April 20, 1864 – Confederate army and navy forces regained a town that enabled them to open the vital Roanoke River to commerce on the North Carolina coast.
By dawn, the C.S.S. Albemarle had cleared the Roanoke River of Federal gunboats, enabling Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate infantry to launch an all-out assault on the Federal fortifications at Plymouth. Hoke’s troops had spent the 19th getting into assault positions, with one of his brigades poised to attack Fort Williams from the east. Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, commanding the Federal forces, reported that–
“… 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. 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 was unexplained, and placed me in a most critical position.”
Hoke planned for his troops to demonstrate against the Federal right while attacking the Federal left. Wessells spent the night shifting troops to prepare for attacks from either direction, even though he was outnumbered by more than two-to-one. When the Confederates charged on the left and pushed the forward Federal line back, Wessells asked to confer with Hoke.
Wessells wrote that Hoke demanded unconditional surrender, and, “In failure of this, indiscriminate slaughter was intimated.” Despite Hoke’s efforts to be “courteous and soldierlike,” Wessells refused the demand. He reported:
“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…
“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 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.”
The retaking of Plymouth was the greatest Confederate joint army-navy victory of the war. It was also the Confederates’ greatest victory in North Carolina after a series of defeats that dated all the way back to February 1862. The Federal blockade of the Roanoke River was now broken, allowing the Confederates to receive much-needed supplies from this key waterway.
Hoke received the official thanks of the Confederate Congress and a promotion to major-general. His aide-de-camp reported, “The prisoners will number about 2,500, 300 or 400 negroes, 30 pieces of ordnance, complete garrison outfit, 100,000 pounds of meat, 1,000 barrels of flour, and other provisions… Our loss about 300 in all.”
Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, frantically notified his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, “The ram (Albemarle) will probably come down to Roanoke Island, Washington, and New Bern. Unless we are immediately and heavily reinforced, both by the army and navy, North Carolina is inevitably lost.” As Peck feared, the Confederates planned to target New Bern next.
Many of the North Carolina Unionists, perhaps recalling that Major General George Pickett had executed their comrades, fled the ranks before the Confederates took over the works. Some black troops also fled to avoid being sent into slavery. Northern newspapers quickly published eyewitness accounts of Confederate troops murdering surrendered black soldiers in cold blood. Sergeant Samuel Johnson of the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry later recalled:
“When I found out that the city was being surrendered, I pulled off my uniform and found a suit of citizen’s clothes, which I put on, and when captured I was supposed and believed by the rebels to be a citizen. After being captured I was kept at Plymouth for some two weeks and was employed in endeavoring to raise the sunken vessels of the Union fleet…”
“Upon the capture of Plymouth by the rebel forces all the negroes found in blue uniform, or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him, was killed. I saw some taken into the woods and hung. Others I saw stripped of all their clothing and stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and there they were shot. Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the rebels. All were not killed the day of the capture. Those that were not were placed in a room with their officers, they (the officers) having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.”
Confederate officials denied the accusations, and the southern press backed them. An editorial in the Richmond Daily Examiner declared, “General Hoke, judging from the large number of his prisoners, does not seem to have made such thorough work as that by which Forrest has so shocked the tender souls, and frozen the warm blood of the Yankees.”
Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg wrote North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance that President Jefferson Davis–
“… directs that the negroes captured by our forces be turned over to you for the present, and he requests of you that if upon investigation you ascertain that any of them belong to citizens of North Carolina you will cause them to be restored to their respective owners. If any are owned in other States you will please communicate to me their number and the names and places of residence of their owners, and have them retained in strict custody until the President’s views in reference to such may be conveyed to you.”
“To avoid as far as possible all complications with the military authorities of the United States in regard to the disposition which will be made of this class of (black) prisoners, the President respectfully requests Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to have the matter of such disposition kept out of the newspapers of the State, and in every available way to shun its obtaining any publicity as far as consistent with the proposed restoration.”
Thus, the official Confederate policy would be to send all captured black troops into slavery, regardless of whether they had been free before joining the Federal army, and the press would not report on the matter.
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