In a combined operation with the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke, attacked the Federal garrison at Plymouth, North Carolina, on April 17. On April 19, the ram appeared in the river, sinking the USS Southfield, damaging the USS Miami and driving off the other Union Navy ships (USS Ceres & USS Whitehead) supporting the Plymouth garrison. Confederate forces captured Fort Comfort, driving defenders into Fort Williams. On April 20, the garrison surrendered.
Construction of the ironclad began in January 1863 and continued on during the next year. Word of the gunboat reached the Union naval officers stationed in the region, raising an alarm. They appealed to the War Department for an overland expedition to destroy the ship, to be christened Albemarle after the body of water into which the Roanoke emptied but, the Union Army never felt it could spare the troops needed to carry out such a mission. It was a decision that would prove to be very short-sighted.
In April 1864, the newly commissioned Confederate States Steamer Albemarle, under the command of Captain James W. Cooke, got underway down-river toward Plymouth, North Carolina. Its mission was to clear the river of all Union vessels so that General Robert F. Hoke‘s troops could storm the forts located there.
[…] two paddle steamers, USS Miami and USS Southfield, lashed together with spars and chains, approached from up-river, attempting to pass on either side of Albemarle in order to trap her between them.
Captain Cooke turned heavily to starboard, getting outboard of [the] Southfield but, running dangerously close to the southern shore. Turning back sharply into the river, he rammed the Union side-wheeler, driving her under. Albemarle’s ram became trapped in Southfield’s hull from the force of the blow and her bow was pulled under as well. As [the] Southfield sank, she rolled over before settling on the riverbed. This action released the death grip that held the new Confederate ram.
Miami fired a shell into Albemarle at point-blank range while she was trapped by the wreck of Southfield but, the shell rebounded off Albemarle’s sloping iron armor and exploded on [the] Miami, killing her commanding officer, Captain Charles W. Flusser. Miami’s crew attempted to board Albemarle to capture her but, were soon driven back by heavy musket fire. [The] Miami then steered clear of the ironclad and escaped into Albemarle Sound.
With the river now clear of Union ships, and with the assistance of Albemarle’s rifled cannon, General Hoke attacked and took Plymouth and, the nearby forts.
From The History Channel:
Confederate forces attack Plymouth, North Carolina, in an attempt to recapture ports lost to the Union two years before. The four-day battle ended with the fall of Plymouth but, the Yankees kept the city bottled up with a flotilla on nearby Albemarle Sound.
In 1862, the Union captured Plymouth and several other points along the North Carolina coast. In doing so, they deprived the Confederacy of several ports for blockade-runners and the agricultural products from several fertile counties. In the spring of 1864, the Confederates mounted a campaign to reverse these defeats. General George Pickett led a division to the area and launched a failed attack on New Bern in February. Now, General Robert Hoke assumed command and moved his army against Plymouth, fifty miles north of New Bern. He planned an attack using the C.S.S. Albemarle, an ironclad that was still being built on the Roanoke River inland from Plymouth.
With 7,000 men, Hoke attacked the 2,800-man Union garrison at Plymouth on April 17. His troops began to capture some of the outer defenses but, he needed the Albemarle to bomb the city from the river. The ironclad moved from its makeshift shipyard on April 17 but, it was still under construction. With workers aboard, Captain James Cooke moved down the Roanoke. The Albemarle‘s rudder broke and the engine stalled, so it took two days to reach Plymouth. When it arrived, the Rebel ship took on two Yankee ships, sinking one and forcing the other to retreat. With the ironclad on the scene, Hoke’s men captured Plymouth on April 20.
The Rebel victory was limited by the fact that the Albemarle was still pinned in the Roanoke River.