Part One by Claude Milot
(Note: This is the first in a series of articles on interesting places to visit and things to do beyond our immediate neighborhood. We are indeed fortunate here on Albemarle Plantation to live in such a bountiful part of the world, and we hope that these articles will encourage you to discover the many wonders that await just a short car or boat ride away.)
Plymouth is a quiet town of 3,600 people situated seven miles up the Roanoke River from the Albemarle Sound. To some, it might seem that the place has been forgotten by time. The enormous Domtar fluff pulp mill visible in the distance employs 360 people, but that’s a lot fewer than when it was a paper mill run by Weyerhaeuser, which explains why the population of Plymouth is down 25% since the 70s. There may be a few empty storefronts on Water Street, the main drag along the River, but don’t be fooled: Plymouth comes alive throughout the year due to fish, bears, and boats.
There are fishing tournaments for rockfish and bass almost every Saturday from March to November when anywhere from 10 to 100 boats will sail up the river or use Plymouth’s boat ramp to compete for prizes and boasting rights. Then on the weekend of June 2-4 the streets of Plymouth will be filled with visitors who come to enjoy the North Carolina Black Bear Festival (more on that next month). And on the weekends of April 12-13 and October 7-8, spectators will line the banks of the river to watch speedboats roar up and down in races sponsored by the Virginia Outlaw Drag Boat Races. But the biggest event of them all is Living History Weekend.
A little history is in order here. In February 1862 General Ambrose Burnside led an expedition of Union forces into the Inner Banks of North Carolina. By June, he had gained control of all the important ports in the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, and the Union would maintain control of these sounds for the duration of the war. Except for Plymouth.
In May, Union forces had bombarded and occupied Plymouth and proceeded to build forts to control the upper Albemarle Sound region and access to the Roanoke River. From there it could conduct raids in eastern North Carolina, as well as serve as a supply center for Yankee enclaves in the Albemarle Sound. For these reasons, Plymouth had become an all-important target for Confederate forces. In April 1864 they went on the attack.
The Battle of Plymouth began on the afternoon of April 17th. Confederate Brigadier General Robert R. Hoke with 10,000 troops besieged the Union garrison of 2,834 men defending four forts around Plymouth. However, with the aid of gunboats on the river, the Yankees managed at first to hold off the Confederate forces. But in the early hours of April 19th, the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle arrived to turn the tide of battle by sinking the USS Southfield, severely damaging the USS Miami, and chasing the rest of the Union gunboats off the river and back to the Albemarle Sound. By April 20th it was all over. The South had won the second largest battle of the Civil War on North Carolina soil. The victory would also prove to be its last.
For the next several months Confederates troops occupied Plymouth, while the CSS Albemarle repulsed all Union warships that came up the river to challenge her. But in October the fortunes of the Confederate forces were reversed by perhaps the most daring exploit of the Civil War.
On the night of October 27-28, US Navy Commander Will Cushing and a band of volunteers sailed stealthily up the Roanoke and managed to torpedo and sink the Albemarle. Following this Confederate disaster, Union forces moved in, recaptured Plymouth, and held it for the remainder of the war.
Plymouth is understandably proud of its illustrious Civil War history, which it celebrates annually on the Living History Weekend. On April 21-23, 2017, volunteers will re-enact the Battle of Plymouth, including the sinking of the Albemarle. It is without a doubt the most important event of the year for Plymouth and for fans of Civil War re-enactments.
When you’re there, don’t miss visiting the Port O’ Plymouth Civil War Museum and its great collection of Civil War artifacts. Outside the museum see the 3/8 scale model of the CSS Albemarle that is docked on the Roanoke River.
Even if you’re not a Civil War history buff, Plymouth’s Living History Weekend is sure to reward your visit. Click here for more or go to: http://portoplymouthmuseum.org/events-3/living-history-weekend/
P.S. There are two equidistant ways to reach Plymouth by car. For the more scenic route I recommend crossing the Chowan River Bridge on the other side of Edenton, and making a left onto Route 45 at the first traffic light.
P.P.S. For the best book I’ve read that covers Plymouth’s role in the Civil War, I recommend Ironclads and Columbiads by William Trotter. It is available at the Perquimans Library. A fabulous and well-written book on Will Cushing, available through the library, is Commander Will Cushing by Jamie Malanowski.