|This map from Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65 shows Plymouth in April 1864. Our house, built around 1870, is indicated by the orange and red triangle near the center of the map.|
Years after the Civil War ended in 1865, author George Nowitzky visited Plymouth – where my wife and I live – as part of the research he was doing for a book. What he saw astonished him.
“There is no town or city in the United States that shows more scars of war than Plymouth, N.C.,” he wrote in 1888. “Every few steps within the business portion brought me to excavations and low stone walls which but too plainly show that they were formerly cellars and foundations to buildings that have passed into smoke, ashes and history.”Plymouth’s location in northeastern North Carolina on the Roanoke River near the Albemarle Sound offered an important strategic advantage to whoever held it. So Union and Confederate armies battled to control the town throughout the war. And any town that must repeatedly endure being the object of contention between two hostile armies is going to be left in shambles.
Union troops occupied Plymouth in early 1862. Control of the town went back and forth until late 1864. It’s been said that at the end of the war, there were only 11 buildings in the town that had not been destroyed or heavily damaged. All that remained, Nowitzky wrote, were “nothing but ghostly looking brick chimneys and stone foundations which could not burn.”Reminders and scars of the war are still visible. Former Union soldiers returned to Plymouth after the war to repair Grace Episcopal Church over at the corner of Madison and Water streets a few blocks from our house. But I’m told that there are a few holes made by cannonballs in some of the lumber in the interior of its steeple.
Less than a block down Washington Street from our home is a house with plainly visible bullet holes around one window, reminders of fierce street fighting that happened here on December 10, 1862 when Confederate raiders attacked Union troops and set fire to houses on Columbia Street, now Main Street.Confederate forces regained control of the town during the Battle of Plymouth, fought April 17-20, 1864. On April 18, the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle chased Union gunboats down the Roanoke River and then shelled Union troops in the town.
Our house sits on ground that was occupied in April 1864 by Fort Williams, a Union fort. It’s possible that the shot that killed Moses Dry 150 years ago today was fired from this fort. Moses was the brother of my great-great grandfather, Allison Dry and the uncle of my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, and his brothers, Thomas Dry and Daniel Dry.Moses was 45 years old when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in May 1863. His comrades-in-arms in the 8th North Carolina Infantry bore surnames that are common today in telephone books back home in Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan counties – Barringer, Blackwelder, Culp, Earnhart, Eudy, Fisher, Goodman, Honeycutt, Isenhour, Lowder, Misenheimer, Ridenhour, Ritchie, and Safrit, among others.
Moses may have met his end when his unit made a spirited but foolish and futile charge on the morning of April 20 to try to oust the defenders from Fort Williams, by then the last Union stronghold in Plymouth.“The men charged up to the edge of the surrounding ditch, only to find that it could not be crossed,” wrote John W. Graham, a former Confederate officer who fought in the battle and contributed to a history of North Carolina troops that was published in 1901. “There was but one of two courses to take, to-wit: either to fall back or to surrender. The regiment chose the former. When the retreat began, the enemy poured a fearful volley into the ranks, killing and wounding many of the men. This charge was reckless and unnecessary. It was made under the flush of victory, and not by order of the commanding general.”
Fort Williams surrendered after being pounded by Confederate artillery. The Battle of Plymouth was over, and the town was back in Confederate hands – for a few months.
Union military strategists were determined to retake the town, but with the Albemarle anchored on the Plymouth waterfront, that was impossible. In October 1864, a young Union Navy officer named William Cushing led a daring nighttime raid in a small wooden steamboat and sank the Albemarle.With the ironclad sitting on the bottom of the Roanoke, Union forces attacked and drove Confederates out of town. Part of the town caught fire when a Confederate ammunition storehouse exploded during the battle.
Back on the family farm in Cabarrus County, about 240 miles inland from Plymouth, the news of Moses Dry’s death was another crushing blow to his brother, Allison Dry.
Allison’s brother Henry, who enlisted in the Confederate Army in May 1863 at the age of 40, died of typhoid only three months later in Charleston, South Carolina. His oldest son William was taken prisoner at the Battle of Bristoe Station in October 1863 and confined in a hellhole of a Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. And his son Thomas, who was captured during the first day’s fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, had been imprisoned at the same POW camp as William, where he died of smallpox in January 1864.Allison would receive more terrible news in June 1864.
Sources for this essay included Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, by William R. Trotter; Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, edited by Walter Clark; and Norfolk: The Marine Metropolis of Virginia and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina, by George Nowitzky.