A History of Plymouth, North Carolina

Washington County Court House - Plymouth, North Carolina

Established in 1787, Plymouth is older than Washington County. For seventy years prior to Plymouth’s founding, generations of the Rhodes family had been planters in the area. Arthur Rhodes founded what was to become Plymouth from land he acquired through inheritance, gift deeds, and purchases. This collection of property became his plantation and was called Brick House. From that property he sectioned off one hundred acres, subdividing them into 172 lots, which he would sell. These lots were the beginnings of Plymouth. He sold sixteen lots.

Rhodes ended his enterprise in 1790 and he and his wife sold the remaining lots, except for two or three kept for themselves, to nine trustees for £860. The trustees installed posts to mark streets and planted trees. In 1807, Plymouth became the first incorporated town in the recently–formed Washington County (1799).

Some provisions of the incorporation required “strict observance of the Sabbath day” and “the erecting (of) a public market.” Commissioners had the authority to appoint “an harbor–master of the port of Plymouth.” They also had the responsibility of preventing anyone or any ship carrying an infectious disease from entering the town. Later, as it’s told, violation of this law brought about tragedy.

Several theories exist about how Plymouth got its name. Early in its history, Plymouth was a thriving port. The most popular theory supposes that sailors on ships from Plymouth, Massachusetts regularly stopped there for cargo—thus the name Plymouth Landing. Later, the name was shortened to Plymouth.

Water played a major role in the development of Plymouth. Flatboats floated down the creeks and rivers loaded with goods and produce to be reloaded onto ocean sailing vessels. Early in the 1800s, Plymouth was one of six main ports in North Carolina and ranked ninth in population among towns. In 1790, the United States Congress established Plymouth as a port of delivery, complete with a customs house. Schooners bound for the West Indies sailed from the port heavily loaded with hogsheads of tobacco, barrels of tar, pitch and turpentine, masts and spars, corn and rice.

The town prospered and grew. In 1810, its population was 671 and the foundation for a solid community was laid. The first public school was formed in 1810 and the first church in the town, the Methodist Church, was founded in 1830 with the Episcopal Church following in 1837. Morratuck Church, outside the town, had been holding services for years. By 1840, there were 1,123 inhabitants. Ten years later, there were only 951. A ship stopping at the port brought an unknown fever to the town, taking the lives of many residents and causing others to leave in fear.

View of Plymouth, NC During the Civil War - April 1864

In a few years Plymouth’s location on the Roanoke River, which had been such an asset, suddenly became a liability. Plymouth was one of the ports targeted for blockade by Union forces during the American Civil War. Tradition has it that, by the end of the war, only eleven buildings were standing. Five of those exist today: Grace Episcopal Church, Ausbon House, Latham House, Armistead House, and the Clark-Chesson House.

The town of Plymouth became the first incorporated town in what was to become Washington County; it was created in 1787 when Arthur Rhodes divided one hundred acres of his Brick House Plantation along the Roanoke River into lots. In its heyday, it was the fifth-largest port in North Carolina and the eight-largest town, and citizens thrived for a time before the Civil War.

Named for Plymouth, Massachusetts, when it was founded, Plymouth is nonetheless best known for the role it played in a war that took place 240 years after the Pilgrims stepped ashore. The American Civil War came to the Roanoke River Valley with a vengeance, and Plymouth was the center of a land and sea campaign that wreaked havoc on the town and countryside for two years.

Plymouth was vital to the Confederates due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Roanoke River, a transportation link to General Robert E. Lee's Army in Virginia. To regain control of the river after it fell into Union hands in 1862, the Confederates built the ironclad CSS Albemarle, which promptly cleared the river of wooden Union ships and recaptured the town. The victory was short-lived, however, when a Union lieutenant came up with a daring plan that would go down in the annals of naval warfare.

Lieutenant William Cushing loaded a small boat with explosives, and under cover of night, headed up the river under heavy Confederate gunfire. He managed to guide the boat up to the CSS Albemarle and drop the explosives beneath the hull of the ironclad, which promptly exploded, sending the Albemarle to the bottom and Lt. Cushing into the river. He swam to safety, and two days later, Plymouth was once again in Union hands.

CSS Albemarle

CSS Albemarle was built in the Roanoke River near Hamilton, NC, under the supervision of her first commanding officer, Comdr. J. W. Cooke, CSN. She was one of the most-successful of the Confederate ironclads, along with the Virginia and Arkansas.

