April 17 – 20, 1864
Confederate Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s 13,000 man force arrived at Plymouth, N.C., on April 17, 1864, and quickly besieged the important Union supply depot town and its 3,000 man garrison. Strong earthworks with strategically placed redoubts and forts defended the land side of Plymouth, and the marshy ground along the Roanoke River was protected by powerful cannon on four Union warships.
Expecting the new Rebel ironclad ram, CSS Albemarle, to arrive and defeat the Union navy, Hoke did not attack with his infantry on the morning of the 18th, but rained artillery fire on Forts Grey and Williams — two strong positions in the Union defenses. His gunners also sank a steamer and severely damaged one of the Union gunboats.
Late in the afternoon Hoke sent one of his brigades forward in a demonstration attack to hold the Union defenders at Fort Williams in the center of the Union line, while he launched an all-out attack on Fort Wessells on the Union right. Hoke’s attackers were repulsed several times after reaching the foot of the Union earthworks. But finally the deadly hail of rifle fire and sputtering hand grenades was overcome and Hoke’s Rebels swarmed over the ramparts and drove the Union defenders out of Fort Wessells. The captured fort provided Hoke’s men with a valuable elevated position from which to fire on the town’s defenders.
At dawn on April 19, the long awaited Albemarle steamed down the river to confront the Union navy at Plymouth. Cannonballs fired from riverside Fort Grey bounced off the ironclad like pebbles. The two most powerful Union ships, the Miami and the Southfield, had been lashed together at their sterns to trap the Albemarle between them and pound it at close range with their massive guns. Avoiding the trap, the Albemarle crashed into the side of the Southfield which instantly sank. Only the shallow river bottom saved the Albemarle from going down with the Southfield. When the Southfield hit bottom, she rolled over on her side, dislodging the Albemarle from the hole she had punched in the Union ship’s hull.
Fascinating Fact: Some of the cannonballs fired from Fort Grey were as heavy as 100 pounds.