“We Take No Negro Prisoners:” Remembering the Plymouth Massacre


"Map of Plymouth and Defenses, April 17-20, 1864," by R. D. Graham (1901), after 1865 original by Solon E. Allis. Courtesy, Port o'Plymouth Museum, Plymouth, N.C.

Plymouth is located on the Roanoke River in Washington County, N.C., 120 miles east of Raleigh. “Map of Plymouth and Defenses, April 17-20, 1864,” by R. D. Graham (1901), after 1865 original by Solon E. Allis. Courtesy, Port o’Plymouth Museum, Plymouth, N.C.

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.

Plymouth, N.C., May 1864. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Plymouth, N.C., May 1864. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

16 thoughts on ““We Take No Negro Prisoners:” Remembering the Plymouth Massacre

  1. I just finished reading Patricia Click’s “A Time Full of Trial”. If I remember correctly a large number of survivors of the Plymouth disaster fled to the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island putting considerable stress on that establishment. I was not aware of the deliberate execution of the Black soldiers who surrendered at Plymouth. Horrendous.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These stories must be told. The same people that venerate the perpetrators as patriots and an invaluable part of history bristle when stories like these, so valuable in learning about our past, are spoken of particularly in academic circles. We can never move forward if we whitewash our past.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David, thank you for all your posts. I remain irate about not learning these things in 12 years of public school. And I don’t see how “well-educated” people are able to take four-year and higher degrees without studying U.S. history–but somehow too many of us did.

    There has to be a better way. We need to find it–soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David, hi,

    A quick note to thank you for all your posts. I do thank you for sure!

    For some reason, I’m not able to comment online, no matter how I try, and I’ve now given up. That’s not really important; your posts are and I’m thrilled I get to read them.

    I remain irate about not learning these things–the Plymouth Massacre and so much more–in public school. Also can’t understand why liberal arts majors like me get thru college without being required to take at least an overview of U.S. history. But we do–and it shows. Wish I could believe we could fix that particular problem in a hurry but it won’t happen any time soon in N.C. I believe a different fix is in, in Raleigh.

    And, oh, goodness, we lost VA tonight and are barely hanging on in N.J. Can’t say I think McAuliffe is a good candidate but of course, given the other guy, he should have been a shoo-in.

    Best wishes to you,

    Susan Council

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent article. An ancestor of mine. 2/Lt Daniel Webster Parmenter, Co. G, 10th USCT was captured at Plymouth. He was later reported, via unofficial sources, being shot by a prison guard at Weldon, NC while attempting to send a letter home to Framingham, Mass.
    Do you have any mention of Daniel or knowledge if there was a CSA POW camp in Weldon, NC Thank you Ralph Parmenter Bennett

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mr. Bennett- I don’t but I will keep my eye out for him from now on. I did not even know there was a CSA pow camp in Weldon. You might contact my friend Chris Meekins at the State Archives of NC. He might be able to give you some info on that & he’s wonderfully knowledgeable. All my best, David


      • Thanks very much David. I will follow up with Chris Meekins as you suggested. Within the Parmenter family archives there is a brief entry concerning Daniel stating, “It is said that he was shot by a prison guard in Weldon while trying to send a letter home”. No verified sources however.
        There is a memorial inscription on his family tomb in Marlboro indicating he died in Weldon, however at this point I do not believe his body is buried in Marlboro. More likely he lies in an unknown grave in or near Weldon. I will continue my research but likely his place of burial will remain a history mystery
        I plan to write a short article on Daniel for the Sudbury, Massachusetts Historical Society newsletter. I will credit you and your article with most of the information concerning the siege and massacre at Plymouth. Thanks again Ralph

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, thanks for bringing this to my attention. My 3x great grandfather was captured here. He was one of the few that was able to escape. Private David Van Kirk 101 PA Infantry. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Memories of Plymouth: One of the State’s Leading Criminal Justice Advocates Goes Home | David Cecelski

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