pilgrims" nickname refers to the Union soldiers captured at Plymouth, NC on April 20, 1864.

The first time the "Plymouth Pilgrims" nickname appeared in print was in the Charleston (SC) Mercury on the 26th of April 1864. The article reads as follows, "THE PLYMOUTH PILGRIMS - We learn that the 2500 Yankee prisoners, captured by General Hoke's forces at Plymouth, left Wilmington last night, and may be expected to pass through Charleston this evening, on their way to the Prison Depot at Americus, Ga."

Its definitely possible that the newspaper article is where the nickname originated due to their pilgimage across the South from Plymouth. Another explanation for the origin of the "Plymouth Pilgrims" name comes from a story passed down through the family of David Mullin, Captain of Co. G, 101st PA. According to the story, the soldiers, after their surrender, were marched single file to stack their rifles and due to their slow and somber walk, a Confederate commented that the prisoners looked like "a bunch of Pilgrims on their way to church" and that their "offering" was their rifles.

The Plymouth Pilgrims did resemblance the Mayflower Pilgrims in the form of their hats. According to Wayne Mahood's book, The Plymouth Pilgrims, pg. 142: On June 15 [1863], the Division drew regulation hats, "much to our disgust. They are black felt, stiff rims, one side cocked up with a brass spread eagle to keep it in place". For those of you who have seen this hat, it does look similar to the hats worn by the Mayflower Pilgrims. The regulation hat is commonly referred to today as the "Hardee" hat. It's obvious that the soldiers didn't care for this hat due to the fact that very few images can be found with "Plymouth Pilgrims" actually wearing these hats. However, they were required to wear them by General Wessells and from battle accounts, we know that the soldiers were preparing for dress parade on Sunday the 17th and were probably wearing them when the battle began.

It's obvious that the Plymouth Pilgrims were a distinct group of soldiers, much different than the average soldier. They wore the regulation hat and the long frock coat at a time during the war when it wasn't very common to have them and their "stylish new uniforms" included veteran chevrons for those who had recently re-enlisted. They obviously stood out wherever they went and drew large crowds along their trip to Andersonville, GA.

When they entered Andersonville, John McElroy describes them in his book Andersonville: A story of Rebel Prisons, pg. 168: They were attired in stylish new uniforms, with fancy hats and shoes; the Sergeants and Corporals wore patent leather or silk chevrons, and each man had a large well-filled knapsack, of the kind new recruits usually carried on coming first to the front, and which the older soldiers spoke of humorously as "bureaus". They were the snuggest, nattiest lot of soldiers we had ever seen, outside of the "paper collar" fellows forming the headquarter guard of some General in a large City. As one of my companions surveyed them, he said: "Hulloa! I'm blanked if the Jonnies haven't caught a regiment of Brigadier Generals, somewhere."

Another account of the Plymouth Pilgrims arrival at Andersonville is described in Eighteen Months A Prisoner Under The Rebel Flag, by S. S. Boggs, 1887, pgs 34 & 35

We thought the pen was as full as it would bear, with out crowding, but one morning we found about two thousand well-dressed, clean, fat-looking young fellows occupying one of the main streets. The camp was all excitement to hear from the North and learn how the war was progressing. We gathered around them, but they acted as if they wanted to keep us far away from them as possible, and seemed so perfectly dazed by the surroundings that but few of them would talk. In time we learned that they had been captured at Plymouth, N.C., where they had bravely held out against vastly superior numbers, and finally had to surrender. “But,” said one of our boys, “how did you manage to get in here with your knapsacks, blankets and all your outfit? Didn’t the ‘Old Dutchman’ and his assistants rob you?” “Well, I will tell you,” said the Plymouth boy, “we had heard how ‘Old Jeff’ was robbing and starving his prisoners, and, thinking we had better let them kill us than to be robbed of everything, we would not surrender until they promised that our personal property should not be taken from us; but had we any idea that this place is like it is, darned if we wouldn’t have all died right there, for it is certain death here anyway. My God! this is hell, isn’t it?” These Plymouth boys were nearly all young men, from the best families of New York, Pennsylvania and New England; they had been on garrison duty along the sea-coast, and had received many visits and luxuries from loving ones at home. They had not become inured to hardships like the soldiers who had experienced long marches and slept tentless on the cold wet ground. They had served out their three years, just re-enlisted, and received their veteran bounty and back-pay; consequently had brought about fifty thousand dollars into the prison. This money soon began to move, large prices were paid for ground room, wishing to keep their men together as much as possible, to better protect themselves from the “Raiders,” who were now adding to the horrors of the nights by their murders and robberies. For a consideration the old prisoners would move and scatter to other spots. The money they got for this real estate would be changed for Confederate money and invested in the sutler-shop. Thus little shops were started all over camp, and soon did a thriving business. Those who had money could buy, but they who did not have could stand back and look wishfully on. The merchant was always armed with a stout club to defend his wares.

Several other accounts besides this one, paint a picture of how "cash rich" the Plymouth Pilgrims were upon entering Andersonville. However, this was not the case among ALL of the Plymouth Pilgrims. According to Scott Holmes, the 16th CT were the exception. In an article that appeared in the March 14, 1906 Hartford Daily Courant entitled "Sixteenth C. V. at Andersonville, What Men Endured in Confederate Prison" the following passage is written: "The Sixteenth Regiment had not been paid off for two months at the time of the capture at Plymouth N.C. and went into the stockade practically without currency. The two Pennsylvania regiments in the garrison at Plymouth were paid a short time before the surrender and went into Andersonville with stacks of money in their possession. The mortality in these two commands, however, was not much under that in the Sixteenth, the "greenbacks" of the government not being able to buy exemption from the great destroyer's harvest."