April 19, 1864 – Confederates prepared to attack an important Federal post on the North Carolina coast, with help from a new ironclad.
By this time, Federal forces controlled most of the coast from garrisons at New Bern and Plymouth. Confederates under Major General George Pickett had failed to reclaim New Bern in February, so now they turned to reclaiming Plymouth. Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg bypassed Pickett and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, who had performed well during the failed New Bern expedition.
The Plymouth garrison was stationed near the mouth of the Roanoke River, on the southern bank. It consisted of about 2,800 troops, including black soldiers and North Carolina Unionists under Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells. The Federal defenses ran from east to west, with their backs to the Roanoke. Four forts guarded Plymouth, along with the gunboats U.S.S. Ceres, Miami, and Southfield, and the army transport Bombshell. To retake Plymouth, the Confederates would need help from their navy.
After months of construction near Edwards’ Ferry on the Roanoke River, the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle was finally ready for action. Led by Commander James W. Cooke, the ship was patterned after the C.S.S. Arkansas and expected to drive the wooden Federal fleet out of North Carolina waters. Her first mission was to support Hoke’s infantry assault on Plymouth. As the Albemarle chugged down the Roanoke toward Plymouth on the 17th, Hoke’s 7,000 troops advanced on the town.
The Confederates knocked the Federal pickets and cavalry back to their fortifications. Federal artillery from the forts and gunboats opened on the approaching Confederates near sundown, which Hoke countered with his shore batteries.
Meanwhile, the Albemarle was unable to support Hoke’s planned assault on the 18th due to repairs. Hoke instead concentrated most of his guns on Fort Gray on the Federal right (west) while he divided his infantry for a two-pronged assault. One prong would attack Fort Wessells to the west, while the other would keep the Federals pinned in Fort Williams, the Federals’ strongest work, in the center.
The first prong began its assault around 6 p.m. and captured Fort Wessells within two hours. General Wessells reported:
“This work, after a desperate resistance, was surrendered, and, as I have understood, under a threat of no quarter. Its gallant commander, Captain Chapin, 85th New York Volunteers, fell nobly at his post, and Colonel Mercer, commanding the attacking column was killed.”
Hoke sent a message to Wessells demanding the surrender of the rest of the Federals at Plymouth. Wessells replied that he would only surrender if Hoke treated the black troops and North Carolina Unionists as prisoners of war. Since this violated the Confederate government’s policy regarding enemy combatants, Hoke refused.
Around 2:30 on the morning of the 19th, the Albemarle resumed her advance down the Roanoke. An hour later, she encountered the wooden gunboats Southfield and Miami. The Federals, led by Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser aboard the Miami, knew the Confederates had been working on an ironclad and expected her; Flusser chained the Southfield and Miami together to block the Albemarle from getting past them.
Under heavy fire, the Albemarle plowed through the Southfield and “tore a hole clear through to the boiler.” As the Southfield sank, Flusser personally fired a gun point-blank into the Albemarle, but the shot ricocheted off her iron plating and killed Flusser. His successor ordered the chains between the two ships cut. A young surgeon’s assistant aboard the Miami later wrote, “We fired about 30 shells at the ram but they had no effect on her,” while the Albemarle’s fire tore into the wooden vessel. The assistant continued:
“As fast as the men were wounded, they were passed down to us and we laid them one at a time on the table… and extracted the balls and pieces of shell from them… Dr. Mann and I looked like butchers… our shirt sleeves rolled up and we covered with blood… The blood was over the soles of my boots… When Captain Flusser fell, the men seemed to lose all heart, and we ran away from the ram into the sound.”
The other Federal vessels at Plymouth followed the Miami downriver, out of the Albemarle’s way. The Confederate ironclad spent the rest of the day bombarding Fort Gray and the other Federal works, softening them up for Hoke’s planned all-out assault. The Federals now had no gunboat support, and the Confederates controlled the Roanoke all around Plymouth.
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