Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Moss: "Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina"

[ Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina (April 17-20, 1864): The Last Confederate Victory by Juanita Patience Moss [(Willow Bend Books, 2003) Softcover, photos, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography. Pp. 330 ISBN: 1-58549-852-1 $32]

As far as I know, Juanita Patience's Moss's Battle of Plymouth is the only book length history of this Civil War rarity --- a successful Confederate combined land and naval assault on a well defended fortified town. Since its publication in 2003, I've searched in vain for reviews of this work. Thus it was a pleasant surprise to receive an email from the author herself, who discovered a two year old messageboard post of mine and very kindly sent me a review copy.

The Battle of Plymouth was a four day affair. Three brigades of Confederate infantry under Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hoke invested the Union occupied North Carolina port town of Plymouth, while the ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle descended the Roanoke River to destroy or drive off the four U.S. Navy gunboats patrolling the area. The Albemarle succeeded in sinking one vessel, damaged another, and forced the rest to flee. The ironclad's guns then pounded the forts defending Plymouth, which were then captured by Hoke's men after being stormed or outflanked. In the end, the entire garrison under Gen. Henry Wessells was forced to surrender. In telling this story, Moss allows the participants to speak for themselves, her own narrative serving mainly to set the stage or bridge the extensively quoted primary accounts. However, the strength behind this particular technique does have accompanying problems of repetition and unanalyzed contradictions between accounts.

But there is much more to Mrs. Moss's Plymouth study than the battle history itself, which concludes at the book's halfway point. Especially with the book's second half, numerous stand alone chapters (more akin to appendices) are included. Many of these mini-studies are quite interesting and cover a broad range of subjects from battle reports and biographical sketches to detailed Union prisoner-of-war experiences and a lengthy discussion of the various Plymouth properties that survived the conflict.

Controversies surrounding the battle are also examined. Plymouth served as an important refuge and recruitment center for North Carolina unionists ("Buffaloes") and escaped slaves and their families. A sizeable group of unorganized black recruits were present during the battle, and charges arose afterward about the murder of prisoners. While Moss herself found the documentary evidence of a massacre to be inconclusive, her narrative did draw heavily upon the Weymouth Jordan and Gerald Thomas study (1995) that claimed the existence of post-surrender killings.

A perusal of the notes and bibliography reveals that the source materials consulted by the author were primarily published primary and secondary sources. Ideally I would like to have seen less reliance on the latter and more integration of unpublished manuscript materials. Another issue is with the book's printing quality. While the text is fine, the illustrations are poorly reproduced and important details on the maps (which are reprints from other sources) are often difficult to make out in their reduced state.

Flaws aside, this study of the Battle of Plymouth is useful as a broadly inclusive and reasonably detailed treatment of the various military, political, civilian, economic, and racial issues relative to the Civil War in coastal North Carolina. While her book is not the last word on the military side of the campaign (a full tactical history and analysis remains to be written), Mrs. Moss is to be commended for organizing and assembling a vast array of information surrounding the Battle of Plymouth.


  1. Drew,
    I really enjoyed your comments on this book and I agree with everything you said. Plymouth is one of those small, yet significant battles that took place in NC during the war that deserves more extensive study. Recent examples of historians making progress in this area are Mark Smith and Wade Sokolosky's "No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar" and Eric Wittenberg's "Battle of Monroe's Crossroads." I hope that this trend continues as there are many more North Carolina battles, Plymouth included, that could use a closer look.

    Andrew Duppstadt

  2. "I hope that this trend continues as there are many more North Carolina battles, Plymouth included, that could use a closer look."

    Me too. What really got me interested in the CW in NC (esp. the coast) was Sauers's "A Succession of Honorable Victories". IMO, an under the radar masterpiece.

    [btw, for those readers not familiar with the two books Andrew mentioned, "No Such Army" and "Monroe's XRoads" were reviewed here last year. Just plug the author names or book titles into the search box in the upper left hand corner of the main page]

  3. Drew,
    Sauers book is very good, no doubt. I heard him deliver an address as the keynote speaker at a symposium on the Civil War in northeastern NC earlier this spring in Elizabeth City. Unfortunately, I was not impressed with his speaking abilities. He's a nice guy and I enjoyed talking with him at the reception, but his formal presentation left much to be desired. Not sure that it was totally his fault since the organizers asked him to sum up the Burnside Expedition in 45-60 minutes. However, it didn't bode well when he forgot names of key participants and had to be reminded of them by audience members. Still, it takes nothing away from his book.

    Andrew D.


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