She was commissioned on April 17th, 1864. It is said that the last of the armor plate was attached as she steamed down the Roanoke River. On April 19th she lead an attack on the Union forces at Plymouth, NC, during which the Union ships, the Southfield was rammed and sunk and the Miami, Ceres, and Whitehead were forced to withdraw. The Union forces in Plymouth surrendered to the Confederates the next day.

On May 5th, 1864, the CSS Albemarle, accompanied by CSS Bombshell, former United States Army transport, attacked a Union squadron below Plymouth during which the Bombshell was captured. The Albemarle received only damage to one gun and other light damage which caused her to lose speed.

She was taken up the Roanoke River for repairs; however she was not to see combat again. Before the repairs were completed, the Albemarle was torpedoed and sunk during a night raid on October 27, 1864. This was accomplished by an improvised torpedo boat commanded by Lt. William B. Cushing, USN.

Albemarle was raised after the Union forces captured Plymouth. In late April of 1865, she was towed to Norfolk Navy Yard by USS Ceres. There she was condemned as a prize, and purchased by the Navy who sold her in October of 1867.

While Plymouth was occupied by Union forces and most of the Albemarle Sound was in their control during the spring of 1864, the Confederates made plans to recapture Plymouth and drive the Union Navy from the sound. A land assault on Plymouth was planned, to be supported by the CSS Albemarle, an ironclad ship constructed in a cornfield along the Roanoke River. Powered by two 200-horsepower engines with stern propellers, the Albemarle's deck and deck house was covered by a thick layer of iron plates.

Having made its way through torpedoes set by the Union Navy in the Roanoke River, the Albemarle made its way to Plymouth. She was met at dawn by two Federal vessels, the Southfield and the Miami, which had stretched a fabric of spars and chains between them to entangle the Albemarle. The Southfield was rammed and quickly sank, almost taking the Miami with it. The Miami fired on the Albemarle, but the mighty shell bounced off its ironclad deck and exploded close to the Miami, killing the officer who had fired the shot. The Miami ran, and the Albemarle turned her guns on the Union encampments in Plymouth. Meanwhile, Confederate brigades were attacking the town from the south and east. After three weeks of shelling, the Federals surrendered.

Later that fall, a Union Naval officer, Lt. William B. Cushing, conducted a clandestine attack on the Albemarle, tucking a torpedo under the overhang of her deck, exploding and sinking her. She was raised in 1867, towed to Norfolk, Virginia and sold for junk. Her battered smokestack is on display in Raleigh, at the NC Hall of History.

Replica of the CSS Albemarle

The Port O' Plymouth Museum is proud to present a replica of the CSS Albemarle, the most successful ironclad of the American Civil War. The ram Albemarle replica was launched in April of 2002 on the banks of the Roanoke River in Plymouth, NC in conjunction with Plymouth's annual Living History Weekend.

On May 22, 2005, The History Channel featured a 90-minute documentary by emmy-award winning producer Carl Kriegeskotte focusing on what has been called the “most daring mission” of the Civil War: the heroic raid of Lt. William Cushing’s launch on the ironclad CSS Albemarle.

Television viewers with access to The History Channel could relive the excitement and heroism of Confederate and Federal troops and even local residents during that battle. The documentary was an adventure in itself. The work took place during the rough weather between Hurricane Charley and Tropical Storm Gaston and included some resident cottonmouth moccasins!

According to the Depression Era WPA book entitled, "North Carolina - A Guide to the Old North State" within the Federal Writers Project named the American Guide Series, first published in 1939 by the University of North Carolina Press - the town of Plymouth was "founded in 1780 with the gift of a site by Arthur Rhodes, a former resident of Plymouth, Mass. It became a thriving shipping point, but during the War between the States was the scene of several naval battles, which by 1865 had reduced it to 11 battle-scarred buildings. Plymouth's industries include canning, lumber manufacture, and several of the best-equipped fisheries in the State.

"On the court house lawn is the Battle of Plymouth Marker, which recalls not only the deeds of Confederate soldiers but also the achievement of a Union officer, Lt. William Barker Cushing. In 1864 a confederate force under Gen. R.F. Hoke captured Plymouth after a three-day battle. The ironclad Albemarle, which had destroyed one Federal gunboat and driven away two others, was anchored in Roanoke River. On the night of Oct. 27, 1864 the Albemarle was sunk by the explosion of a torpedo placed by Cushing, who escaped by swimming down the river."

Plymouth was granted a US Post Office on March 20, 1793, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Martin R. Byrd. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

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