Whenever I visit Plymouth, North Carolina, a small town near where I grew up, the first thing I think of is the massacre of African Americans that happened there on April 20, 1864.
As I get older, I sometimes find myself getting used to things I found unbearable when I was younger. However, I do not think I will ever get used to not seeing any commemoration of that massacre in Plymouth.
The massacre occurred during the Civil War. After recapturing Plymouth and capturing many black Union solders, Confederate troops murdered more than 100 African Americans. Most were Union soldiers. Others were civilians. Some were probably women and children.
The massacre was one of the worst racial atrocities in North Carolina history.
Yet when I go to Plymouth, I do not find a single roadside sign telling me what happened there. I do not hear a word about the massacre on the town’s historical markers. I do not see a monument or a plaque or anything else that tells the story of that ill-fated day.
There is nothing at all, in fact, that honors the memory of the victims of the Plymouth Massacre or reminds us of what happens to a nation that turns its back on its own people.
The definitive work on the Plymouth Massacre is a long, very carefully researched article by Weymouth T. Jordan, Jr., and Gerald W. Thomas. That article appeared in the state’s leading historical journal, the North Carolina Historical Review, in April of 1995.
Drawing in large part from the work of Jordan and Thomas, this is how I described the Plymouth Massacre in my book The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War.
The wartime atrocity that hit closest to home for [Abraham] Galloway occurred in Plymouth, North Carolina…. Late that April, black refugees from Plymouth began to straggle into New Bern. They reported the loss of the town to Rebel forces and a massacre of black soldiers, civilian and white southern Unionists by Confederate troops commanded by Major General Robert F. Hoke. Leading some 7,000 Rebel troops against approximately 3,000 defenders, Hoke had taken the town after a four-day siege.
Galloway must have winced when he heard that Confederate brigadier general Robert Ransom’s brigade had played a leading role in the Battle of Plymouth. Only a month earlier, Ransom’s Brigade had taken no prisoners after encountering black troops of the 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry, at Suffolk, Virginia.
“Ransom’s Brigade never takes any negro prisoners,” one of Ransom’s soldiers declared in the Charlotte Observer after the incident at Suffolk.
One of Ransom’s officers, Major John W. Graham, made the same declaration in a letter to his father the month before the Battle of Plymouth. At Suffolk, he wrote, the “ladies. . . were standing at their doors, some waving handkerchiefs, some crying, some praying, and others calling to us to ‘kill the negroes.’”
He confided to his father, parenthetically, “Our brigade did not need this to make them give ‘no quarter,’ as it is understood amongst us that we take no Negro prisoners.”
A conservative evaluation of the eyewitness reports and a cautious reckoning of the death toll in Plymouth indicate that Rebel soldiers killed more than 100 black people that day. Confederate troops, mainly Ransom’s Brigade and cavalrymen led by Colonel James Dearing, executed approximately 25 black prisoners. They also killed 40 other blacks as they sought to escape the battlefield and murdered 40 more who had taken refuge in the swamps nearby. At least a few of the victims were women and children. Several eyewitnesses, including the only African American to leave a firsthand account of the massacre, indicated that the number of victims was much higher.
When I visit Plymouth, which I often do, I can never stop thinking about that day in 1864. I always walk along the banks of the Roanoke, by the old lighthouse and the downtown shops. I sometimes visit the maritime museum and look at the antique boats, and I often wander through the lovely old cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church.
But no matter where I go in the town, I am always wondering if I am near the spot where those African American soldiers were executed. I cannot stop thinking about them. I cannot stop thinking about the other victims either, the ones that were not even soldiers. And I do not know what is more heartbreaking: what happened then or the silence now.