Commander William H. Macomb’s Report on the Recapture of Plymouth, North Carolina by Union Forces October 31st, 1864
The city of Plymouth, North Carolina is located about seven miles up the Roanoke River from its mouth at the eastern side of Albemarle Sound. Early on in the Civil War, the Union Army and Navy conducted operations along the North Carolina coast, which included the capture and occupation of Plymouth in June of 1862.
Plymouth became an important supply base for U.S. forces in coastal North Carolina, and engineers heavily fortified the area with various forts and earthworks. By April of 1864, the Plymouth garrison was manned by about 2800 troops with artillery, plus Navy gunboats patrolled the river and Albemarle Sound.
Confederate General Robert Hoke was determined to capture Plymouth, but owing to the heavy land fortifications and gunboats on the river, he was certain that a combined army and navy operation was necessary for success. Farther up the Roanoke River, an ironclad ram called the CSS Albemarle, armed with two 6.4 inch Brooke Rifles, was under construction and nearly complete in the spring of 1864.
Hoke began his initial land action on April 17th. Albemarle went into action on April 19th, ramming and sinking USS Southfield and damaging and driving off USS Miami. On the 20th, with naval support gone and his garrison reduced to one fort, Brigadier General W.H. Wessells surrendered his remaining force to Hoke, and Plymouth was in Confederate hands.
Now based in Plymouth, Albemarle steamed into Albemarle Sound to engage U.S. Navy ships there on May 5th. But the Union Navy was ready and six ships engaged the Confederate ram, damaging it and driving it back to Plymouth. Albemarle was deemed by Confederate authorities to be more useful as an armored gun platform for the defense of Plymouth than it was in active operations, so it took on that role.
But to the U.S. forces, Albemarle remained a potential threat to Union ships, as well as a formidable part of the Rebel defense of Plymouth. On the night of October 27th, 1864, Navy Lieutenant William B. Cushing led a daring raid on Plymouth and sank the Albemarle. This cleared the way for the Federals to recapture Plymouth.
Commander William H. Macomb, the commanding officer of the navy District of the Sounds, wasted no time. He began an attack on the Plymouth defenses on October 29th with his gunboats that were assigned to Albemarle Sound. Macomb completed the recapture of Plymouth on October 31st. He filed this report on the capture of Plymouth:
U.S.S. SHAMROCK, Off Plymouth, N. C., November 1, 1864.
ADMIRAL: I have the honor to report that on the 31st ultimo I captured the enemy’s batteries at Plymouth, N. C., and the ordnance and ordnance stores at that place, some prisoners, and a quantity of provisions. The following is an account of the action:
After the return of Lieutenant W. B. Cushing from his expedition to blow up the Albemarle, at Plymouth, I determined to make an attack on the batteries defending that town. Accordingly, on the 29th ultimo, the vessels under my command at that time in Albemarle Sound got underway at about 11 : 15 a.m. and proceeded up the Roanoke River in the following order : Commodore Hull, Shamrock, Chicopee, Otsego, Wyalusing, and Tacony, the Valley City being sent at the same time up the Middle River (which joins the Roanoke above Plymouth) in order to cut out any vessels or stores which the enemy might attempt to carry out in that direction. At about 12 m. we came within range of the lower batteries protecting the town upon which we opened fire, which was returned. We continued to advance to within a mile of the works, when we discovered that the channel was obstructed at a point opposite the batteries by two schooners sunk one on each side of the wreck of the Southfield, which, together, formed a barrier which could only have been passed with great danger, if at all. I therefore made signal to return, which was accordingly done, and the vessels ran out of the river at 2 p. m. with the exception of the Valley City, which vessel having heard the firing commence and cease, and supposing that we had won the day, ran down the Roanoke to within a short distance of Plymouth, where she was fired on, and then returned, arriving in the sound at about 10 p. m.
On the morning of the 30th ultimo, having been informed that there was sufficient water in the Middle River, I determined to blockade the enemy at Plymouth by going up that river and gaining the Roanoke above the town, knowing that the rebels had no more vessels to sink in the channel, and consequently that I should have only the batteries to contend against should I advance from that direction. I got underway in the Shamrock, following the tug Bazely, Acting Ensign M. D. Ames commanding, having on board the pilot of the Wyalusing, Mr. Alfred Everett, and followed by the Otsego, Wyalusing, Tacony, and Commodore Hull in the order in which their names are mentioned. The Chicopee and Valley City were not present, the former having been sent by me the night before to New Berne for repairs, and the latter being on her way to Hampton Roads with Lieutenant W. B. Cushing and his dispatches, both having started before I had decided on ascending the middle River. By the good piloting of Mr. Everett the vessels got safely through into the Roanoke River at about 4 p.m. I left the Commodore Hull in the Middle River to prevent the enemy from laying torpedoes there. On our way through the Middle River we fired, by compass courses, over the woods at Plymouth, at distances varying from. 2,640 to 1,700 yards, and I have since learned that our fire at that time was very effective.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in the Roanoke, owing the extreme narrowness and short curves of the Middle River, but to prevent the enemy from blockading the river or putting torpedoes in the channel I dropped to within short range for the 100·pounder Parrotts and shelled him for an hour or so. Early in the morning of the 31st ultimo, having determined on attacking the batteries, I sent a tug for the Commodore Hull and commenced preparations for the action. At about 8 a. m. the Commodore Hull arrived, and I stationed her at the head of the line as before, on account of her ability to fire directly ahead.
