Learning Plymouth's History



A River Town Where Past Lives Live: Plymouth

 With A Rich History Known For Being Involved In The Most Daring Mission Of The Civil War

Roanoke River Lighthouse [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]

In the final days of the Civil War, a small steam launch set off up the Roanoke River in the dead of night on a mission that the Union hoped would shorten the conflict. Lt. Cushing, commander of the launch, was after big game, the CSS Albemarle, one of the Confederates’ fleet of ironclad rams patterned on the CSS Virginia, better known as the Merrimac. The Albemarle was keeping Union forces from closing Robert E. Lee’s last supply line. A few months before, in April, 1864, the ironclad spearheaded an attack on Plymouth, North Carolina, which resulted in the retaking of the town by the South, the last big Confederate victory of the war.

Cushing’s reason for heading up the Roanoke that night was more straightforward. His friend and mentor, Capt. Flusser, had been killed in the April attack and he was out for revenge.

“It’s really amazing that he was able to pull it off,” says Tom Harrison, local historian and current head of the Washington County (NC) Travel and Tourism Authority. “Soldiers on the shore shot the coat off his back and the sole off his shoe. He had five lines in his hands, and had to pull them all in the right sequence, in the dark and under fire. He pulled the final one, setting off his torpedo, looking right down the barrel of the ironclad’s gun. But he sank the Albemarle, and escaped, even though he was wounded.”

The History Channel called it “The Most Daring Mission of the Civil War” and in 2004, came to Plymouth to film a documentary about the event. “It was fun,” Harrison, who participated in the filming, says. “Most of the events took place at night, so we ate breakfast at sundown and dinner at dawn.”

One of the reasons the History Channel decided to film onsite in Plymouth is the 3/8-scale replica of the CSS Albemarle that floats next to the Port o’ Plymouth History Museum on the banks of the Roanoke. Harrison, during a stint as head of the local historical society, oversaw the building of the ironclad replica, as well as a full-size recreation of Cushing’s launch

Wet Plate Of The CSS Albemarle [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]
Civil War Artillery [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]
Explosion Sequence At Plymouth [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]

Every year in mid-April, the museum hosts a Living History Weekend, that includes reenactments of both the April attack by the Confederates that took back the town and the October sinking of the CSS Albemarle by Cushing. One of the few Civil War reenactments that involves both army and naval forces, the event attracts some 300 re-enactors and thousands of spectators every year. Harrison, dressed as the ghost of Capt. Flusser, oversees the popular Torchlight Tour. 

During the summer, the replica ironclad frequently cruises the Roanoke, setting off its cannon, to the delight of visitors of this normally quiet riverfront town, located on US 64, one of the main routes to NC’s Outer Banks. Often bypassed on the way to the beach, Plymouth has a string of museums lined up along the river’s west bank, as well as a nature trail and several picnic areas, to entice travelers to take a break.

“We have four museums within four blocks along the river,” Harrison says, “the Port o’ Plymouth at one end, the Roanoke River Lighthouse and Maritime Museum at the other, and in between the God’s Creation Wildlife Museum and Bear-Ology.”

The most prominent feature along the riverfront is the Roanoke River Lighthouse, a replica of one that stood here in the past, and one of four that make up the Albemarle Riverlight Trail in eastern North Carolina. “It’s built on the original plans from 1866,” says Doward Jones, chairman of the Washington County Waterways Commission, which operates the lighthouse and the close-by Roanoke River Maritime Museum. “Our museum has one of the largest collections of local boats, including a 2800 year old Indian canoe and examples of the NC state boat, the Albemarle Shad.”

Downtown Plymouth [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]
Paddling With Puppy [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]
Bear-Ology Museum [Courtesy: Tom Harrison]

Although Plymouth looks the part of the sleepy village now, Jones says that the town, about seven miles upstream from Albemarle Sound, was once bustling. “During the 1800s, this was a major port,” he says, “the second largest in the state with its own custom house and passenger ships making regular trips to Philadelphia.  When they opened the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1805, that really got us started.”

The Maritime Museum hosts occasional Cowboys on the Water storytelling festivals, and many of the exhibits are based on these tales. “Jeb Gaylord told about how he was a log monkey when he was a kid, breaking up log jams when this was a major lumber port,” Jones says. “We have a film we show about the Hampton family who ran a herring fishery here from the 1800s. Those salted herring were shipped around the world.”

The herring are endangered now, but Jones hopes they will rebound, as the local rockfish have. “We have one of the largest hardwood wetlands on the East Coast right across the river, and that’s where they spawn,” he says. “I grew up on the river and one of the great joys of springtime was catching a mess of herring and cooking them up right there on the riverbank.”

Plymouth’s location in the midst of the vast Roanoke River Wildlife Refuge, called by the Nature Conservancy “one of the last great places,” provides visitors a glimpse into a wilder, more primeval age. Paddling trails with camping platforms line the Roanoke’s banks and birdwatching is some of the best in the world. Dowland Jones recommends the top of the lighthouse to birders. “You can stand up there and watch the eagles and opreys fly by,” he says. “It’s the best birdwatching perch in North Carolina.”

Renee Wright

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.

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