At about 9 a. m. the U. S. S. Whitehead came up the Middle River with stores for the vessels in Albemarle Sound from the naval depot at New Berne. As h r 100·pounder Parrott had been taken out, I had her lashed alongside the Tacony, the Bazely being lashed to the Shamrock and the Belle to the Otsego (all on the port side) to keep the vessels in motion in case their engines should be damaged. We also had steam blown off the starboard boilers of all the double enders, the fires banked very low beneath them, and the stop valve between the two boilers of each ship closed; so that there was no steam in the starboard boilers, but the water in them being warm, it could be got up in a short time. At 9:30 a.m., the vessels being in line, I signalized to the Commodore Hull to run ahead and reconnoiter and ascertain if the channel was clear. She reported all right, and I got underway, signaling the other vessels to follow in close order. The enemy opened fire as soon as we came within range and kept up a constant and very heavy fire, directed principally against the Commodore Hull and the Shamrock. As I neared the batteries I gave the order, “Go ahead fast,” and we were soon directly opposite the enemy’s guns, when he was driven from his rifle pits and fieldpieces by grape and canister from the ships, which we poured in very heavily. The batteries still held out, though their fire began to be wild, but as the Shamrock passed them one of her shells exploded in their magazine, which blew up with great force, some of the fragments falling on our decks. This evidently caused a panic among the rebels, for from that time their fire slackened and at length ceased altogether. I then made signal to cease firing, and then to land and take possession of the batteries, which was done without resistance. A party from this ship under Lieutenant Duer marched into the lower works (we having by this time passed the town and arrived opposite them), took about a dozen prisoners, and spiked the guns to prevent the enemy from firing on the vessels should they return to their batteries.
It gives me great gratification to bring to the notice of the Department the gallant and intelligent conduct of all the commanding officers engaged, viz, Lieutenant-Commander H. N. T.
Arnold, Otsego; Lieutenant-Commander Earl English, Wyalusing; Lieutenant-Commander W. T. Truxtun, Tacony; Acting Master Francis Josselyn, Commodore Hull; Acting Master James G. Green, tug Belle; Acting Master G. W. Barrett, Whitehead; and Acting- Ensign M. D. Ames, tug Bazely, who worked and fought their ships admirably, preserving the order of battle under a very severe fire, and pouring into the rebel works, rifle pits, and the town a tremendous fire of all kinds of projectiles. I think promotion would be but justice to these gallant officers, who certainly deserve the honorable notice of the Government. I wish particularly to bring before the Department the conduct of Acting Master Francis Josselyn, of the Commodore Hull, who worked his ship and battery to the admiration of all who saw him, and also that of Acting Master G. W. Barrett, of the Whitehead, whom I sent on board the Commodore Hull to pilot us through the obstructions on account of his knowledge of the river, and who acquitted himself in his usual fine style. These two deserve particular notice from the fact that the Commodore Hull was the leading ship, and on her the first and heaviest fire of the enemy was directed. I would also respectfully recommend for promotion the pilots of the ships engaged.
We captured 37 prisoners, 22 cannon, and a large quantity of ordnance stores, the exact amount of which I am unable to give at present, nearly 200 stand of arms (more are being picked up all the time), the ram Albemarle sunk at the wharf with everything on board, and the colors of the batteries and the ironclad.
For the part which each vessel took in the action, I must refer you to the reports of the different commanding officers, which I will forward as they are received. As commanding officer of the Shamrock, it becomes my duty to testify to the gallant behavior of the officers, crew, and marines of this vessel. The engineer’s department, under Second Assistant Engineer William H. Harrison, was very efficient. The different divisions were worked remarkably well, and the guns were worked in the most spirited and effective manner, for which I am in a great measure [indebted J to Lieutenant R. K. Duer, executive officer, and the officers of the divisions. Acting Assistant Paymaster Louis Sands, and H. A. Macomb, captain’s clerk, were with me on the hurricane deck during the engagement and rendered good service as aids, the l atter acting as signal officer.
I am much indebted to Colonel D. W. Wardrop, commanding Sub-Division of Albemarle, who, anticipating our requirements, arrived here with 160 men from Roanoke Island to assist in garrisoning the works which we have captured.
I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. H. Macomb,
Comdr. Comdg. District of the Sounds, North Atlantic Squadron
Rear-Admiral D. D. Porter
Commanding North Atlantic Squadron
Plymouth remained in U.S. hands for the remainder of the war.
The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett
“Early Coast Operations in North Carolina” by Rush C. Hawkins, In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 11
War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson
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